Multi-faith group wants firmer footing for health chaplains

by
16 April 2009

by Pat Ashworth

FAITH communities should have a say in developments in hospital chaplaincy, says the Multi-Faith Group for Healthcare Chaplaincy (MFGHC).

The group is being funded by the Depart­ment of Health for three years “to prepare for its role as regulator for healthcare chaplains and chaplaincy”, a letter to all chaplains the week before last explains. There is pressure for chaplains to be accountable and regulated along with all health professionals, a recog­nition that, the MFGHC believes, would be of some benefit.

Chaplaincy has been under threat in some quarters, despite the positive endorsement given in a 2003 Department of Health report: NHS Chaplaincy: Meeting the religious and spiritual needs of patients and staff. Imple­men­tation of its recommendations was left to local health authorities. Services were in­creasingly reduced, and chaplains were made redundant.

The former Bishop of Worcester, Dr Peter Selby, described one decision by the Worces­ter­shire Acute Hospitals Trust as “a piece of destruction”: it had withdrawn two of its full-time chaplains and all its part-time chaplains in order to save money (News, 11 August 2006).

Chaplains, faced with the prospect of being a commissioned service, have found it hard to demonstrate by evidence the benefits of their work, as other clinical services are required to do. Some Trusts want to dispense with chap­lains altogether, and call instead on the volun­tary services of clergy in the surrounding area (News, 28 November 2008).

The MFGHC’s approach to regulation is to work closely with chaplaincy bodies, the Department of Health, the NHS and the faith communities to come up with a formal scheme of voluntary recognition. In this, it differs from the recently established and stand-alone UK Board of Healthcare Chaplaincy (UKBHC), affiliated to the trade union UNITE.

“We can see merit in their work . . . [but] chaplaincy should be more firmly rooted in a patient’s faith and belief than is evident in the model espoused by the membership bodies,” says the explanatory letter from Manhar Mehta, chairman of the MFGHC.

It continues: “The NHS, which provides all other aspects of the patient’s holistic care, should be party to those developments in chaplaincy. . . The faith communities which help form a chaplain’s spiritual being and practice should be party to it. . . The Health Professionals Council is not necessary the most appropriate body for healthcare chaplaincy.”

Chaplains were described in the January 2009 report Religion or Belief: A practical guide for the NHS as “an invaluable source of support for NHS managers and staff in providing advice, education and training on multi-faith issues”.

The Revd Edward Lewis, chief officer of MFGCH, says of their motivation: “We do it because our Lord told us to serve the sick. In this, we are representatives of our faith com­munities. You go there with a mandate from your Church and from the Health Authority that pays you.”

Chaplains were described in the January 2009 report Religion or Belief: A practical guide for the NHS as “an invaluable source of support for NHS managers and staff in providing advice, education and training on multi-faith issues”.

The Revd Edward Lewis, chief officer of MFGCH, says of their motivation: “We do it because our Lord told us to serve the sick. In this, we are representatives of our faith com­munities. You go there with a mandate from your Church and from the Health Authority that pays you.”

The consultation will be done “quietly and carefully, to have something ready in three years’ time if it’s needed. We welcome the initiative, and we’re trying to do things by including everybody and excluding nobody,” Mr Lewis said. He described most chaplains as “just getting on with their work”. The Church of England has 325 active and retired chap­lains.

Dr Geoffrey Harris, chairman of NHS South Central and of the General Optical Council, is to chair the reference group. The MFGHC believes that the project offers “the oppor­tunity to put healthcare chaplaincy more firmly on the NHS map than at any other time in recent years. The support we are receiving from the Department of Health and other parties needs to be turned towards a practical scheme of regulation which achieves professional status for healthcare chaplains.”

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