Guest Post – NHS Chaplains: Secularists keep getting it wrong
I find the National Secular Society (NSS) a frustrating bunch. Sometimes, they do a great job of opposing religious privilege, and sometimes their kneejerk opposition to anything that appears even slightly religious leads them into illiberality or simple factual error. Hospital chaplains are an example of this – they oppose them because they sound religious, with little or no understanding of what they actually do. Rather than attempt to tackle this issue myself, I asked a friend, Chiron, who happens to be a hospital chaplain, and he very kindly helped out with a rather more informed take on why chaplains aren’t the religious Trojan Horse the NSS are arguing against.
Here are Chiron’s thoughts on why the NSS have got it wrong.
Thanks to a freedom of information request some time ago by the National Secular Society, we now know that the NHS spends £29million a year on chaplaincy. Let’s naively take that figure at face value, but let’s also get some perspective on it. Last year, a UK citizen on median income paid about £2230 in National Insurance contributions, which we might also naively assume went towards paying for the NHS. Out of that £2230, our average citizen paid 61p towards NHS chaplaincy. Compare this with the £15.78 paid towards the cost of locum doctors (i.e. doctors who are employed on expensive contracts because the NHS can’t get its act together over out-of-hours working), or the £6.60 paid towards NHS management consultants.1 However, one of the most frequent criticisms made by some secularists of hospital chaplaincy isn’t about the money involved: it is that NHS chaplaincy is a religious service provided exclusively for a few religious people. Unfortunately for the secularists, this is just plain wrong.
This mistaken opinion seems to have been held not only by Dr Edward Presswood on Radio 4’s Today programme this week, but also by his interviewer, Justin Webb, who asked the question, ‘Is it the business of the NHS … to be providing chaplains, and indeed other efforts to give comfort to religious people …?’ Dr Presswood, for his part, not only seemed unable to distinguish between mature religious belief and a superstitious avoidance of the number 13, but stated that he thought chaplaincy was provided only for ‘one particular religious belief’.
If that were true, then of course NHS funded chaplaincy would be indefensible. But it’s not true. The hospital chaplains I know and have worked with spend only a minority of their time with people of explicit religious affiliation. Much more time is spent on people of no explicit religious belief, but whose illness has brought them to a place of uncertainty, anxiety, and questioning, and who ask the chaplain to accompany them through that experience. Far from being the narrow-minded purveyors of Bible-thumping religion often portrayed by some secularists, chaplains don’t proselytise (it’s against their code of conduct), and are bound by their professional standards to be open, accepting and non-judgemental to those who ask for their help. In my experience chaplains are likely to have well developed skills in secular ethics, philosophy, sociology and many other disciplines, and also often have a profound body of experience to draw on. Almost uniquely in the contemporary NHS, chaplains organise their time so as to give their patients the attention they need, rather than working strictly to timed appointments. I recently learned of a case where a chaplain was talking with a patient and their family. A doctor arrived, obviously in a hurry, ignored the presence of the chaplain, unceremoniously spent about two minutes telling the patient they were going to die, and left the room. The chaplain then spent most of the morning with that family as they began to find their way through the shock of their experience.
I won’t deny there are problems with NHS chaplaincy. I believe that largely because of a historically privileged position, chaplaincy is sometimes insufficiently professionalised in its approach. There are inconsistencies in provision and funding (why, for example, don’t we have more Humanist chaplains?), and despite years of discussion, there’s no firmly agreed programme of continuing professional education or compulsory registration. But these problems don’t feature in the arguments we’re currently hearing from secularists. They tend to argue simply that chaplaincy should be taken out of NHS hands altogether and, in effect, privatised by handing it over to religious organisations. My counter-argument is that this would make chaplaincy more narrowly religious, less helpful to patients, and virtually useless to NHS professionals and the institutions in which they work. A chaplain employed by a Church would see only patients who were members of that Church; a chaplain employed by the NHS is available for anyone. A chaplain employed by a Church would have no commitment or loyalty to the hospital they worked in. An NHS chaplain not only has that commitment and loyalty, but has an often explicit remit to help guide and challenge the institution when needed. The chaplain is also one of a usually small group of professionals whose role is to resist the tendency of modern technological biomedicine to see sick people merely as broken-down machines, and who try to affirm and promote the human values of good healthcare.
The bottom-line question on all sides of the discussion, however, is this: what does caring for the sick involve? If you believe that a sick person is qualitatively no different from a broken car engine, and that therefore the NHS is really only a Kwik-Fit repair centre for human beings, then cast your lot with the secularists and ask the Chancellor to refund your 61p each year. But if you believe that in addition to top-quality biomedical care, a sick person deserves to have someone with whom to discuss their decisions, anxieties and relationships, their past and their future, their nature as a complex being in a complex world – then is it just possible that your 61p a year might be worth it?
Image by xenia, used under MorgueFile License