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Leader: Chaplaincy in jeopardy

THERE ARE many reasons for the reduction in chaplaincy provision, outlined in the Theos report this week, but budget cuts by administrators hostile to religion are not chief among them. The most likely is the gradual shift of all but the most acute care out of hospitals. The trend is to cut stays in hospital to a day or two, if that. A new class of polyclinics is being planned, which bridge the gap between GPs’ surgeries and hospitals; and general practices are being encouraged to undertake more clinical work.

The problem is that this flow of care from hospitals can leave chaplaincy stranded in the past. Over the years, the Church has been successful in retaining reasonable provision of chaplains in hospitals. The advent of hospital trusts produced another layer of people who had to be convinced of the need for chaplains, and, by and large, they were. Their image, however, has been all too often that of a parish priest for their hospitals, ministering to patients who are unable to get to church. This imagined role becomes obsolete as patient visits become shorter. Since patients are not being removed from their communities (the argument goes), why should the NHS provide for pastoral care?

There are several presuppositions here. The first is that patients as a rule come from close, supportive communities. Many do not. Second, that day-patients can have no need of a chaplain, unlike resident patients, as if length of stay determines spiritual need. The biggest misconception, though, concerns the benefits that chaplains bring. When the NHS says that it is committed to holistic treatment, it is alarming that many trusts appear to take a mechanistic view of human beings, planning a future in which their responsibility will be merely to deal with physical symptoms, leaving “the community” with the task of making people whole.

The object of professional pastoral care is to improve clinical outcomes. Wise physicians recognise that spiritual care is invaluable in the process of healing. The advent of illness commonly triggers a spiritual crisis, as the sufferer is forced to assimilate new, unlooked-for experiences into a world-view that had not allowed for them. The pressing need at this point is ready access to an able and experienced priest, someone who can provide pastoral help or sacramental assurance, as appropriate. A chaplain provides not only this, often with colleagues of other faiths, but also works to support and educate the rest of the medical staff in dealing with the spiritual and psychological challenges that contribute to ill health.

Chaplains have been forced increasingly to fulfil inappropriate monitoring exercises, have had access to patients restricted, or have even been made redundant. As new plans for NHS care are being formulated, the Church must promote a radical celebration of the healing that chaplains bring to people at their most vulnerable.

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