A new Deputy National Senior Waterways Chaplain with special responsibility for the Midlands and North of England has been appointed to take the expanding Waterways Chaplaincy to a new level. A trainee Anglican priest, Debbie Nouwen, who herself lives aboard a narrowboat, will oversee a growing band of volunteer chaplains.
Historically the canal and river system developed during the Industrial Revolution to serve the industries of the Midlands and North but today thousands of people live around and actually on those historic waterways, but many of them live in isolation from the mainstream of life in the UK.
Debbie is well qualified for her new challenge: ‘I am absolutely thrilled to be joining the Waterways Chaplaincy team and can’t wait to get stuck in,’ says Yorkshire-born Debbie. ‘Leaving school without qualifications and without much hope, I became a Christian in my early 20s and I came up with a five-year plan which took me through GCSE’s to university and various post-graduate studies.
‘For the last 20 years, I have worked with vulnerable adults who have experienced considerable hardship. This has shaped me as a person in so many ways and I’ve now embarked on a new journey towards becoming a priest in the Church of England.’
People who live on canal boats are called ‘liveaboards’, and Debbie has lived on a boat for nearly 10 years: ‘It’s fair to say that during that time, I have experienced the many highs and frequent lows of life on the canal system!’ she says. ‘There is seldom a dull moment on a boat.’
There are around 50 Waterways Chaplains currently walking the towpaths and befriending boaters and others who live and work close to Britain’s 2000 plus miles of canals and waterways criss-crossing the country. Debbie’s role will be to organise and support the chaplains operating in her region alongside the Senior Chaplain, the Revd Mark Chester, who operates from Southern England.
‘Debbie’s appointment marks a great step forward in this developing ministry,’ says Mark. ‘She understands people and she understands life on the ‘cut’ – the traditional name for the canal system. She brings all of that to bear in this new role together with a vibrant understanding of pastoral care, supporting vulnerable people and Priest. She will have her work cut out but she also knows that she has the prayerful as well as practical support of those she will be working alongside.
‘It has been my privilege, over the last three years, to oversee this ministry as it has developed,’ says Mark. ‘We know that we are making a difference as we provide pastoral care for a sector of society where people have been neglected because they are often lost to view. We are aware of tremendous human need often because of separation from normal health and other social services as well as vulnerabilities caused by extreme loneliness and sometimes mental health issues.
‘Our chaplains are Christian people drawn from many denominations and walks of life’ says Mark. ‘Some, like Debbie, are boaters of long experience, themselves living aboard and cruising the waterways system, while others are land based, but all agree to walk a section of towpath weekly, engaging those they meet in conversation very often to extraordinarily positive effect that we know is appreciated by those on the receiving end.’