God in the Life Of Broadmoor Chaplain the Revd Jonathan Bush

The Revd Jonathan Bush tells Jo Duckles about swapping church-based ministry for work behind the secure gates and heavy doors at Broadmoor High Security Hospital.

Jonathan in the car park at Broadmoor. Cameras can’t be taken inside. Photo: Jo Duckles

Born into a Baptist family in Kent in 1955, Jonathan remembers the long strap his prison officer father wore for his keys. “Now I have a similar strap for my keys,” he says when we meet at the hospital. Jonathan shows me the 19th century chapel, the patient shop and the café, before sitting down in the portacabin that is his base until the brand new Broadmoor building opens next year.

Jonathan moved to Chelmsford in Essex as a boy when his dad got a prison service promotion. “I was baptised at a Baptist Church in Chelmsford, had a sense of a call to the ministry and met a girl who became my wife,” he says.

Training at Spurgeon’s Theological College, Jonathan became a Baptist minister and went on to become the British minister at the First Baptist Church in Dallas, Texas – the largest church in the Southern Baptist Convention.

“It had 26,000 members. We went with our first child who was just a few months old and we had a great year. As I look back on my life I can see how God has used experiences and encounters to prepare me for the next step,” says Jonathan, who returned to the UK to take up two short-term posts in Baptist churches, before the Dallas church got back in touch. “It was in the 80s when American churches were keen on bringing choirs to the UK. They wanted to send one to Westminster Chapel.”

It was through this that Jonathan met RT Kendall, then the minister at Westminster Chapel, and was asked to become his assistant. “This meant working for three years with a very different, conservative, reformed theology. I learnt things and faced challenges. It was all informing me in my faith and growing me as a Christian and as a person.”

From there Jonathan became the minister of Herne Bay Baptist Church in Kent, which he describes as “the coalface of ministry”. After nine years, a move to Plymouth saw Jonathan becoming the Associate Minister at Mutley Baptist Church. Every Monday Jonathan would run a pastoral clinic, between 3pm and 6pm. Sensing a call to pastoral work, he embarked on a person-centred counselling course and a Masters degree in practical theology.

“Five years into my time in Plymouth a job came up at Derriford Hospital for a free church chaplain. I discussed this with my team and they were happy for me to apply and I got the post,” says Jonathan, whose first full-time chaplaincy post came three years later. This involved supporting patients with mental illnesses. This led on to work at Rampton, a high security hospital in Nottinghamshire.“It was good to get to know the patients, people who have struggled with mental health problems for many years, and to try and come alongside them, support them and encourage them spiritually,” says Jonathan, who moved to Broadmoor in 2014.

“My job is to support patients and staff spiritually. I spend a lot of time with patients, supporting them and listening to them. Their brand of spirituality or religion doesn’t matter. We will give anyone support if they want to talk to us,”says Jonathan. The chaplaincy makes sure a church service takes place every Sunday, with a Roman Catholic service on a Thursday and Jumah Prayer for Muslims on a Friday. “We have representatives of other faiths who come in to see specific patients too,” says Jonathan.

How does Jonathan deal with supporting people with severe mental health issues? “We have informal supervision with colleagues who we can talk to but we also have formal supervision and reflective practice. This gives us an opportunity, away from the patient, to reflect on the complexities of the role. God has given me and others the ability to care but not carry. When I am sitting in front of a patient I need them to know I care but I’m able to not carry the burden they may put on me.”

Jonathan says he works closely with ward and medical staff in supporting patients. “I hold the view that God has a purpose in everything and there is meaning in everything. I hold in my mind the idea that there is meaning in mental illness. I sometimes find patients will talk about what’s been good in their lives and sometimes that is because they are in Broadmoor. I have a belief in the omnipotence and omniprescence of God. Nothing is outside of his influence or outside of his purpose.”

Occasionally Jonathan comes across patients whose illnesses have led them to believe they are God or Jesus and he has to respond to that sensitively. “I am always respectful, even if I don’t agree or it doesn’t make sense to me. A lot of people just want someone to listen.

“Every patient is treated as an individual. When increased support is required staff work with the patient to ensure they are kept central in the decision making process whenever possible.“This is a great place. If patients are here it may be perceived as the end of the line; nothing else has worked for them. However, for us we see it as a new beginning, the beginning of another journey. The average stay is five years, although some people stay for less. The days of patients staying over 20 years are long gone.”

Jonathan and his wife have three grown-up children. They live in rural Berkshire and now worship in an Anglican church.