A surprising number of retired Anglican clergy own narrow boats, or if they don’t actually have their own, they hire regularly so that they can explore Britain’s 2000 miles or so of navigable waterways. They criss-cross wonderful countryside, and those familiar chocolate-box scenarios of sun-bathed narrowboats meandering along tranquil canals have huge allure.
Article By Mark Rudall Retired Waterways Chaplain in Retired Clergy of Church of England Newsletter Spring 2021
Just as some people might walk into old churches for a little relief from the rough and tumble of their lives, others will seek a spot of tranquillity along the towpaths. There they will find that the proximity of relatively still water, the sounds and sights of wildlife and the constantly changing colours of the seasons will calm a troubled mind and charge the psychological batteries.
But there is another side to this coin, because the allure of the waterways can lead to the decision to buy a boat and become a continuous cruiser, which sounds a great choice when physical and mental health is robust and relationships are working well. But life ‘happens’ and dreams can suddenly shatter, leaving boaters in need of support.
At the same time people sometimes take to life afloat as a means of escape having taken a knock and that means they’re vulnerable from the start, because bucolic summers have a way of turning into chilly winters…
‘Those are the reasons why there are now around 100 Waterways Chaplains walking towpaths or cruising the system as liveaboards,’ says National Senior Chaplain the Revd Mark Chester.
‘Human situations can be found within steel walls..’
‘Chaplains have a vital role to play in the armed forces, in hospitals, prisons and many other settings, and the impetus to introduce practically-minded volunteer Waterways Chaplains came from a growing awareness that they could be equally useful ‘on the cut’ and indeed wherever there is inland navigation. Human situations can be found within the steel walls of a narrowboat that are every bit as complex as those encountered in housing estates or tower blocks.
‘It’s hard to nail precise numbers, but probably around 2m people live on, or are closely involved with our waterways. Our growing band of easily identifiable Chaplains are clued up to provide local information and to advise where practical help like food banks and medical help can be found. They are there to provide support for those for whom the peaceful water-borne idyll has gone pear-shaped for whatever reason, and the pastoral care they are providing particularly on crowded sections of waterway is making an impact and is taken very seriously by the Canal & River Trust and the Environment Agency who administer most of our waterways.’
Waterways Chaplaincy is an excellent channel for the pastoral gifts of reasonably fit, retired clergy. Many Chaplains operate on their own but others enjoy operating as couples in ways which were not possible in parish ministry.
Practically proactive, spiritually reactive
Chaplains commit to a minimum of walking a mile of towpath a week, either close to where they live or wherever they happen to be. The idea is to observe what’s going on and to ‘engage’ the people they meet, as well as to pray for people and situations.
Chaplains are expected to be ‘practically proactive and spiritually reactive’ in the situations they encounter and training sessions address this. Even with previous heavy involvement with the waterways it is great to have the insights of professionals into lock usage, for example, and other matters linked to waterways, at the same time being brought alongside others sharing his passion for ministry, the waterways and people. Could this be something for you?
“Act justly, love mercy, walk humbly with your God.” Micah 6:8Article By Mark Rudall Retired Waterways Chaplain in Retired Clergy of Church of England Newsletter Spring 2021