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‘Tread warily in health care’

22 February 2013

SALISBURY CATHEDRAL

Hands on: Steve Williams, Salisbury's Cathedral's facilities manager, demonstrates how to use one of two new defibrillators installed last week at the Cathedral

Hands on: Steve Williams, Salisbury's Cathedral's facilities manager, demonstrates how to use one of two new defibrillators installed last wee...

CHURCHES working in health-care institutions need to work sensitively and transparently, a new report from the Anglican Health Network says.

But their ministry is needed: patients are suffering the ill-effects of "dehumanisation" in the health service because faith is undervalued in the secular world of modern medicine, it says.

Prepared in advance of a conference on the health-mission and healing ministries of churches in April, the report Faith in Health and Healing: Integrating the Church with health services suggests that "the denuding of compassionate, spiritual care in favour of an increasingly secularised scientific interventionism has been detrimental to the notion of holistic wellbeing." People should "not be treated as mere biomechanical machines".

The report includes an overview of the historical relationship between the Church and medicine, noting that, as the latter devised new treatments and cures, it might have "replaced religion as the primary source of hope and salvation".

Medicine has "not lived up to expectations", however, and the challenge to health today lies in "personal and communal behaviours". Churches might be able to play a part in preventative medicine by helping people to make changes to their lifestyles; and Christian experience has "resources to support people in pain, and to strengthen them to die".

The report suggests that "faith is in fact becoming more valued in the pursuit of health", and cites examples of churches and Christians engaging in health mission.

It suggests that "the language and action of healing may . . . provide a less threatening paradigm in which the Church can engage in its holistic mission." It warns, however, that "there may be a popular perception that religious institutions act conditionally, in order to evangelise. This needs sensitive and transparent handling, where a Christian institution is in danger of perceived partiality and exploitation of the vulnerable."

Delivering health services as part of the NHS's "mixed economy", a controversial development, also requires a considered approach, the report argues, to avoid "simply being opportunistic . . . churches should not be naïve about the political and professional interests at stake."

The report recognises the challenges in addressing people's spiritual needs in the health service: "It is feared that any partiality about spiritual matters shown by the clinician may become harmful." Prayer, it says, remains particularly controversial: it "introduces transcendence, and crosses boundaries that are constructed to maintain secular space".

It is, however, "incumbent upon churches to reassert the true nature of personhood". The examples of Burrswood Christian Hospital in Kent, and of Christian GPs who have "become increasingly confident in establishing overtly Christian practices", are cited.

Last Friday, the Revd Paul Holley, Co-ordinator of the Anglican Health Network, said he suspected most health professions would hold back from offering prayer: "There is a great deal of uncertainty about the place of prayer in a clinical relationship. It doesn't sit neatly within the realms of scientific evidence-based care."

More information about the Faith in Health and Healing conference is here

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