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  • Debbie Thrower

Drawing on vital experience of dementia

Updated: Apr 1

Experts, James Woodward and our own Julia Burton-Jones, joined forces to inspire participants at Chelmsford Diocese's Conference on Dementia (27 March 2021).


National Church Lead for Anna Chaplaincy, Julia Burton-Jones, was guest speaker at a study day on dementia for 50 lay and ordained people from the Barking Area of Chelmsford Diocese, held on Zoom this week.

Canon James Woodward

Hosted by Bishop Peter Hill, speakers also included Canon James Woodward, principal of Sarum College and author of several acclaimed books on the theology of ageing and dementia.

Julia spoke about her work in Rochester and Canterbury Dioceses developing Anna Chaplaincy in response to the spiritual needs of people living with dementia; Anna Chaplains in Kent are involved in dementia cafes, singing activities for people with dementia, dementia-inclusive church services, and support groups for carers.


Julia and James introduced local members of the clergy who shared their own experiences – Revd Marion Williams, who cared for her mother through her dementia and has established a dementia choir in the parish where she now is rector, and Revd Sue Diplock who lives with dementia and whose ministry as described by a member of the congregation at the event is valued in her parish where she is a ‘much-loved priest’.


Sue spoke about needing to be open about dementia, honest about challenges. She spoke of carrying pain and fear constantly, but each day counting her many blessings, thanking God and trusting his love for me, just as I am’. Canon James asked, ‘What is the good news we have to preach in a society terrified of dementia?’ He spoke of his own mother’s spirituality deepening in her dementia. The danger in ‘over-cognating’ our faith is that we struggle to see God’s Spirit at work in a person who is praying but not understanding everything that is happening around them. It takes time to locate the spiritual pulse of each person, yetif we can’t see the spirituality, it is hard to see the person’.


Much helpful discussion took place in breakout rooms and the closing plenary session explored a broad range of topics. Sue was asked whether being offered a dementia-inclusive service would mean she felt excluded from mainstream church life – she replied that there is a place both for adapting regular services, so they include people with dementia, while also providing services created around those affected by dementia, though not necessarily having ‘dementia’ in the title.


Archdeacon Christopher Burke reflected on national and diocesan church strategy aiming for the church to become ‘younger’ and what this says about the role and value of older people. Canon James responded that we need to be as careful in the language we use about age, as we are in talking about gender and ethnicity. An example shared was the phrase ‘the grey-haired brigade’. What we are actually striving for is a ‘multi-generational’ church of all ages.


Bishop Peter said, in closing, that dementia brings together the church’s work on mission and pastoral care – responding to dementia can be an outward facing, missional activity. The focus on dementia also made him aware that we have too many words in our worship, that more dialogue and more singing would be a help to everyone.


'There aren’t many webinars I am going to take more away from than this,’ he concluded; others agreed in the chat – ‘This is the best day I have attended all year’, ‘A well spent Saturday’, ‘I hope we can follow up again’ and ‘What a special day’.


Information about Anna Chaplaincy will be available through the Chelmsford Diocese website to enable parishes to explore how having an Anna Chaplain might enable them to respond to the spiritual needs of people affected by dementia.


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