Chaplaincy at Villiers School

Brother Graham Sawyer, Chaplain at Villiers School

This article addresses both the nature of chaplaincy at Villiers School and also the practice: the modus vivendi and modus operandi.

Villiers describes itself as a school with “a Protestant ethos”, but that it is open to students of any denomination within Christianity, those of other faiths and those of no faith at all. This is a good summation of what one could perhaps call “Modern Ireland” and living in a secular (but not atheist) state. Gone are the days of talking of religious tolerance (the definition of which is “prejudice with a smile”) but more to one of acceptance and indeed seeking to be enriched and enrich others through the diversity of backgrounds, faiths etc. Villiers School unapologetically promotes such a vision while maintaining, in an international context, “a Protestant ethos”. (Villiers is one of only four schools in Ireland offering the International Baccalaureate at the Diploma level).

It is interesting that hitherto, whoever I have asked about how one might define “a Protestant ethos”, I am always answered with an historical perspective rather akin to a foreigner asking someone about the differences between Fianna Fail and Fine Gael: this is no longer satisfactory (in either situation). I also think it is unhelpful to start from the negative position of describing it by what it is not e.g. catholic. Better, I believe, is to talk about tendencies and to do so in a positive way.

Protestants (regardless of denomination) tend to place an emphasis on scripture, its authority and in some case its unchanging interpretation. There is also an emphasis on the individual’s direct relationship with God and a lesser importance given to the institution and traditional/ historic teaching or magisterium of the church. In addition, the appeal to reason tends to have a significant part in a Protestant ethos. Of course, these interpretations are simplistic – maybe now almost worthless. When one looks at the differences between the Calvinist, Lutheran and “traditional” Anglican traditions one can see just how difficult it is to define such a thing as “a Protestant ethos”. So let me suggest a slightly different starting point and that is one shared by the Quakers: the notion that each person is created in the image and likeness of God – what Catholics refer to as imago dei – based on Genesis 1:27.

This description of the individual is both indicative and imperative: the latter flowing forth from the former. A consequence of our understanding that each individual is a manifestation of imago dei brings a consequence and an accountability that follows from our responsibility. (I shall return to this distinction and consequence between responsibility and accountability).

Some say that the three virtue ethics for educational leadership are authenticity, presence and a duty of care: this is a good starting point for the school chaplain: it requires an ontological understanding. A school chaplain should seek to be comfortable in his or her being with as many aspects of the educational setting as possible; they should seek to be inclusive in outlook and portray the inclusivity of the gospel and the Kingdom of God. Above all they should seek to be a vessel of God’s grace through the workings of the Holy Spirit.

The chaplain also needs to be a visible sign of “the church” (and here I do not mean a building let alone some private club run by a clique, family or sect but rather the assembled people of God). The ministry of presence also necessitates availability i.e. always perhaps having something to do but never being seen to be busy let alone too busy.

The chaplain should be perceived to be approachable and a person without judgement – Christians do not, after all, judge. There also needs to be a sense that the Chaplain is a focal point for the joyfulness of the Christian faith demonstrated particularly in such characteristics as laughter and humour with accompanying smiles and even self-parody (a fool for Christ)!

There needs to be a demonstration of what St Benedict in his Rule for Beginners describes as attentive listening (a command in the Latin text – audite). There must also be a sense of humility remembering that the root in Greek of this word implies having one’s feet firmly on the ground – just like the Cross. (The Villiers School motto is Fidei Coticula Crux).

My role as chaplain involves some teaching and not only Religious Education. Much of my time is spent with the older students, discussing such matters as the new laws regarding sexual consent, the recent pandemic of sexting, revenge porn and sextortion. The first principle I try to share is that of the distinction between responsibility and accountability (the German and English languages have two distinct words but Spanish, French, Portuguese, Italian and Romanian only have the concept and vocabulary of responsibility: so how do you explain the important implications and consequences with respect to accountability to people of these tongues?). We also discuss the nature of relationships and connexion, as well as debate current moral issues including abortion and euthanasia in relation to our accountability and not simply our responsibility.

Most of my time, however, is spent in a simple ministry of presence at the school: in many ways a diaconal ministry of service and not a sacramental priestly ministry. In those Protestant traditions and the Catholic tradition where there exists a distinctive diaconate, this will readily be understood (here in Ireland, Anglicans engage solely with the transitional diaconate and not one that is distinctive/permanent). My day starts perhaps quite early compared with others; I get up at about 4.30 to 5am and spend much of my time in silent prayer. This includes praying for the school community, reading the scriptures and pondering in a contemplative and mindful mystical Christian tradition. I usually start my walking and visible prayer time at about 7.30 when I walk around the inside perimeter of the school always holding my prayer beads (a recognisable sign of prayer to people of all faith traditions). Often there will be a student arriving early at school who seeks conversation or, sometimes not. Every day there is a conversation with an adult staff member.

At 8.15 I go to boarders’ breakfast: again a simple sign of presence, but crucially at the time of sharing of food and drink as our Lord gave as an example for us to follow.

During the school day, I normally manage to walk around the campus for two hours, sometimes three. The chances for conversation emerge frequently simply by being available. Since my arrival here, four times a week I open the cardio gym for some of the students and I have also found myself frequently refereeing soccer games: the most memorable was Germany versus the rest of the world  (of course the Germans won!). I suspect that walking and sports supervision probably take up about 20 hours a week of my time, sometimes more. Being resident at the school I also enjoy being present at all meal and social times as well as the other informal sporting events that emerge each day. Most important however, are the conversations and friendships that emerge as the term progresses simply from a ministry of presence.

Jesus called us His friends and a spiritual friendship in the ancient Irish tradition of anam cara is a wonderful gift that seems to pervade our school. Genuine acceptance of the diversity of our students and staff here from all over the world with a concomitant richness of faith traditions as well as seeking to be enriched by such diversity, brings about an international community of faith that promotes friendship and genuine kindness – even during a world pandemic.

I believe that the essential components of being a chaplain in Villiers School are to seek to pray constantly; to realise that communicating the gospel and the love of Jesus really does not mean saying or even doing a great deal (as St Francis reminds us) but rather having a ministry of presence, availability and approachability i.e. simply being a Christian and visibly so.

With the many Protestant views and practices and varieties of religious experiences let me now be bold (a word that in Ireland in itself is open to conflicting interpretations and meanings): you will notice that Villiers School describes itself as having “a Protestant ethos” – not “the”.  This allows a liberal interpretation and also guards against arrogance. So, here is mine and in stating it I offer it with an existentialist sense of fear and trembling (although Soren Kierkegaard was very much a basher of the Lutheran Established church in Denmark when he wrote his book):  

My mission, emanating from my Christian faith, is not to convince others of the value or truth of the direct encounter with God that I have experienced and continue to experience in my life, but rather to bring others to the point where they themselves may have this experience of a direct encounter with God within their own person: to put it another way, that they may become seekers of the truth themselves. This is directly analogous to the root meaning of the word education – a drawing out from within, finding what is already inherent in each person made in the image and likeness of God – imago dei. I seek to assist the students to find the Kingdom of God which, Jesus reminds us, is to be found within us: each one of us.

Essential to personal credibility to bring this about is the grace not to take oneself too seriously, not to judge others and finally to spread laughter and humour whenever possible. Christians are happy people because they live with the Lord: this causes them to walk cheerfully wherever they go.

In humility (with my feet firmly on the ground akin to the Cross) and to quote the Quaker advice: it is however always important to think it possible that I may be mistaken….