‘I’m a hospital chaplain working during the coronavirus crisis – it’s the funerals that are the hardest’

Helen Coffey
James Pacey is a vicar and hospital chaplain: Courtesy of James Pacey

The Independent’s ‘Dispatches from the Covid-19 frontline’ is an interview series detailing the reality behind the headlines as told by the nation’s vital key workers. The Revd. James Pacey is vicar of St John the Evangelist church in Carrington and county chaplain to the Order of St John and St John Ambulance in Nottinghamshire. He is also an employee of Nottingham University Hospital, working as a Bank Chaplain across two hospitals in the city. He tells Helen Coffey what it’s like to minister from afar.

There is no typical day in the life of a vicar. Before the pandemic, an average day might consist of morning prayer, a midweek eucharist service, catching up with emails, visiting our community café, doing some admin, going on home visits and a meeting or two in the evening. Vicars are often described as being “paid not to work” – what that means is, although you might have a lot on, you’re available and around. You should never be too “busy” for people – I think that’s a damaging, corporate word.

Since the pandemic, the workload has been consistent, but different. At the moment, my time is split between three days in the parish and three days across two hospitals in Nottingham. I can’t physically be with my congregation right now, but all of the admin, preparation for worship, meetings and pastoral stuff goes on – it’s just moved online. I’ve had to become an expert in livestreaming and Zoom, which takes time, and mentally it takes up a lot more headspace. Celebrating the eucharist from behind the altar and looking out at loads of empty seats is still a very odd thing.

One of the things I’m finding most difficult is that I love people and I love being alongside them – to physically not be with them during this time is hard. I’m also careful to protect my own mental health: when you’re in the parish or the vicarage, you feel like you’re always “on”, but vicars are also human. In the past I’d disappear into town if I needed a break, settle into a coffeeshop and write my sermon; just being in a different place was mentally uplifting. Now, that’s not possible.

But it’s strange; even though we’re far apart, we’ve never felt so united as a congregation. Some of my more vulnerable parishioners might understandably disagree, but from my perspective it feels like we’re united in prayer and emotion – it’s somehow breathed new life into our church. The circumstances have removed any sense of self sufficiency that is normally there; instead, I’m moved by this sense of people pulling together.

That said, when all this is over, I think the Church as a whole is going to have to up its game. The fallout in terms of spiritual well-being and mental health is going to be huge. I’m very anxious about the mental health costs, and recognise that there’s more to life than the physical – but at the moment, we have to focus on the physical. We can’t rush back to church, because God forbid someone gets ill and dies. It’s going to be painful, it’s going to hurt, but my job is to support people through that hurt.

At the hospital, our patient support has had to be rethought and adapted and we have stepped up our support for staff and family members of patients. And it’s not just pastoral care for those on the front line – as well as doctors and nurses, it’s cleaners, it’s orderlies. There’s a real sense of the whole hospital being more united; all are supported through the services offered by the Spiritual and Pastoral Care team at Nottingham University Hospitals.

We’re seeing some Covid patients, and we’re still there for urgent end-of-life calls. Within my role I’ve always felt safe working and I wear the appropriate PPE.

The fallout in terms of spiritual well-being and mental health is going to be huge

But maintaining distance from patients is something that I personally find difficult; my natural inclination is to be fairly close to people. You respect boundaries and it’s always patient led, but there’s a personability to it normally. Now, I have to be mindful of keeping my distance. I’m having to wear a mask when I’m on any ward – and that’s a good thing in terms of safety – but it’s amazing to realise how much I normally convey through my mouth, and how much is communicated with a smile. Some people have found it quite a barrier. It’s challenging, but it is what it is and how it has to be at the moment.

It’s true in any pastoral ministry, but is perhaps more sharply honed in hospital: it’s all about letting the person be themselves in that moment. It has to be person-centred – I believe in a Gospel of hope but if, when and how that is communicated has to be considered. Certainly in a hospital you can never go in with an agenda: you’re not there to convert or preach. You’re there to be, to listen, to help in any way they need. You have to be thinking, “How can I be a support for them?” rather than “What do I want to get from this encounter?”

It’s the funerals we’ve all found the hardest. It’s the time when I usually feel most in touch with my calling. But so much of it is in the physical presence – to ease suffering by being alongside people, giving them a hug, shaking their hand. The lack of personal human contact is really tough.

I’ve done a couple of funerals since lockdown started. One was for a woman who was like my surrogate grandmother from my last parish – we were going to do a big knees-up to celebrate her life, but then we couldn’t. Only immediate family were allowed by the grave side; I couldn’t help feeling that it was all too brief, that she deserved more. I felt, “this isn’t right”. Her family were amazing though, and totally understood the necessity. I had to put my theological hat on and think, my job is to commend her to God: she’s rejoicing with God now.

I’m doing another funeral for someone’s father in a few weeks. I know the family; normally I’d meet them in their home, share memories of their loved one, talk about the eulogy, make lots of notes. Now I’m asking myself, how do I do that? I’ll have to organise a Zoom meeting, or do it over the phone. Your whole way of working has to change.

My natural inclination is to worry more about other people than myself. I’ve got a lot of elderly people in my congregation who are at risk – I worry about the transition from lockdown back to church. I worry that we’re easing lockdown way too quickly as a nation and that there’ll be a second spike. I worry about my wife, too – she has a congenital heart problem, and is in the “at risk” category. I’m always mindful of coming home and bringing something with me from the hospital.

I see God in the keyworkers, in the NHS staff, in those doing deliveries

And yet I have been looking on all this with hope. We’re constantly told there’s a decline in faith and we’re now a secular society. But alongside my regular congregation, there are many more local people who don’t normally come to church tuning into the livestreamed service every Sunday. It gives me hope as a priest that this narrative that we live in a secular age and people want nothing to do with God isn’t right. I think we need to reflect on what we can change as Church, and what lessons we can take away from all this.

I see God in the keyworkers, in the NHS staff, in those doing deliveries. One of the most powerful bits of scripture is the Magnificat – it says that God is with the lowly, the suffering, the ones getting their hands dirty. And my goodness, this lockdown has proven that to be true. That’s where God has been in all of this – he’s in the gutter. He’s in the mutual aid Whataspp groups. He’s in the hospital ward. He’s here.

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