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Role of hospital chaplains 'has never been so crucial'

Hospital chaplains are playing a vital role during the COVID-19 pandemic. Anglican chaplain Chris Morris spoke to TMA.

The Revd Chris Morris, Anglican chaplain to the Alfred Hospital, has had to get rid of his beard in order to wear the requisite protective gear during the COVID-19 pandemic - but that has been the least of the issues he is facing, as he told TMA recently.

By Muriel Porter

April 15 2020The Revd Chris Morris is facing some significant challenges as chaplain to the Alfred Hospital during the pandemic crisis, not least of which has been the loss of his beard! Now that he has to don the requisite personal protective equipment, his substantial beard simply would no longer fit its confines, so it has had to go.

 But his beard has been the least of the issues he is facing. As he told TMA, the situation in the hospital is changing daily. New directives come out all the time, and the hospital has an eerie feeling, as elective surgery patients and anyone not critically ill is moved out to make way for a dreaded influx of COVID-19 patients.

 “We are planning for the worst but hoping for the best,” he said. “At the moment, it is the calm before the storm.”

 With patients confined to their rooms and allowed only one visitor a day and that for only a brief period of time, patients are feeling very isolated and even claustrophobic. They need not just spiritual and pastoral care from the chaplain, but also companionship, Chris said. And staff also need more pastoral care than normal, given the stressful situation. 

Care of COVID-19 patients is particularly challenging, he continued, citing the example of a patient who died. He could offer the last rites to him only through a speaker and behind a glass window, with symbolic use of oil only. “It was quite a touching experience,” he said. “The six medical staff with me found it very moving, and were very thankful.”

 With the patient’s family members in isolation because of their close contact with the patient, the only pastoral support Chris could provide was through phone calls. But although this was obviously not ideal, he found that it was greatly appreciated.

Hospital chaplaincy was not a ministry Chris ever expected, until he did his pre-ordination Clinical Pastoral Education training at the Alfred. He found it very satisfying, and when the opportunity came up to take on the role of chaplain three years ago, he applied.

“I do this work for the love of Christ, and to bring the love of Christ to people in practical ways,” Chris said.

The role of hospital chaplains has never been so crucial, explains the Revd Stephen Delbridge, the coordinator of Anglican Health Chaplains. In the current crisis, only chaplains currently based in hospitals are able to minister to the sick.

 Parish clergy who would normally visit parishioners in hospital are now denied access, given there are strict limits on visitors to patients. In some of the 10 hospitals with Anglican chaplains in Melbourne Diocese, for example, each patient can have one visitor per day only, who can stay for just 15 minutes. It must be the same person each time.

Parish clergy with hospitalised parishioners are encouraged to contact the Anglican chaplain through the hospital’s switchboard, he said.

 In these tough new conditions, the Anglican chaplains are keeping in touch with Zoom meetings. “We are a very strong network, and are supporting each other,” Stephen said. “The chaplains are right on the coalface at present”. 

The work of hospital chaplains has not always been regarded as a priority ministry by some, and has faced budget cuts over the years. Archbishop Philip Freier has however been unswerving in his support for their work, Stephen said. “He has been our greatest champion.”

The current situation is surely demonstrating just how critical their role is. The chaplains would welcome the prayerful support of Melbourne Anglicans, and if possible some financial support as well. Donations can be made through the chaplaincy fund of the Melbourne Anglican Foundation.