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’.
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.
 Jeremiah 29:7