Secularists seek to end NHS pay for hospital chaplains

16 April 2009

by Pat Ashworth

Other gifts? Hospital chaplains are under attack JUPITER

Other gifts? Hospital chaplains are under attack JUPITER

A CALL by the National Secular Society (NSS) for the NHS to stop funding chaplaincy services has been widely condemned. The biggest union in the country, UNITE, described its assumptions as “erro­neous and simplistic”.

The society said last week that chaplaincy services cost the NHS around £40 million, a sum it says would be better spent on nursing and cleaning staff. Terry Sanderson, presi­dent of the NSS, emphasised: “We are not asking for an end to chaplaincy services, but we are asking that the taxpayer not be made responsible for them.

“In these times of financial stringency, hospitals are going to have to think very carefully about how they spend their budgets. Hospital chaplains are not on most people’s list of essential services in a healthcare setting.” Religious sup­port for patients “could be done as part of the [local] clergy’s regular duties”, he suggested.

UNITE, which embraces the College of Healthcare Chaplains, said that chaplains added value to the NHS. Having them in hospitals meant that fully stretched nurses, particularly at night, did not have to balance the needs of bereaved families when other patients needed urgent care. “Nurses know they can rely on the availability of a pro­fessional chaplain,” a union spokes­man said.

The union also criticised the NSS report for “concentrating its fire” on the Church of England. The union’s former president, the Revd Dr Chris Swift, described the NSS report as “based on erroneous and simplistic assumptions that do not delve into the real work that chaplains from all faiths carry out in the NHS on a daily basis in often emotionally fraught situations”.

A spokesman for the Department of Health said in a statement: “We are committed to the principle of en­suring that NHS patients have access to the spiritual care they want, whatever faith or belief system they follow. Chaplains do an extremely demanding job, often in difficult circumstances, and their skill and dedication is highly valued by patients, relatives and staff within the health service.”

A spokesman for the Church of England said: “Spiritual healthcare has long been acknowledged by both medical practitioners and the Churches to be an intrinsic part of caring for people in hospital. NHS Trusts pay for chaplaincies because they see them as part of their duty of care to patients, not because the Churches force them to.”

The director of Theos, a theology think tank, described hospital chap­laincy as “not an optional extra”, and the £32 million as “a tiny fraction” of the annual NHS budget of £100 billion. “The choice for NHS trusts is not between the clinical or pastoral needs of patients. Clearly, trusts are under financial pressure, but if they are to provide holistic care, the provision of appropriate chaplaincy support must be a priority,” it said.

But some chaplains acknowledged that there was a debate to be had. The Revd Chris Johnson, chaplaincy manager for Bradford NHS Trust, said that the NHS funded chaplaincy “in a very haphazard way”, and the NSS had highlighted a need for chaplains’ work to be more widely understood.

“There are so many different models of chaplaincy over the country, and no standardised expec­ta­tion of what chaplaincy should be doing. If I’m a physiotherapist, I know what I can expect. It’s not the same with chaplains. You get some who are very religious and provide nothing but religious care; and you get people at the other end of the scale who are very similar to social workers.

“Until we get a standardised ex­pec­tation of what chaplains are about in the NHS, what they should be doing, and how chaplaincy should be funded, then this is going to keep coming to the fore.”


Should hospital chaplains still be funded by the NHS? Vote here.


Should hospital chaplains still be funded by the NHS? Vote here.

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