Work Life: Reverend Sally Hitchiner

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Reverend Sally Hitchiner, 32, is an ordained priest and works as the senior chaplain and interfaith adviser at Brunel University. She lives in Uxbridge, Middlesex

When I was younger, I used to lock myself in the loo so I didn’t have to go to church. Now, I live five minutes away from where I work as a chaplain and lead services regularly in my local parish. I never imagined I would become a priest or a chaplain, but when I wake up at 7.30am and check my emails and tweets from students on my laptop, I feel happy.

My role’s different to a normal priest or vicar. Although I’m ordained and conduct weddings, funerals and services in my spare time, I spend Mondays to Fridays as senior chaplain [a religious minister, based at a secular institution] at Brunel University.

I’m there to provide support and guidance for all students, whatever their faith. One of my main roles at the chaplaincy is to help people who aren’t religious understand other religions. This can make you a better manager, friend and human being.

I’m keen that, as a priest, I’m still myself. I don’t see the point in dressing like I’m 45 if I’m 32. So I own a dog collar-like bib that slots under anything. In the morning, instead of a specialist vicar shirt, I put on Topshop skinny jeans and a colourful Zara shirt, topping it off with my collar. All priests live close to where they work, because they’re always on call (I’m alerted if a student attempts suicide, for example, and I’ll drive straight to the hospital). So it doesn’t take me long to walk into the office from the four-bed cottage that the church has provided for me. (People always ask if priests are allowed boyfriends. The answer is yes, but live alone at the moment.)

I’ll pick up a skinny latte from the local coffee shop and meet with my PA to go over everything that’s happened in the last 24 hours, and the plans for the day. My morning will be a whirlwind of appointments and events. Students come into the chaplaincy for lots of reasons – most people who come to chat aren’t Christian but have some thoughts about what happens when we die, or have big questions about life that they want to explore.

At lunchtime, I’ll grab a salad from the canteen on campus. If I’m walking round the university it will take me forever to get from A to B because I’ll get stopped by students or staff members – so I factor in extra time. They tell you in my job that you’ll face life and death. What they don’t tell you, is that you’ll face it in the same afternoon. One minute, I’ll meet someone who has had a baby, and the next it’ll be someone who has lost their best friend. The other day I got a call from a student’s father who had found out he had a brain tumour. He didn’t know how to break the news to his son who was at university. We asked the student to come into the chaplaincy and waited in the next room while he spoke to his dad. We wanted to make sure he wasn’t alone.

I have to be prepared to deal with everything in my job. I used to work for a Christian charity in boarding schools. I saw so many lives transformed by praying or realising that God loved them. So that started me thinking about working for the church.

The interview process for becoming a vicar is intense, ending in a three-day ‘residential’ interview with discussions about controversial topics like war and abortion to make sure you feel secure talking about whatever someone throws at you.

It’s been 20 years since the Church of England started ordaining women as priests. I’m glad we took the time to win over so many who were opposed and now we have potential for women bishops it’s finally saying loud and clear that the church believes in us.

I do spend a lot of one-on-one time with students. But, in the afternoon, I pop into the community groups such as the LGBT [Lesbian, Gay Bisexual and Transgender] Society, that meet in the chaplaincy. I also run an Agnostics Anonymous group for people who don’t want to be religious, but want to find out more. This takes up a lot of my time in the evenings, so when I get home at 10.30pm, I’ll finish last night’s leftovers, watch something like The Great British Bake Off and drift off to sleep at about midnight.

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