GUEST POST:// Richard Townend is a 2nd year ordinand at Cranmer Hall in Durham. He is married with two daughters and a sausage dog. In a previous life, he was a broadcast journalist and teacher. He loves to bake, run and watch his beloved York City Football Club.
I invited the congregation to come up for healing, then handed over to the band for an extended period of worship. It was well out of my comfort zone to preach in a charismatic healing service in front of a couple of hundred people, all eager to see God at work. That’s the great thing about residential theological training – you get exposed to a range of placement opportunities that prepare you for public ministry, form you as a disciple, and help you discern what your ‘tradition’ might be.
But for all the razzmatazz of the healing service, I was left with two questions which I couldn’t escape: How much of this is authentic? And what happens when the healing doesn’t take place?
When I was looking for my next placement, I discussed it with one of my colleagues at Cranmer Hall. I explained that I wanted some exposure to death and dying, grief and loss. I wanted to understand what it meant to hold someone’s hand as they slip from one life to the next; and to be there for those left behind. He told me that his placement in a busy hospital chaplaincy team was exactly what I was looking for.
And so began two weeks of my life that felt like two years of learning, yet was over in the blink of an eye.
Early on in the placement, as we were doing the rounds of the wards, the Sister asked the Chaplain to visit a private room where an elderly Muslim lady had just passed away. We went in and her daughter and grand-son asked the Christian Chaplain to pray for her. The Chaplain presented her spirit before the trusting hands of the everlasting God with wonderfully sensitive and thoughtful words. A heavenly exchange had taken place, and it was an incredibly powerful moment.
Later that day, we had an appointment in the Chapel of Rest, escorting a bereaved family to see their deceased loved one, in this case a homeless father, 41-years old, who had been found dead outside a city centre railway station. His life had been chaotic and tragic, his death had been brutal. Yet the caring team of mortuary technicians had brought dignity to this man who looked serene, as if asleep, in the bed in the bereavement suite. I’d got over the shock of seeing a body quite quickly. I had been well-prepared for it. Once life has gone and the soul has departed, I told myself, all that remains is an empty shell. What I hadn’t fully taken into account was the emotion of those left behind. The man was dead, but the anger, guilt and sorrow of his family was very much alive, and that moved me greatly. All I could think was that here was a father of three young children who will never know their Daddy putting them to bed at night.
The following day, I visited a mother of two boys in their early 20s. She had just been told out of the blue that she had cancer and there was nothing that could be done – at best, she had weeks to live. The chaplain tenderly stroked her hand and met her gaze, only stopping to wipe a tear from the lady’s face. No words were needed. Her future had been robbed from her. Her son’s weddings, her dreams of grand-children, all gone. The look in her eyes still haunts me.
Hers wasn’t the only story of cancer I encountered, and thankfully, some were more uplifting. In the children’s cancer ward, one child had completed her treatment, and rung the bell to signal the end of this chapter. The doctors, nurses, ward staff, other children and their parents joined in an emotional applause as this brave young soul walked out of the ward, hopefully for the last time.
And then there was the wedding that I helped to plan. A Polish lady in her early 30s had discovered she had cancer three months ago. The doctors had tried everything and now she was receiving palliative care. Her dying wish was that she would marry her partner. Their wedding had been planned for the summer, the service booked, the invites sent out. But she wasn’t going to make it, so the wedding had to be brought forward. I escorted her wheel-chair bound partner to the registry office so he could sign the necessary paperwork that would allow them to get married in the hospital. Two days later, they became husband and wife. In the midst of her personal tragedy, the clouds parted momentarily and brilliant light flooded in. As I said my farewells after the wedding, she wished me well in my future ministry. That brought a lump to my throat.
I found myself asking, where is the hope? Where is the joy? Where is the peace that passes all understanding? Where, exactly, is God in all of this?
But as the placement wore on, I realised that in the midst of the pain and suffering, God was at the very heart of all of these intense pastoral encounters. And in this costly business where physical healing had run its course, I realised that a more important therapy was taking place: souls were healed as people put themselves right with the God who suffers alongside them – the God who knows what it is to experience pain and death. But that ‘healing’ can only take place when people take the time to talk with the sick, pray with the dying and hold the hand of the patient gripped by fear. One of the chaplains said to me, “Nobody in hospital is looking for dogma – they are looking for authenticity and compassion.”
And she’s right – compassion is a universal language for all people, particularly for those experiencing desperate sadness and loss. It is the most simple of ministries.
What this placement revealed to me was pastoral ministry at it’s very best – care for the suffering, welcome for the lost, bread for the hungry, comfort for the dying. And the church can learn a lot from this. Pastoral ministry isn’t exactly ‘fashionable’. Let’s be honest, it can be an aspect of church life that gets pushed down the agenda. I’ve known vicars say that they ‘don’t do pastoral ministry’, and delegate to it to someone who cares. I’ve known some who don’t do any funerals because it doesn’t fit their vision for their role. They have their reasons, I’m sure, but they are the ones who are missing out. In this short spell, I have discovered that ministry with the bereaved and dying is actually life-giving. Let’s face it, people are at their most spiritually alive when they are knocking at the door of heaven.
So let’s not be the ones who ignore pastoral ministry to those that really need it. Let’s not push it down the agenda, or pass it to someone else. And for any ordinand who is tempted to do that, then they need to experience a chaplaincy placement. There is no better insight into an authentic ministry of compassion.
Are you an ordinand? Would you like to write for ‘Confessions of a Trainee Vicar?’ Use the ‘Contact’ page to get in touch, I’d love to hear from you – and I know others would too!