Religion, we are told, is in decline. Or, at least, Christianity in the UK is in decline. Or, more accurately, some forms of Christianity are in decline in parts of the UK. Certainly in terms of broad trends fewer people as a proportion of the general population attend weekly church services. It is also true that a greater proportion of people than before define themselves as "not religious" on censuses and other surveys.
Adding to that effect is the nature of a less rooted society. People today are more likely to rent their homes. They are more likely to move homes, and indeed to move homes to different parts of the country. People move career far more than they ever used to, and they are more likely to have gone to university away from home. In this less rooted society it is much more difficult for groups like religions (and others) to keep people coming to them each week.
Perhaps this explains why one particular aspect of religious engagement in the public square is booming; Chaplaincy. Chaplaincy seems a surprising survivor, never mind growing ministry model in the present climate. Chaplains are (usually) religious figures who operate in 'secular' spaces (i.e. somewhere whose primary function is not religious - like a hospital - rather than in a church or religious space). Chaplains, unlike other religious figures are not waiting for people to come to them - they are going out to where people are and where they are needed.
The word chaplain tends to conjure a Christian figure in a fairly limited range of historic contexts. The military has its padres, prisons and hospitals their chaplains and in the popular imagination we might also conjure a chaplain in an Oxbridge college or public school. In truth the breadth of chaplaincy is so much broader than that.
In the UK today, according to research conducted for a new report by Theos, you can find chaplains in theatres, sport clubs, airports, shopping centres, even casinos. They are working to support some of the most vulnerable people in society - such as those detained in Immigration and Removal Centres, those suffering with HIV/AIDS, the homeless, and foreign seafarers in British ports. Increasingly they also reflect the changing make-up of British society with chaplains representing an ever broader range of religious backgrounds.
This extraordinary range of where chaplains can be found today begs the question as to why it is that when religion seems in decline this particular model has found space to grow. The answer, I would argue, lies in the ability of chaplaincy to be able to offer something valuable and important in both of the worlds in which they operate. That is to say, they have often been able to prove their importance in both the public secular terms of the organization in which they work and to the religious group from which they are drawn.
This was not always in the way that might be expected. For example, while we would perhaps expect that organizations value the provisional of pastoral support and even maybe the role chaplain can have in responding to particular policy needs (such as equality and diversity legislation or countering extremism), the value of chaplaincy as a neutral mediator is perhaps less anticipated. Yet, this transpired to be immensely important in a number of different settings with chaplains serving as the trusted broker between service users and institutions.
Perhaps this model provides a possible middle way between competing models of how religion ought to operate in the public square. Against the narrative that religion has nothing to offer to the public square chaplaincy proves that religious figures can do religion in such a way as to have public benefit on the terms of the places in which they operate. However, because they are operating on those secular terms and not only religious ones they can demonstrate that this value can be offered without religion having to dominate or define public organizations. This middle way in which religion offers itself as a powerful force for good while remaining authentic to itself represents a positive future model for religion in the public square.