From Thursday to Saturday of last week, I found myself wandering around fields and avenues passing everything from cows to boutique shops to classic cars to wedding dresses to farm machinery. I was at the Royal Cornwall Show (RCS) – an annual agricultural show which draws thousands of visitors, traders, farmers and others from across the country – to experience life as a Show Chaplain.
As part of my time undertaking the Diocese of Truro’s Ministry Experience Scheme I’ve spent some time with chaplains at a local university and hospital, but when the opportunity arose earlier this year for me to come along and experience a very different type of chaplaincy I leapt at the opportunity. My calling to ordained ministry has long been tied up with my passion for rural communities, and it is the rural church which is at the heart of my previous, current and, hopefully, future experiences of ministry, as well as being the theme around which my undergraduate dissertation was centred. I was therefore thrilled to have the opportunity to experience ministering to people as a chaplain at an agricultural show, which are often the highlights of the year for many rural and farming communities.
The days were long and tiring. I woke up at 5:50am each day in order to leave the house by 6:30am, arriving at the show ground (bumping along the final muddy track which had been severely affected by the torrential rain on the second day of the show) in time to make my way to the Churches Together tent (which was, of course, on the opposite side of the show ground to the car park I had to park in) for prayers at 8am. I would then have a cup of fresh coffee – which was made throughout the duration of the show by a group of enthusiastic volunteers from local churches – before setting off for my first shift. We each had 4 one-hour shifts spread out across the day, between 9am and 6pm, one of which was spent in the tent and the other three out patrolling the show. Whilst in the tent we chatted with visitors, exhibitors and anyone else who might happen to have popped in for a cuppa or to let their children burn off some energy in the play area, and closed our hour with a short prayer which was projected through the speakers into the marquee. When ‘out’ I would wander around the show ground as I was led by the Spirit, which often meant walking in circles or apparently aimlessly! There were a few occasions when I was stopped by someone (usually to ask for directions!) but 90% of my conversations came from me saying “hello” or “good morning” to people as I walked by, and conversations growing from there. Most of my conversations were with stall holders/exhibitors, and I found myself particularly ‘ministering’ to the folks who ran stalls and rides in the fairground. Conversations were mostly about people’s experiences of the show, grumbles about the weather, and just chatting with people who might otherwise have had no one to talk to all day. But there were also some notable times when the conversations naturally went deeper – from conversations about the relevance of the Bible to contemporary life, to someone’s mother experiencing serious health issues as a result of an incident at a previous event similar to the RCS, to conversations about how many Christians would welcome celebrations of same-gender relationships in the church. I said very little in these conversations, and this reinforced what I’ve come to realise about chaplaincy over the course of my various placements: that it is a ministry that is about proving people with a safe space and a listening ear. Of course there were times when I didn’t know what to say or probably said the wrong thing, but there were many more when I found myself saying something that I hadn’t thought through and knew that it was God’s word in my mouth, or found myself thinking “I need to hold this silence for just a moment longer”.
Yes the days were long, I was exhausted at the end of each day (and I still am now!), I was cold and wet, and sometimes I wondered what I was doing there. But it was a privilege to be there, to bring something of God’s love to the people I met, to witness to God’s presence through my presence, to surprise people and to hear the words “you’re not like most chaplains!” There is power in being present and providing a listening ear; and that, to me, is what chaplaincy is all about.