Hannah Skinner, one of our team of writers, shares about her role and work in a team based in the heart of student-land in Manchester who are working out a whole new approach to chaplaincy and presence in the midst of University life.
As I write, I can’t help reflecting what a bold and fresh but equally daunting time it is for the team at St Peter’s House, the chaplaincy for the Manchester universities. We are at the beginning of a journey – reimagining what chaplaincy could be. This October we will re-launch the work of the chaplaincy with a service of commissioning, and so it was great to be asked by FX to share some of what’s going on with you in advance of the new influx of student arrivals.
‘Everything is Connected’ is the new vision for the work of the chaplaincy, based in a great big, very 1970’s building in the middle of the campus’ – St. Peter’s House (SPH). The vision has developed from a focussed year of reflection and ‘fallow time’ – emerging as we realised that all we do flourishes when understood as connected within a deeper flow. So our work on wellbeing, we found, drew us to conversations about spirituality; discussions around spirituality were energised through connection with the arts; and developing a new imagination for chaplaincy led to fresh ideas around people, place and what community means in our context. “One thing leads to another….” is another tag-line, and expresses what as a team we’ve come to understand: “This is our new vision. Our purpose, our belief. Everything is Connected,” states the SPH website – and our task this year is to begin to explore what that means.
Irish monks travelled in ‘coracles’ – boats on which they set out on journeys across the oceans to find places where they could encounter God in a new way. Our emerging student faith-community, ‘Coracle’, is setting off in much the same way – we don’t know the destination yet, but will be forming a new, inclusive and wondering weekly space for students to explore alongside us whatever the journey brings. “It’s exciting,” Adam Scott, a chaplain at SPH told me, “The Kingdom of God brings about growth, innovation and transformation; and whilst this can feel disorientating at times as we let go of ‘the way it has always been done’ and move into the unknown, we are carefully listening to the movement of God and traditions of the Church in order to authentically minister within the complexity of contemporary life.” The wider programme outworks three key themes which give shape and focus to the work – we aim to build a place of ‘Curiosity’, ‘Encounter’ and ‘Gift’. Through yoga, bee-keeping, mindfulness, cookery classes, gardening, expressive painting, a soon-to-launched café and more – the team are ready to launch a programme which invites students whatever their background or belief to come and be part of the life of St Peter’s House.
So why would students, surrounded as they are with all the opportunities of a new stage of life and experience, want to engage with chaplaincy? The simple answer, offers Ben Edson, SPH Warden, is that they don’t! “Most students don’t seek out ‘chaplaincy’”, Ben says. “What they engage with is people, and a decent programme offering things they’re interested in. We can’t expect students to come to us simply because we’re chaplains– they either need to be signposted to us by the Universities, or drawn to what we’re doing and who we are.”
The signposting and supportive relationship with the Universities is crucial, and provides a very different framework for the team than that of the local church. Located somewhere between ‘church’ and the wider world, chaplaincy offers its presence in a sometimes hard-to-define space required to speak in two directions – to the host institution as well as to the students we encounter. “As chaplains we have no structural power, no influence, and no rights within the secular universities,” Ben explains, “Instead, we are the guest of the institutions, and as guests we respect our hosts. It’s a stripping away of power, and surely that is what followers of Christ are called to. Our presence here is not a right, but a worked-on relationship.”
So, a context which challenges whilst also presenting huge opportunities, a surrounding population who – for the most part – do not engage with church in any way, and a vision for growing a new community to journey through faith and life together. So far so fresh expression…? “No” says Ben, “This is quite different, the practice that undergirds it is similar but the outcome is not church. This is pioneering mission, and it’s not about bums on beanbags but about trying to express something of the Kingdom of God to the 80,000 staff and students that we serve.” Over the next month the team will (among other things) be setting up yurts, firing up the coffee machine, leading yoga breakfasts and settling the bees down for winter. It’s an exciting time, and who knows where the journey will lead, but underlying it all is the hope that as students encounter SPH they encounter love, peace, justice, reconciliation and imagination. A glimpse of the Kingdom that is bigger than ‘church’ – even, dare I say, FX of church – but meets them where they are and offers to walk life’s journey alongside them.
For more information head to www.stpeters.org.uk, or if you’re in Manchester do pop in and see for yourself what’s going on.