Enabling all ages to grow in faith

Growing fruitfulness

In the latest of our ‘Growing faith’ articles, Anna Chaplaincy pioneer, Debbie Thrower, reflects on our capacity to live fruitful lives well on into our latter years.

5 June 2022

New job, new start

A year after leaving ITV in 2009, I responded to a job advert to become a chaplain for older people. That’s where I thought I’d remain, working on a small canvas locally, after 35 years of a very enjoyable broadcasting career.

This chaplaincy for older people, spurred into existence by a joint Anglican and Methodist desire to serve the growing number of older people living long but not necessarily good quality lives, came to be known as Anna Chaplaincy, after the widow in Luke’s gospel. It might have stayed just a small-scale local initiative in Alton, Hampshire, but for BRF. The Alton churches gifted the concept to BRF and I began working as the pioneer of Anna Chaplaincy in 2014.

BRF has a genius for scaling up grassroots Christian initiatives and giving them a national profile. In Messy Church’s case, it’s international, with 3,500 Messy Church groups now registered across the globe.

‘If Anna Chaplaincy could enjoy a fraction of that kind of success, I’d be so grateful.’

There was never any doubt in my mind that the vision was to have an Anna Chaplain in every small-to-medium-sized community across the land, and I remember thinking at the start, ‘Well, if Anna Chaplaincy could enjoy a fraction of that kind of success, I’d be so grateful.’

A growing network

In just a few years, we’ve seen our network of women and men, lay and ordained Anna Chaplains, grow exponentially. This was particularly so during the pandemic which shone such a spotlight on isolated older people. Some chaplains are comparatively young, in their 30s and 40s; most are in their retirement years, typically 60 to 70, when they start. But there are some well on in their 80s who are still exercising this ministry, just as the widow Anna was doing at the age of 84.

We had our first religious sister – a nun who belongs to an order living in the community in Swansea – join the ranks recently. Sister Marian said before her commissioning: ‘In my daily prayers, I ask our Lord to help me to serve him right up to my last breath. Even if I end up in a nursing home myself, I can continue to minister as an Anna Chaplain and perhaps be their “resident” chaplain!’

Age, or indeed infirmity, is no barrier to this amazingly fruitful and rewarding work. So long as you can still listen to people and feel compassion for them and with them, and the supporting church continues to recognise your gifts for the task, you retain the authority to be involved in such work!

‘In my daily prayers, I ask our Lord to help me to serve him right up to my last breath.’ – Sister Marian

Anna and the equally elderly Simeon were pivotal in the Christian salvation story when the baby Jesus was brought to the temple by his parents. God disclosed to Anna and Simeon the roles in ‘His story’ that this unassuming couple and their babe-in-arms would play. It was a hinge-point in history as God entrusted the news to two older people who had kept the flame of faith and hope alive in their corner of Jerusalem.

A start not a finish

This year, the theme of our centenary celebrations is ‘Sharing the story’, reflecting not only on how BRF, working across the denominations, seeks to share the story of God’s good news for all – Jesus as ‘a light for revelation to the Gentiles’ – but also how we want more people to appreciate the quiet, unobtrusive work we’re doing to help churches serve the wider community.

Anna Chaplains, and others in equivalent community-based roles, are at the forefront of this work. There are currently more than 220 Anna Chaplains in our national network, including, for example, Joan Routledge, a new chaplain in Carlisle. Joan works in local care homes and with the chaplaincy team at Cumberland Infirmary. She says: ‘I felt called to be with people in later life and feel that God has blessed me with this opportunity and surrounded me with those who have been an example and an encouragement.’

‘I have met artists, authors, musicians, cooks, florists, people who still have dreams to fulfil, for whom life at a certain age is a start… not a finish.’ – Joan Routledge

‘Growing older,’ she says, ‘can often be seen in a negative light but in doing that we lose sight of the treasure brought to our communities by those who have lived long enough to share their wisdom, knowledge and life experiences. In care homes, in our churches, in the hospital and in the community, I have met artists, authors, musicians, cooks, florists, people who still have dreams to fulfil, for whom life at a certain age is a start… not a finish. They have stories to tell and share and they want to be able to be themselves, to retain and celebrate their unique identity.’

A sense of calling

Anna Chaplain John Styles was commissioned in Kent last year to work in his local villages. Once the acting governor of the Island of St Helena in the South Atlantic, John is, like me and numerous other Anna Chaplains, a reader – or licensed lay minister – and he picked up on the role of the Anna Chaplain during the annual readers’ event in Canterbury Cathedral in 2019. Looking into it further, John decided that Anna Chaplaincy was for him: ‘It fitted into my calling’ he said.

Newcastle-based Joan Grenfell visits older people in their own homes. She also runs a group for older Christians and takes Communion to several care homes in her suburb of Jesmond. Recently she wrote: ‘I thought you would like to know that I have begun the Anna Chaplaincy ministry in a new care home in my parish. It was a bit scary meeting new people… would they take to me? Would I meet their expectations?

‘I need not have worried, as it was a lovely experience. It was a simple sharing of the sacrament, followed by an opportunity to talk one-to-one with those who had been at the service, as well as other residents. When I played two hymns there was spontaneous joining in, despite residents not having the words in front of them. There were tears as well.

‘One resident said, “I have been waiting for this! I have been here for a year and have been waiting for God to come in!”’

So many older people are starved of God but Anna Chaplaincy helps them, as Joan Routledge put it, ‘to feel they have spiritual meaning in their lives, in whatever form that comes, enabling them to enjoy the freedom that comes with age and to live with dignity where everyone belongs.’

‘I have been here for a year and have been waiting for God to come in!’ – Care home resident in Newcastle

Good works, quietly done

Celebrating Her Majesty the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee this weekend, we give thanks that, like so many faithful older people, including Anna and Simeon, she has inspired and comforted us. She has led us by example, remaining faithful to her coronation vow to serve her people – not least in her many broadcasts down the years. These were her words at the Millennium celebrations when she took the opportunity, once again, to share her personal faith: 

‘Even in our very material age’, she said, ‘the impact of Christ’s life is all around us… cathedrals, abbeys… look at their stained-glass windows, their books and their pictures. But the measure of Christ’s influence is not only in the lives of saints but also in the good works quietly done by millions of men and women day in and day out and throughout the centuries. Many will have been inspired by Jesus’ simple but powerful teaching: love God and love thy neighbour as thyself: in other words, treat others as you would like them to treat you. His great emphasis’ she said, ‘was to give spirituality a practical purpose.’

Dioceses and other church groups are giving spirituality a practical purpose when making Anna Chaplaincy a priority. The new bishop of Portsmouth says he was ‘Anna Chaplaincy in every parish’.

Through the framework of Anna Chaplaincy, we’re seeing a harnessing of the potential of many more people – like Joans and Johns – who have experienced that nudge to step up and be our contemporary Annas and Simeons.

‘I believe we’re witnessing another hinge-point in the history of Anna Chaplaincy and another small step in the building of the kingdom of God here on earth.’

I’ve seen it with my own eyes, I know that such volunteers find a real sense of meaning and purpose – and fruitfulness. I believe we’re witnessing another hinge-point in the history of Anna Chaplaincy and another small step in the building of the kingdom of God here on earth.

Debbie Thrower joined BRF in 2014. A former broadcaster, Debbie leads the national network of Anna Chaplains and others in equivalent community-based roles offering spiritual care and support to older people, their relatives and carers.

To find out more about the work of Anna Chaplaincy, how you can get involved and the wide range of resources available, click here.


Anna Chaplaincy resources include the newly released free downloads: Grief Conversations and Easy Guides.

The aim of Grief Conversations, by Gail Millar and Jill Phipps is to enable those bereaved through the pandemic – and whose pain is still raw despite the passage of time – to feel better supported, understood and that little but less alone.

Easy Guides offer ideas and inspiration for churches in their work with older people. Drawn from the rich experience of Anna Chaplains across the UK, they provide pointers for getting started in a variety of contexts where older people’s spiritual care is a focus.


World Environment Day

5 June is World Environment Dat 2022. To mark the day, Dr Dave Gregory, a key contributor to Messy Church Does Science and Messy Church Goes Wild has written a special blog entitled ‘Fifty-fifty’. To read the blog post, click here.


Richard Fisher

A Jubilee message from chief executive Richard Fisher

‘We at BRF offer our heartfelt congratulations and best wishes to Her Majesty the Queen as she celebrates the remarkable milestone of her Platinum Jubilee. We give grateful thanks for her 70 years of service to our nation and the Commonwealth and for her strong Christian faith.’