The growing need for Anna Chaplains to offer spiritual support to older people

The growing need for Anna Chaplains to offer spiritual support to older people

Debbie Thrower (pictured above), founder of Anna Chaplaincy writes…

‘What makes life worth living for you?’ It’s a good opening question when chatting to someone getting on in years. The conversation that follows is likely to give a clue as to the person’s spirituality, what’s made them who they are today and their hopes for the future. 

Anna Chaplaincy for Older People began in Alton. It’s thanks to a collaboration between Anglicans and Methodists in the town that the idea got off the ground back in 2010.

I was the first Anna Chaplain and now there are more than 260 across the UK. From the start, I’d thought how much my own parents could have benefited from such a chaplain… ‘Why aren’t these everywhere?’ I wondered.

Over time there was so much interest from further afield that by 2014 we needed a website and an infrastructure. That’s where BRF (Bible Reading Fellowship) came in. I’d been reading their Bible notes since I was confirmed as a teenager and seen the success they’d had scaling up Messy Church (which also began in a Hampshire church incidentally). Alton gifted the concept to BRF, knowing the charity’s track record for incubating grassroots Christian initiatives.

The name is inspired by the widow Anna who appears with Simeon in Luke’s gospel – both fine role models of faithful older people. Candlemas is the season of celebrating the way Simeon and Anna waited expectantly for God to do what he promised. It was they who recognised the baby Jesus as the longed-for Messiah. So, far from being old and stuck in their ways, looking to the past, they were the ones alert and ready to embrace the new!

The name ‘Anna’ means gift, or grace, and this ministry is a gracious Christian offering to the local community irrespective of whether people go to church or not. Most Anna Chaplains are voluntary and giving generously of their time. Some are paid, as is the current Alton Anna Chaplain, Kate Powell. The village of Littleton also has a paid Anna Chaplain, Karen Markiewicz. Generally, though, churches haven’t proved as keen to employ older people’s chaplains or support staff as they are salaried youth workers.

Anna Chaplaincy event at Parish of the Resurrection, Alton, run by chaplain Kate Powell. The day included hand massages, lavender bag making, Advent praying and afternoon tea.

On average, each Anna Chaplain has eight volunteers helping alongside them, a survey shows*. Some are known as Anna Friends and are sent out on behalf of their church congregations in just the same way as Anna Chaplains.

Our core team at BRF guides new recruits and their incumbents or ministers – who all come from many different denominations – on the best ways of supporting their Anna Chaplains, offering advice about line management, supervision, how to raise funds locally, and publicise the ministry.

A six-week online training course training is offered throughout the year for new Anna Chaplains, as well as those seriously considering their vocation to draw alongside older people and carers in this person-centred, non-judgmental way. It covers topics such as listening skills, safeguarding, the spirituality of ageing, dementia and worship in care homes. There are also themed workshops for continuing professional development.

Your church might like to run our Spiritual Care Series course, for example, suitable for small groups such as pastoral visitors. It features video clips presented by Professor John Swinton (author of Dementia – Living in the Memories of God). Find out more at

Latest figures show 1.6 million people are aged 85 years and over; by 2043, this cohort is projected to nearly double to 3.0 million**. In view of our rapidly ageing population, churches who plan now will reap the benefits; more people rich in years and experience receiving the support of Anna Chaplains, and others finding renewed meaning and purpose in life exercising their gifts to become Anna Chaplains themselves.    

DIARY DATE: On 2 February at 5.45pm, Portsmouth Cathedral is holding the first ‘Anna Service’ to celebrate Candlemas and Anna Chaplaincy. Bishop Jonathan Frost is presiding, and Debbie Thrower will preach. All are welcome!

*Impact Survey 2021, Where we are a decade on, (BRF)

**Office for National Statistics (ONS)