God in the Life Of…

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The Revd Dr Guy Harrison tells Jo Duckles about his journey from a job as a maintenance man, through to becoming the Head of Spiritual and Pastoral Care, Consultant in Staff Support and Director of the Oxford Centre for Spirituality & Wellbeing (OCSW) within an NHS trust covering five counties and employing 6,300 staff.

We chat over coffee in Guy’s office in the Littlemore Mental Health Centre in Oxford. He describes the varied, challenging role that he clearly loves, helping patients, chaplains and staff in the Oxford Health NHS Foundation Trust. “I’m approaching 60 and it’s as if everything has come together in a way that I wouldn’t quite have believed,” says Guy, who was born in Leeds and grew up in Co. Durham.

The vicar’s son joined the Lee Abbey Community in London, an ecumenical base for students in the capital. Guy joined the maintenance team, fixing doors and doing odd jobs, when he left school. He moved on to St George’s Crypt in Leeds, (a charity that works with the homeless, the vulnerable and those suffering from addiction) and then ran a reception centre for Vietnamese refugees.

Deep down Guy says he always knew, that despite leaving school with no qualifications, he would find a role that incorporated both theology and psychology. After those early jobs he first applied for ministry training with the Church Army. “There was a strong emphasis on social action. That was what I was drawn to. I worked in community development, firstly in Bradford and then in West London, where I was working with a parish priest who was diagnosed with cancer and died in post.

“That was a formative experience for me. With a very supportive bishop, I informally became a lay person in charge of two churches. It was a challenging time and out of that it became quite clear that ordination was a possibility. That was confirmed and I trained at Salisbury and Wells Theological College.” (Now Sarum College.)

Partly due to his own challenging experiences as a teenager, Guy realised he wanted to work on the edges of the Church. He began chaplaincy work in a hospice, where he met his wife, the Revd Dr Victoria Slater, who is now the project researcher for the diocese’s Living Well in the End Times project. From there he moved to Stoke Mandeville Hospital in Aylesbury, where he was responsible for the chaplaincy team at Buckinghamshire’s hospitals.

During that time Guy did psychotherapy training, and subsequently took a senior post in a mental health chaplaincy based West London. The trust included Broadmoor in Berkshire. (See the November 2017 edition of the Door for a feature on the Revd Jonathan Bush, a Broadmoor chaplain.)

Guy was appointed to his current post in 2012. He recently completed his PhD, looking into the relationship between spiritual and pastoral care, and psychotherapy. “It was a fascinating professional doctorate. It had to have a practical element, especially as I am not a natural academic,” says Guy.

Following the doctorate, Guy has founded the Oxford Centre for Spirituality and Wellbeing. “There is an increasing recognition of spiritual care and health care contexts, but not enough. Training and development needs to be informed by research. For healthcare staff to have a developed ability to talk about spirituality and care, they need to have had some opportunity to explore for themselves how it affects their well-being,” he says.

The centre is part of the Oxford Institute of Nursing, Midwifery and Allied Health Research based at Oxford Brookes, where Guy says the staff are
very committed to developing links between Oxford’s two health-care trusts and two universities.

On a day-to-day basis, Guy’s role involves patient care, supervision, facilitating staff support and reflective practice groups, co-ordinating the psychological de-briefing service, staff training and generally advising the trust on all matters related to spiritual and pastoral care in a complex organisation. The trust provides mental health services for Buckinghamshire and Oxfordshire, both in patient and community services.

It also provides Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS) going as far as Swindon, Wiltshire and Bath. In Oxfordshire it is also responsible
for the physical health care services not covered by the John Radcliffe or Churchill hospitals Guy recognises that, when faced with profound illness and disability, patients often ask questions of meaning and purpose, what gives hope and raise questions about faith, belief and transcendence.
“It’s about going back to mission, engaging with people where they are and an opportunity to enter into dialogue with a whole range of people, staff, patients and carers. In parish ministry, you wouldn’t be able to do that,” says Guy. “In that encounter it’s about service and it’s about understandings of God that are relational. It’s helping people to discover God in some of the most difficult and challenging circumstances.”

In the trust’s secure units, including Littlemore, some inpatients may have been referred through the court system. When asked how he deals with the difficult circumstances he encounters and the circumstances of some patients, Guy says: “All I can say is that from personal experience and professional practice, I have discovered God in the depths and the chaos. It’s about going through the disturbance and distress and holding on to hope and the possibility of change. My experience is that change does happen.”
Guy says that the best part of the role is working in so many different circumstances.
“It’s engagement, not knowing what you are going to engage with each day and being with people in different situations and scenarios. Equally, it’s a challenge to juggle everything, different roles and responsibilities and there is an up and a down to that. I see a lot of people on a one-to-one basis. I link up with a lot of people. One of the great things is having a senior role and being affirmed in that role. We have strong support as a team here. My line manager is the director of nursing and is very supportive.”
Strong external supervision helps protect Guy and his colleagues from the pain of the circumstances they are encountering. His hobbies, gardening and walking, also help.
“This is a very rich and rewarding and equally challenging period of my history. It’s a vision I have had from the age of 18 in a strange way, but I wouldn’t have been able to articulate it then.
“What the Church sometimes forgets is it is not about ‘us and them’ but we are all on a continuum with our mental health. One in four people will have a diagnosable mental illness in their life while one in five will have depression at any one time. The statistics are getting worse and unemployment, health and increasing homelessness all contribute.”
As part of his work, Guy has secured funding for Elaine Ulett, a half-time development officer working for OCSW and is applying for funding for a research fellow for the centre.

Guy has two children. He lives in Oxfordshire and worships locally.