Sharing our cape

by Catrin Harland-Davies

In the 4th century, a Roman soldier called Martin is supposed to have come across a man who was begging for food and had no protection against the cold. Taking pity on him, Martin (later known as St Martin of Tours) took his own cape, or cappella, tore it in half, and gave half to the man. In time, the half he retained became a holy relic; the priests who cared for it, and subsequently all priests working with the army, became known as cappellani, or chaplains. Martin, the man who lived his Christian faith in practical ways, within the secular sphere, became, in a sense, the founding figure of chaplaincy.

Today, of course, there are chaplains in many places – prisons, armed forces, hospitals, schools, universities, shopping centres, factories, town centres… They represent many of the major world faiths, and sometimes explicitly those of no faith, but my concern here is with the Christian – perhaps especially the Methodist – successors to St Martin.

As a chaplain, my ministry is not lived out in holy spaces or sanctuaries, but in the midst of the explicitly secular – in my case, a very proudly secular university. I am not there as of right, but as an invited guest, I seek to earn the trust of students and staff, by slow, patient steps, through acts of compassion and love, through participating in the celebrations and the boring administration of university life, through welcoming, congratulating, comforting, encouraging. I don’t always get it right, but even in my weaknesses and mistakes I show (I hope) the humanity which is a part of what I offer.

This, of course, is no more or less than the calling which belongs to the whole people of God. The Greek word for ‘people’ is laos, from which we get ‘laity’, and it goes without saying that the business of being God’s people is not a calling of the few, ordained to a special status. It is the task of all of us. When the Bible refers to ‘saints’ (literally, ‘holy ones’), it is not referring to those who have proved themselves unusually worthy, but to those who have accepted the call to follow Christ, and are his by grace. We are challenged to live out that calling, not in closed sanctuaries, but in the secular arena, recognising those secular spaces as holy, because they are equally loved by the God who is equally present in them. In that sense, the call to be ‘saints’ or ‘God’s people’ is precisely the call to be chaplains.

When I was training for ministry, I did a placement in a rural part of East Anglia, where I found that people classified themselves as ‘church’ or ‘chapel’. I don’t think, by this, they saw a clear distinction between the two; it was more a residual, slightly tribal loyalty, based on where their parents (or more often grandparents) had worshipped. It defined the place to which they would naturally turn for weddings, baptisms and funerals.

We tend to want to think of ourselves as a Church, and are probably seen as such. But that may mean different things to different people. Being a church may mean that we have come of age, and can be taken seriously as ecumenical partners. Or it may imply that we have achieved a certain rigidity in our structures and traditions. Perhaps it means that we have reached a state of peak irrelevance in the lives of many – available when specific rites of passage are needed, and perhaps at Christmas, but of little or no value at other times?

We have, in recent years, tried to explore what it might mean for Methodism to return to the identity of a ‘movement’. But I wonder whether the time is ripe for a return to the concept of ‘chapel’? Not as a marker of tribal, denominational identity – a rival for ‘church’ – but as a statement of how we understand our place in the community. And not to confuse mission, evangelism and daily living as ‘chaplaincy’, nor to devalue the work and training of our qualified and expert chaplains (heaven forbid!). Rather, to recognise that there may be value in a ‘chaplaincy mindset’.

This would entail being experts at speaking of the love of God in everyday life. It would entail valuing the ‘secular’ as in fact ‘holy’, working for its good, praying for it, and ‘seeking its peace and prosperity’[1].

None of this is new, but it is perhaps something of which we need to remind ourselves frequently. And it is, or has the potential to be, radical.

[1] Jeremiah 29:7

5 thoughts on “Sharing our cape”

  1. Thank you for this Cat, I am now pondering what it might mean to share our Chapel, to create a warm and welcoming space that is not just about us but about our place in the community… the Leadership team may not thank me, but then I can blame you.

    Love the history of Chaplaincy BTW, I did not know that.


  2. Thanks Cat, I will use some of this in an appropriate sermon, eg sending out of the the disciples & the 72. I will of course give you credit.


  3. Thanks Cat.
    Allow me to share my most rent Martin story…
    It comes from being a racecourse chaplain

    Two Martins, two cloaks and one self-giving service.
    On a fine Easter Monday at Redcar with the wind turbines out at sea being being bathed in sunlight and motionless is a rare sight. The crowd of racegoers with families of young children had enjoyed a day of sporting delight and holiday fun and there had been surprises and joy in abundance.
    The eight race and final race, began with a problem in loading one of the 17 runners into the starting stalls but that was nothing too unusual. As the race over six furlongs burst into action all the jockeys opted to run their mounts in the centre of the track in close proximity to one another. Was that the cause of an incident which saw Champagne Queen positioned at the rear to fall and unseat Hollie Doyle the jockey who was left prone on the ground as the horse recovered and race on in pursuit of the departed pack.
    As it is the practice of racecourse safety for both animals and their jockeys, all races are accompanied in race by veterinary and medical staff and Hollie was loaded in the ambulance and brought to the rear door of the medical room.
    Standing at the front door with Martin a member of the racecourse’s security we soon joined by those eager to know of Hollies well being. One woman Emma an anxious friend, spoke of Hollie an apprentice jockey had driven from Wiltshire for a ride in only one race. Others expressed their concern because they were friends of the trainer who was based in Newmarket. Dave Allan a friend of Hollie’s and jockey who had taken part in the same race quickly arrived from the weighing room enquiring of news on her well-being. The unusually warm day was now considerably colder and as Emma began to shivver she was quickly offered Martins outer jacket.
    Martin aged 53, is a former employee of the Teesside steel plant where he worked for nearly thirty years, The plant which closed in 2015 resulting in the loss of 1,800 jobs, including Martin’s. He along with many of his former colleagues, now work as security officers on the regions racecourses where their team work is strengthened by decades of association, trust and confidence.

    Hollie was taken to the Spinal injuries Unit of James Cook Hospital in Middlesbrough and was fortunately discharged the following day. A week later this time at Wetherby racecourse, I was able to speak to Martin again and to outline the historical antecedents of his actions and what they represented to those involved in chaplaincy work. Martin had never heard of Tours in France or of the famous saint whose influence continues to grow, as did Martins smile when I told him to him of the received understanding of how his name sake had shared his cloak in with an impoverished and shivering woman.

    Peter Clark
    April 2015


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