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Canal plus: chaplaincy to 'hidden community'

Helen Hughes discovers a growing ministry on the UK's network of canals

Waterways Chaplaincy2We are accustomed to hearing about chaplains in hospitals, universities and the armed forces. But as they endeavour to meet people on their own turf outside church frameworks, chaplains are constantly discovering emerging roles. Even when that turf is water.

There are approximately 36,000 boats on the 2000-mile canal network of England and Wales. It's a substantial community and one which Senior Waterways Chaplain Mark Chester describes as “hidden”. Not all are holidaymakers, and many tend to go unnoticed, especially during winter when practical needs really unfold.

'It is a diverse community,' Mark said. 'Some are well to do, some are not. Constantly moving around means that they slip through the cracks of spiritual and social care.'

This is where the need for Waterways Chaplains comes in. Waterways Chaplaincy began around seven years ago, a ministry of the ecumenical charity Workplace Matters which supports chaplains across Hertfordshire and Bedfordshire. There are currently 30 volunteers, covering vast expanses of water, but this number is projected to increase over the next few years. The mission is clear: to be Jesus' hands and feet; to build relationships and to engage with those who are unchurched.

Waterways Chaplains give up a number of days each month to walk an area of towpath and get to know the people there. Their day-to-day work is hugely varied, Mark explains. 'They walk the paths, looking out for people in need of care, engaging in conversation; they may assist anglers, or help with locks, establishing relationships with those they meet.'

Their caring role is to empower those who are socially disadvantaged, working with organisations such as the NHS, navigation authorities and local authorities to achieve this, as well as being there to help the spiritual needs of those they come across.

Christ Church Baptist Church is in Kings Langley, a village intersected by the Grand Union Canal going north to Birmingham and south to Watford. Being so close to a busy canal, the fellowship has recognised the importance of this ministry, as church secretary Amanda Allchorn explains.

‘Having had close links with the Boaters Christian Fellowship for a few years, canal users dropping in to use our Foodbank and more recently having myself become a Trustee of Workplace Matters/Waterways Chaplaincy, it seemed a brilliant ‘fit’ to more proactively support this amazing initiative by choosing it as our church ‘Charity of the Year’.

'Our prayer is that we can not only understand more fully the issues canal boat users face, but prayer walk and perhaps give towards this great ministry.’

Waterways - Justin Welby300The growing ministry has been recognised nationally as well as locally. Archbishop of Canterbury, Most Rev. and Rt. Hon. Justin Welby, recently praised the work of the narrowboat chaplains.

'The Church exists to go to people, not to wait for them to come into church,' he said during a recent visit to St Albans. 'Jesus Christ went out to people. And so the work of the chaplain is to go to people and not hang around and wait, which, of course, people on boats never will come in because they just go straight past.'

When asked how churches can support Waterways Chaplains, Mark said they value the spiritual support they receive. 'We would just ask churches to welcome people coming into church as Jesus would have done.' Mark said. 'If churches want to form an association with Waterways Chaplaincies they are welcome to.'

Perhaps it shouldn't be surprising that these chaplains see the water as an ideal place to minister. There's a pleasing symmetry between Jesus meeting fishermen on the lakes and these modern-day chaplains who walk the canals. Both have a heart and an affinity for those who feel most at home on the water.


Waterways Chaplaincy is supported through Workplace Matters (www.workplacematters.org.uk), an ecumenical charity that supports more than 50 chaplains across Hertfordshire and Bedfordshire. Waterways Chaplains are drawn from practising Christians, either lay or ordained, who are connected with a recognised church.

For more information contact workplacematters@stalbans.anglican.org.

Narrowboat: Micromoth/RGB Stock
Archbishop Justin with Waterways Chaplains on the Grand Union Canal near Watford, 18 June 2015: Arun Kataria

Baptist Times, 20/08/2015
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