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Workplace Matters

Waterways Chaplaincy

Reaching out to the
side-lined and the broken

Britain’s growing Waterways
Chaplaincy movement throws a lifeline

There is something undeniably special about being beside water and the UK’s waterways are magnets for people of all kinds. 
They cut through beautiful rural scenery as well as congested urban areas but they are always fascinating and people gravitate to them, mostly for pleasure, while some users find themselves isolated and side-lined by the rest of society. Waterways Chaplaincy is a growing movement currently seeing around 70 volunteer chaplains walking towpaths all year round.


‘Britain’s canal system now carries more boats than it ever did in Industrial Revolution days,’ says the Revd Mark Chester, National Senior Chaplain.

‘Narrowboats can be havens for people drawn to our canals and a surprising number are ‘continuous cruisers’ –obliged to move mooring every fourteen days or less if they not permanently based in a marina.  A permanent waterborne lifestyle may be chosen for reasons ranging from a desire to drop out of the rat race, or a simple need for cheaper accommodation, which in some cities may mean multiple occupancy aboard poorly maintained ‘rented’ boats.


‘Life on a narrowboat sounds wonderful:  fresh air and beauty; that slow pace of life and no pressure. However, things can change when illness or bereavement strikes; a relationship fails; alcohol or other substance dependency takes hold, and medical and social services are absent.  A boat less than seven feet wide inside can quickly feel like a lonely prison if you can’t access benefits and are short of food or money to pay for fuel. 



‘And it’s not just boaters,’ says Mark. ‘The towpaths themselves are a ‘draw’ for people of all kinds. Most enjoy them, but we don’t have to look far to find individuals and canal side communities where a pastoral presence is appreciated.

‘Precise figures are hard to nail, but among the  2m or more people living on or around the waterways are many isolated individuals with limited access to the usual social provisions the rest of us take for granted.’

Chaplains agree to walk a mile of towpath each week.  They engage with over 5,000 people every year. Some conversations will be pastorally consequential,  others not, but chaplains are trained to read between the lines of what presents, as well as sign posting the way to local resources – food banks, benefits and Citizen’s Advice, for example.

Another focus is on advocacy, and chaplains can sometimes be intermediaries, maybe between a distressed boater and one of the waterways licensing bodies or other local service. Chaplains always have in the back of their minds the words of Micah 6.8 as they seek to ‘act justly, love mercy and walk humbly with God’. They encourage – but most of all, pray, and the prayer network between Chaplains is a significant part of the ministry.’


Says Mark: ‘The brief is to be ‘proactive’ practically, and ‘reactive’ spiritually, thus those at the receiving end may know they are talking to a Christian but will not feel awkward in any way. However, as faith issues arise, for example with bereavement or break ups, they are ready to give an answer, a New Testament, prayer – whatever support is needed.’

‘Some Chaplains are ‘liveaboard’ boaters themselves and can be a mobile presence around the system, while others operate near their homes. There are stretches of waterways, particularly in urban areas, which see much more activity for chaplains than, say, rural canals like Basingstoke but there is an urgent need for more to come forward to wear the distinctive Chaplain’s gilet and to be a regular Christian presence in an environment full of surprises.’