Michael Bourdeaux (CO 52) Cruise Chaplain Experience

Every year, since 1952, I’ve travelled somewhere abroad and as a student did holiday jobs accompanying American tourists around Europe. Eventually I became a lecturer on cruises for Saga, one a year, visiting mainly the Baltic and Black Seas. More recently they invited me to become a cruise chaplain, which I did last year to Iceland and last month to the Mediterranean.

What a privilege – but it does come with responsibilities! You are chaplain to the whole ship, not just to the passengers. The captains’ word is law, but they are invariably helpful in supporting the chaplain and often reading a lesson at services.

Officiating at a service for the crew is a special privilege and I always note how intense is the concentration. Many of the crew are from the Philippines; they are young and have to leave their families behind for months at a time. It’s so touching that, although Catholics, they receive communion from an Anglican and sing their hearts out.

They sing, too, at the beginning of the services for the passengers which the chaplain organizes. Space is always found for a Sunday service and the ship has a “Chaplain’s Chest”, which contains hymn books, prayer books and a register of services, which must be fully recorded – including the amount of the collection, invariably generous and for one or more charities which the captain or I nominate. In this way I’ve been able to help charities with which I’m associated – working for the devastated people of Syria and disabled children in Ukraine, on the recent cruise. This time our last full day was a Saturday, so the cruise director invited me to conduct a farewell service. As we were in the Mediterranean, I chose to preach about St Paul and his sea journeys. There were several other clergy (including women) on our recent cruise and I invited them, as well as some lay people, to participate fully in the services.

The turnout is invariably good and everyone, I think, appreciates the contrast with the very secular activities which are taking place most of the time. On this recent cruise we were in Gibraltar on a Sunday and some of us were able to attend the morning service in the Anglican cathedral, which the ship (Saga Pearl II) kindly advertised on the daily programme. You are invited, if you wish, to be an escort for some of the shore excursions, which, beyond counting heads on an off buses, gives you the opportunity to get to know some people better.

There are much more private times, too. Every day at sea (but not in port) there is a Chaplain’s Hour in a corner of the library. I put up a little notice and people can come individually or in a small group to talk in reasonable privacy. If anyone wants to talk really privately, that of course can be arranged and is a priority. You must be ready, too, to take communion to a sick passenger if requested. Wives are invited and Lorna, to whom I’ve been married for 37 years, is invariably such a help that I couldn’t do without her. On this occasion she exercised a truly demanding ministry, spending many hours with a female crew member who was in distress. Meals are open sittings, so each time my wife and I tried to meet different passengers – very rewarding.

On return I wrote a report for the Venerable Arthur Hawes, retired Archdeacon of Lincoln, who appoints the chaplains. I had told him that I felt that at my age I should retire, having enjoyed innumerable lovely experiences. Within a week he came back to me, inviting me to do another!

Michael Bourdeaux’ father was the village baker at Praze-an-Beeble. He started at Treliske in 1942 and caught the last Magson year at the main school, leaving in 1952. His languages stood him in good stead, being selected for the National Service Russian Course at the Joint Services School for Linguists, run by Cambridge University. This changed his whole life. St Edmund Hall, Oxford, followed, reading Russian and French, then Theology, and he was selected to be a member of the first-ever student exchange to the Soviet Union, joining the post-graduate school of Moscow State University (studying Russian medieval history, 1959-60).

Ordination followed and a curacy in the Anglican Church. However, the Moscow experience dominated his life, as he saw unfolding the first wave of a new period of religious persecution under Nikita Khrushchev. Not finding anywhere to pursue his study of the Russian Church, he founded a new organization, Keston College, as it became known, located in Kent, with the aim of documenting the persecution and defending religious liberty. His colleagues and he aimed to set the record straight in a series of press services, journals and books, eventually covering the whole communist world.

With the collapse of communism his work changed and it moved to Oxford, where the university temporarily sponsored it. Eventually the archive, which was extensive by the 1990s, moved to Baylor University, Texas, where it is cherished and developed as a research centre.

In recognition of his work, Michael was elected a Bard of the Cornish Gorsedd. He became an honorary canon of Rochester Cathedral and received a doctorate from the Archbishop of Canterbury. In 1984 he received the Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion in recognition of his work on behalf of the persecuted church. He lives in Iffley, Oxford, where he helps out in his local church when invited and also lectures from time to time (the next scheduled one is in Lviv, Ukraine, in October).