Chaplaincy: Serving with the force

Andy Paget was interviewed for the November 2020 Manna mailing for parishes.

Andy has been chaplain to the Avon and Somerset Police for almost 25 years. He is also a pastor at Trinity Tabernacle in Central Bristol.

What was your motivation in becoming a chaplain?

I believe that the Church has limited relevance if Christians fail to engage with people where they are and if we fail to serve them unconditionally. This is my passion.

What made you get involved in police chaplaincy in particular?

Years ago, Dr Clifford Hill came to Bristol to set up a pilot scheme encouraging church leaders to build relationships with key leaders in sectors such as Health, Education and Law and Order. I went off at something of a tangent and began to set up an ‘Adopt a Cop’ scheme, suggesting that local police be invited to come and share with churches how we might support them, to let them know that we genuinely appreciated them and were praying for them.

After praying for the police personally and privately for about a year, I had an invitation to support a local Anglican minister in his work as a volunteer chaplain at Bristol’s Central District Police Station in Trinity Road. As someone I know once said, “The Almighty can be a bit of a rascal when you start praying for things.”

I was a volunteer chaplain there for over five years and then was appointed by the Constabulary to develop police chaplaincy in a part time capacity as their Senior Force Chaplain. That was 19 years ago.

25 years is a long time. How have things changed?

During these 25 years there have arguably been more changes than in the entire history of U.K. policing up to that point, with new operating models, reductions in police numbers and big changes to roles, pay and conditions. Chaplaincy has become increasingly embedded in and valued by the Police locally and nationally as chaplaincy teams have grown. Currently we have fourteen volunteer chaplains in Avon and Somerset.

How do you support the police?

It really is a presence ministry. Being there and listening is the key role. We support all police staff and their families with any issue that is important to them. If there is a major incident we sometimes self-deploy, head to the scene and offer support to officers on the ground, making sure, for example, that they have access to food and drink, leaving the lead officers to concentrate on the incident itself. At other times we are asked to provide specific support. We can also be a bridge between communities and the police.

Although we don’t act in a “religious” way unless it is appropriate, there have been times, for example, when a family liaison officer dealing with a family who have lost someone has been been asked if there is someone of faith who could support them in their time of trauma. They may not belong to any particular church or faith, but have expressed a need for spiritual support or prayer. There may be this dual element to our role where we are supporting both the police officer and the victims, and we have to balance the two.

In partnership with the police, and with my colleague Adrian Prior-Sankey, I coordinate the Avon and Somerset Faith Communities Response to Major Emergencies. It’s a multi-faith victim focused service but with the same ethos as police chaplaincy.

How do the police staff feel about having chaplains supporting them?

During my 25 years police and police staff have been nothing but supportive and appreciative of the chaplaincy once they know that we are there to serve those of any faith or none. Sometimes we have to explode the myth that, as people of faith, we are there only for religious purposes.

How have recent events affected your role?

At the beginning of the first Coronavirus lockdown, I circulated a force-wide message to assure staff that we were still there for them and to affirm how much we valued them and the work they were doing in response to the pandemic. That’s important for them to hear. Frontline officers have to make decisions quickly, without the benefit of hindsight. When their actions are being scrutinised, as they were following the Black Lives Matter protests in Bristol, we can affirm them in their role and be there for them.

The pandemic has affected police officers, just as it has affected the wider community. Some of the calls for support we received were from staff who were already struggling with personal issues. Covid seemed to be the extra burden that pushed them toward a crisis point. Some had concerns about sick or vulnerable family members they couldn’t be with or were struggling with guilt because the necessary restrictions during funerals, feeling that they’d somehow failed the loved ones they’d lost. Others feared for vulnerable family members attending a funeral.

Is there any formal faith element to your role?

Conducting or taking part in a funeral or memorial service for a member of the constabulary is a privilege but also a sad part of my role. The police force is a family and has strong bonds with others around the country and around the world. The loss of a police officer, such as the recent murder of Sgt Matiu Ratana in London, is felt deeply, even by those who’ve never known the officer. We have a National Police Memorial Day Service which rotates around each of the four countries of the U.K. It’s held annually on the nearest Sunday to 29th September to coincide with Saint Michael’s Day, St Michael being the patron saint of police officers. We hold a similar service on the same morning at the Police HQ in Portishead, and another in Weston-Super-Mare, when we honour all those who have been killed or who have died while on duty. It is important for the families who have lost loved ones that that those sacrifices have not been forgotten and were not in vain. Policing remains a dangerous occupation and the increasing number of assaults on police officers is horrific and alarming.

What is the biggest challenge you face in your role?

The biggest challenge is that of recruiting and maintaining a sufficient number of suitable volunteers to serve as chaplains the 6,000 strong police service. We need to be visible and accessible and, in order to achieve that, we need more chaplains.

Do you have any advice for a potential chaplain?

As with most things in life, the more you put into a role, the more you’ll get out of it. Effective chaplaincy requires commitment, sensitivity and a willingness to listen and learn. It’s only through through these things that you’ll reap the benefits and rewards.

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