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‘Secular space’ round the NHS

19 April 2013

Madeleine Davies previews next week's Faith in Health and Healing conference

SHUTTERSTOCK

WHEN Christians who work in the NHS appear in the headlines, it is usually because they are embroiled in controversy, often entailing a legal dispute. A Christian GP was given an official warning last year by the General Medical Council for discussing his faith with a patient in an "inappropriate" way (News, Comment, 22 June 2012).

Among the 1.7 million people employed by the NHS there are thousands of Christians whose faith informs their work. Meanwhile, Christians and churches are seeking to reach out to those with health problems. How are they to negotiate the boundaries constructed to maintain the "secular space" of the NHS?

The co-ordinator of the Anglican Health Network, the Revd Paul Holley, believes that there is a pressing need to explore this question. He is one of the organisers of the Faith in Health and Healing conference due to take place in Birmingham next week.

"Churches are responding to the needs around them, and recognising that health depends on more than access to health services," he says. "They are establishing activities that support people with health and well-being, and [they are] increasingly relating to health services that want to reach out to communities."

Jim McManus, who is director of public health, Hertfordshire, and adviser to the Catholic Bishops' Conference of England and Wales, is one of the speakers at the conference. He believes that the most significant challenge that faces Christians who are seeking to engage in health care is one of credibility, partly because of scandals involving child abuse. His talk will focus on how a Christian's faith will inform his or her work in the field.

"It varies by situation and circumstance," he says. "Where someone is working in the secular NHS, the challenge is to show that we create something of value, without shoving Christ down people's throats."

With reference to Matthew 7.16 ("By their fruits you will know them"), Mr McManus argues that "the best strategy . . . is to deliver values which the NHS recognises as being what they want: compassion, concern for the person, holistic care. These are all good Christian values, but all things that the NHS acknowledges that it needs."

He believes that, despite the "boundaries constructed to maintain the secular space" referred to in an recent Anglican Health Network report, Faith in Health and Healing (News, 22 February), there are instances in which "the lines are already blurred", such as the prayer clinics offered in some GP surgeries. Part of his talk will be dedicated to discussing suitable guidelines for such operations.

The report warned that "the denuding of compassionate, spiritual care in favour of an increasingly secularised scientific interventionism has been detrimental to the notion of holistic well-being."

Participants at the conference will hear from international speakers who have reversed the tide, including the Revd Dr Kjell Nordstokke, Professor of Theology at Diakonhjemmet University College, Oslo, who will discuss the practice of diakonia in Church hospitals in Norway, where each ward has a diakonal nurse who spends 20 per cent of her time addressing the Christian values of the institution.

Another speaker at the conference is the Honorary Professor of Practical Theology at Queens Foundation, John Hull. He has been blind since 1980, and is the author of Touching the Rock: An experience of blindness (republished as a "classic" by SPCK next month). He will be discussing a "theology of plural worlds", and will address the "long shadow of prejudice found in the Bible, and continued in the hymn books".

He explains: "The attitudes which encourage faith in miracles, and which link disability with sin, must be denounced. The dominance of concepts of wholeness, perfection, and normality which create a single world - a world from which disabled people are excluded - must be denounced.

"If such proclamation is not carried through vigorously, Christians will have little or nothing to say to those who think that Christian faith is part of the problem, and not part of the answer."

The conference will be closed by the Bishop of Carlisle, the Rt Revd James Newcome, the lead bishop for health-care issues in the Church of England. He believes that the NHS is open to the concept of "generic spirituality".

"One of the things we are able to emphasise," he says, "is that we are not pushing confessional Christianity, as it were, in hospitals, but we are concerned with what is nowadays called generic spirituality. . . I think almost everybody recognises that everyone has a spiritual dimension to their life . . . and we are able to tap into that."

Forthcoming Events

27 November 2021
An Advent Retreat with Poetry and Music
With Esther de Waal, Gregory Cameron, Peter Graystone, Richard Carter, and Rachel Mann.

25 January 2022
Preaching Lament and Hope
A Durham workshop from the College of Preachers.

More events

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