Leeds Trinity University has recently bid a fond farewell to its Chaplain of nearly eight years, Mgr Paul Grogan, who has taken up a new post as Parish Priest of the Parish of Mary Mother of God in Buttershaw and Wibsey, Bradford. Succeeding him is Deacon Chris Stevens, who brings more than ten years' experience in university chaplaincies to his new role as Leeds Trinity University's Chaplain.
The Chaplain is a familiar face on campus, playing a key role in bringing students together and ensuring that every student, of whatever faith, feels valued and supported. But what does a University Chaplain do? What's a Deacon? And who's the man behind the collar? We met Deacon Chris recently to welcome him to Leeds Trinity and find out more. Deacon Chris, welcome to Leeds Trinity! Can you tell us a bit about your background?
I'm from Derby, originally. I came up to Yorkshire in the late 70s to go to uni. I did Computer Studies, followed by Teacher Training. I then worked in further education, lecturing in hardware, computer hardware systems, networking and communication systems. For me, it's all about what goes on behind the plug – I'm fascinated by how things like that work.
I worked as a lecturer until about six years ago, when I was headhunted out of education by one of my friends - he owns a large company and wanted an IT Manager. I worked there for six years, and then I took early retirement last year when I went on a trip with my wife to China. We flew to Sri Lanka and then onto Singapore and Beijing. We then caught the train home through Russia via the Gobi desert. We spent some time in Moscow, Belarus and Warsaw before finishing up in Amsterdam, where we got the boat back to Hull. It took 4 weeks in total - it was wonderful.
I retired for 17 months, but now I'm back in education as an employee! I will be at Leeds Trinity for four days a week and I'll also spend a day and a half at the Leeds Universities Catholic Chaplaincy. Can you sum up your role as Chaplain of Leeds Trinity in one sentence?
It's all about service to students. We're here for all of the students, in whatever way we can help. We're a conduit through that to God, as well as being a help along the way through the course of study. That was slightly more than one sentence, but we'll let you off. Is this your first role as a University Chaplain?
No, I've actually been involved with university chaplaincies for ten years. That's quite scary, isn't it? It started when I first began training as a deacon at St Peter and St Paul's Catholic Church in Wakefield. I asked the deacon if there was anything that wasn't being done that they'd like me to do, and he told me about a little place called Bretton Hall, which was part of the University of Leeds. I went there and I immediately felt at home. I felt useful; that there was something there to do. When they closed Bretton Hall, they said 'move with the students', so I came and helped at the Catholic Chaplaincy for Leeds Universities. And it sort of snowballed from there. It had always been a part-time duty alongside a full-time job - most of the things I was involved in were evenings and weekends, so it fitted in with family life. But now it's my full-time job. Can you tell us more about the role of a deacon?
It's different to being a priest, in that all priests – bishops, archbishops, popes – are also deacons. It's a step on the way up the ladder. There are two types of deacons – a permanent deacon (which is what I am) where you get that far and no further, and a transitional deacon, which is a deacon who is aiming to become a priest.
Being a deacon is a mission of service, and when you are ordained as a deacon, you're given faculties which outline what a deacon does. My boss, even though I'm here, is the Bishop of Leeds. He is my employer, but I'm paid for by the University. So, where I work and when I work is up to the Bishop. What I do when I'm here is up to the Vice-Chancellor. You're married with children, which may surprise some people. Can you tell us more?
Deacons are in the Bible, very early on in the Acts of the Apostles. The apostles are saying they need to pray, but people keep coming along wanting food, drink and hospitality. So the apostles had a good think about what they were going to do, and then appointed people to perform that function – deacons. So, deacons go way back. Boxing Day, which is also known as St Stephen's Day, is even named after one of the first appointed deacons – St Stephen was a deacon.
So, that's our mission as deacons – to go out and do things. We take our vows just like a priest, apart from the fact that we are married and we work in the community. Quite often, we're attached to a church, but lots of deacons work in prisons, hospitals and places like that.
So, yes - deacons are married and have families. But if you enter the Deaconate and you're not married, then you can't marry. And if you're married and your wife dies, then you enter the same realm as a priest – celibacy.
Becoming a deacon wasn't a light bulb moment for me; it's a calling, and it's always fitted in around my family life. My wife is also a further education lecturer and we have three boys aged 27, 26 and 21. My eldest works as a teacher in a pupil referral unit in Devon. My middle son is a house master at the Catholic School for the Deaf in Boston Spa. My youngest son is still figuring out what he would like to do. What excites you about working at Leeds Trinity?
When I was asked if I'd like to come here by the Bishop of Leeds, I said 'How far can I bite your hand off?' I'm really excited about working here – it's scarily interesting, with so many possibilities. It's definitely more of a challenge than the other universities in Leeds – they have a bigger set-up with lots of chaplains, whereas I'll be the only one here as Leeds Trinity is a lot smaller. But it's friendly, isn't it? It's somewhere that has a nice feel to it. I don't think I've met anyone here who hasn't been nice and congratulated me, which is really nice.
I know I've got some big shoes to fill – Mgr Paul Grogan was superb at what he did here. And part of what I'd like to try is to build on what he has been doing – there is a huge groundswell of goodwill towards the church here, so it would be nice to try and translate that into some sort of religious service attendance. For example, we could have more weddings in the Chapel, baptisms – that sort of thing.
It's great that we've got a Catholic Society here, too, and we would love more people at the University to know about it. The way I see it, being in the Catholic Society doesn't mean that you have to be Catholic, or that you have to be 'holier than thou' and a pillar of the society. We're all human. So, it would be nice to get that message propagated to all people at the University – whether they're lapsed Catholics, enquiring about becoming Catholic, or just plain curious.
I'm comparing it with what I know, but lots of people who come to the Catholic Society at the Leeds universities aren't Catholic – many come along with friends or housemates to enjoy the activities, whether it's laser quest, a film night or bowling. Events are for everyone – regardless of faith. I'd love to make more connections between the Catholic societies in Leeds through my role and bring like-minded people together. And what about outside of work? What do you do you enjoy doing in your spare time?
I show model railways. I'm in the Wakefield Railway Model Society and this November, we're showing a railway at a show at the NEC (as well as at a few other shows). It's a 12m x 10m scale model of Lancaster. It's massive – it might just fit in the University's atrium. I love it – I make all my own track and just lose myself in it. I also enjoy photography – I take pictures of trains, as well as lots of other things - just about everything, really!Finally, what would you like people at Leeds Trinity to call you?
Deacon Chris. Or Chris. But the students will call me what they want. Some at Leeds Unis call me DC, and one group of students calls me the Deac! I don't mind, though. It's no good being a Chaplain and demanding that people call me this or that - because it's all about the students. This job is so student-facing and I want them to feel welcome, so they can call me what they want – within reason! Deacon Chris will be on campus four days a week, based in the Chaplaincy. You can email him at C.Stevens@leedstrinity.ac.uk, call him on 0113 283 7100 (ext 872) or just pop into the Chaplaincy and say hello – he'd love to meet you.