'The care of Anna Chaplaincy is extraordinary' says the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Most Revd Justin Welby.
The culmination of his three-day visit to Portsmouth Diocese, was a service of Choral Evensong at St Peter's Church, Petersfield, celebrating, particularly, the area's mission and ministry to older people.
Arriving as Anna Chaplains and Anna Friends completed a Messy Vintage training session with the Revd Jill Phipps, (herself a newly-commissioned Anna Chaplain), the Archbishop chatted to some of the diocese's more than forty such chaplains. He heard about the 'ministry of presence' they provide for those in their later years in need of spiritual succour and support.
Then in a packed church, the Bishop of Portsmouth, the Very Revd Dr Jonathan Frost sat alongside Archbishop Justin who was clearly relaxed and had enjoyed his whistlestop tour of churches and activities across south Hampshire and the Isle of Wight.
Featuring a large choir, the service was led by the Vicar of Petersfield, the Revd Canon Will Hughes.
The final half hour was devoted to an interview by Debbie Thrower with the Archbishop. He spoke of the situation in Israel and Gaza, calling for deep prayer - 'laying these problems at the feet of the God of all creation' - being a powerful way to respond to a situation where 'speaking peace' is not easy.
Turning to the needs of older people, the Archbishop's conversation ranged over the UK's broken social care system, the need for a 'National Care Covenant' detailed by independent commissioners who had been tasked with looking in-depth at the problems, for the recent Archbishops' Reimagining Care Commission.
He spoke movingly of his own mother's death in July, and the way in which she had remained engaged with topical issues which mattered to her right to the very last. He responded amusingly to questions about his BBC Radio 4 series 'The Archbishop Interviews' disclosing that he hates listening back to his own voice and would rather be an interviewee, than an interviewer any day!
Turning to the ranks of Anna Chaplains and Anna Friends in the pews at the very end, he thanked them for their 'amazing work', and described the national growth of Anna Chaplaincy - not least in Portsmouth Diocese where 42 Anna Chaplains will soon have been trained and commissioned within just one year - as 'phenomenal'.
Debbie pointed out that Portsmouth now has the highest number of Anna Chaplains in any single diocese, closely followed by Kent (across Rochester Diocese, and his own diocese of Canterbury), Cumbria and Newcastle.
Much of the growth on the south coast is down to the energy and commitment of steering group leaders the Revd Dr Coleen Jackson (Anna Chaplain and curate of South Downs benefice' Blendworth, Chalton and Idsworth, who read a lesson) and the Revd Samantha Martell. Also reading from the lectern was Eric Standen, Anna Chaplain in St Mary's Porchester.
The discussion ranged over the need for better line management and supervision for Anna Chaplains, and indeed clergy generally in the church (with murmurs of assent from many ministers present) ... and whether more Anna Chaplains should be paid. The vast majority are volunteers. Archbishop Justin responded, ' be careful what you wish for', in case what's currently offered 'becomes too professionalised'. Though Debbie insisted, a few more paid posts would enable younger candidates in their 30s and 40s to apply to be Anna Chaplains who, obviously, need some form of remuneration at that stage in life. However, 'age is no barrier' to being an Anna Chaplain she was pleased to add, saying some were 'in their 80s' and finding fulfillment in the role.
For the benefit of the congregation who might have little inkling of what Anna Chaplains actually do, she quoted an Anna Chaplain who'd told her that afternoon of a congregation of six in a Gosport care home where she ministers, and evidence she has seen of life-changing results as they are enabled to worship together, renew their faith, and be prayed with in the final stages of life. The Archbishop spoke of the 'transformative' effects of such pastoral work in developing faith towards the end of people's lives.
When Debbie said that Portsmouth Diocese was bucking the trend in English dioceses, many of whose stated intention is 'Growing Younger' - ('a contradiction in terms', she asserted) she said 'Bishop Jonathan had prioritised the creation of Anna Chaplains to support older people in every parish, as well as prioritising work with children and young people. Both/And.'
The Archbishop was, likewise, fulsome in his praise of Bishop Jonathan's leadership, and when asked how the diocese was doing, given his weekend's 'spiritual health check', after a moment's pause Justin Welby replied, 'superbly', and went on to detail much that had 'delighted' him in terms of what he'd seen!
Comments after the service included:
'What a wonderful occasion! Apart from the obvious delights of seeing Archbishop Justin and Bishop Jonathan, the augmented choir and all the lovely Anna Chaplains, the hymn singing was terrific!'
'I thought the interview was excellent, managing to draw out the Archbishop on such a range of topics in a short space of time – topics which are so relevant. Well done and thank you! Over in my row of Anna Chaplains we thoroughly enjoyed it.'
'... such a natural conversation and Archbishop Justin appeared in person just as he does anywhere on TV, radio, in print etc. - straightforward and thoughtful. His blessing at the end was lovely.'
Read how Portsmouth Diocese reported on all aspects of the Archbishop's visit, including his time spent with local Anna Chaplains, here.