Chaplaincy on a Cruise Ship

A working holiday ?

A personal view

picture of the Black Watch

Working? Definitely! Holiday? Well, there's nothing wrong with enjoying your work. These two come together rather well on board a cruise ship.

Fred. Olsen Cruise Lines have chaplains on board for their Christmas and Easter cruises and for the World Cruises. I have been on the Christmas and Easter cruises each year since 2003, on all their ships: Black Prince (now sold), Braemar, Black Watch (above), Boudicca and Balmoral. And at the beginning of 2008 I spent three and a half months on the Black Watch on a World Cruise. Wow!

Chaplains for Fred. Olsen and P&O are 'recruited' by the Mission to Seafarers from their Southampton Seafarers' Centre. The Mission to Seafarers is an Anglican organisation, so most but not all chaplains are Anglican. However, the Fred. Olsen website suggests that the worship on board will be multi-denominational, and I have exploited that wherever possible. There is only one chaplain on board Fred. Olsen ships, and this means that the chaplain has the opportunity to minister to people of all faiths and none.

Fred. Olsen ships occupy a significant niche in the cruise market, having ships considerably smaller than the floating cities seen more and more often around the world. With passenger numbers still under a thousand (although their newest ship, Balmoral, is over that number) their ships have a friendliness and an intimacy that makes for a good community feel.

There are, of course, several hundred members of the crew as well, many of them having been on board for many months. It is sometimes difficult to arrange a suitable time for crew worship, since there are so many different shift patterns. Mid-afternoon and late evening are quite popular, and the mostly Roman Catholic crew are appreciative of even an Anglican priest leading an Anglican eucharist with them.

So what is the work of a chaplain? I think that there are two main areas of ministry.
  • The first is obviously the provision of worship - sometimes easier said than done. The programme on board is extremely full, and it is sometimes difficult to fit services into the daily routine at times which suit an elderly population. On the long cruise this difficulty was further exacerbated by having many Sundays in port, when naturally people are ashore. However, the basic provision is a Sunday communion service, and other services as appropriate. Chaplains come from all traditions of the Church, and some will offer daily worship, others a different programme.

    I have used liturgical resources from the United Church of Canada, which come across to a mainly British congregation with a welcome freshness. I have also begun to present worship using PowerPoint, which allows me to find hymns from many sources and also avoids the photocopying of reams of paper. It also allows people to keep their heads up and be conscious of other people around them - much better than burying their heads in a book!

  • The second aspect of chaplaincy is accompaniment. I liken this to walking around the town wearing a dog collar (which I don't on board, it's far too hot!). People fairly quickly work out what I am, some will come up and talk with me, others will do so later. I am available and unhurried - where's the rush on a ship? Even during a short fortnight Christmas or Easter cruise, I have shared stories with countless folk. There is something about being on a ship that seems to make it easier to confide, to open up, to share pain and problems; you're away from home, phone, family, neighbours - and it allows time and space to re-collect yourself. It's an immense privilege to be invited into someone's story, and just to listen and encourage. Sometimes it is appropriate to say a prayer, but equally, sometimes it is not. What is needed is a non-judgmental and friendly face, and a warmth that makes for conversation.

I had my first taste of a P&O cruise ship during Holy Week 2009. The Mission to Seafarers "rested" me from Fred. Olsen, and put me on the Aurora! Apart from being about three times picture of P&O Aurorathe size of the Fred. Olsen ships, with 1700 passengers on this last leg of their world cruise, experience on board the Aurora was remarkably similar to what I have experienced before, but with one notable exception: I shared chaplaincy with a Catholic priest. I had known that this would be the case, and had some misgivings about dividing the passengers into "ours and theirs", something which seriously offends my ecumenical spirit. But in the event it was not as divisive as I had feared. Fr. Stephen Alker has been senior Catholic padre in the British military for twenty-five years, as long a time as I was an Industrial chaplain. So we had much chaplaincy experience in common. We were able to share in leading a Holy Saturday service together, and took part in the Captain's Easter morning service at which we both gave a very short message. (Well, mine was short!) We were often seen together, and we reckon that this was as strong a sign of ecumenical partnership as anything we could have arranged. However, over Easter 2010 I was again with P&O, this time on the Ventura, and that sense of collegiality was not present. So I am much happier when I am the only chaplain on board and can be chaplain for everyone, regardless of denominational affiliation.
Writing an updte in 2019, I have taken myself off the chaplaincy list at the Mission to Seafarers. As you'll see below, I've had my fair share of cruises and seen far more of the world than I ever expected to. But it's been a richly enjoyable ministry, and there's nothing I can look back on with regret.

My cruises:
2004EasterBlack PrinceCanaries
2004ChristmasBlack PrinceCanaries
2005EasterBlack PrinceCanaries
2006ChristmasBlack WatchCanaries
2008SpringBlack WatchDover - Round-the-World - Dover
2009EasterAuroraAntigua - Southampton
2012SpringBalmoralSouth America