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Health is Church’s ‘best-kept secret’

03 May 2013


Patron: St Luke, detail from Andrea Mantegna's St Lucas Altarpiece (1453-1454)

Patron: St Luke, detail from Andrea Mantegna's St Lucas Altarpiece (1453-1454)

CLERGY need support to counsel people with depression; GP practices with a Christian ethos can transform communities; and chaplaincy is a place for "uncomfortable" clergy. These were some of the views expressed at the Faith in Health and Healing conference, held last week in Birmingham.

Attended by more than 160 people, the conference was organised by the Anglican Health Network ( News, 22 February), and speakers included the Bishop of Oxford, the Rt Revd John Pritchard, and also international contributors, including theologians from Norway and Germany.

The director of chaplaincy services at St Luke's Episcopal Health System, in Houston, Texas, the Revd Gary Jones, described how the diocese's six hospitals are pioneering medical developments in the United States, performing more open-heart surgery than any other facility in the world, and running an online resource to help the uninsured and under-insured gain access to primary care. "Through the health system, our diocese really found its niche and focus," he said.

The Revd Dr Kjell Nordstokke, Professor of Theology at Diakonhjemmet University College, Oslo, explained how the Church in Norway ran four hospitals within the state health-care system, and regarded delivering health care as "the gospel in action".

A consultant in theological studies on health and healing at the German Institute for Medical Mission, Dr Beate Jakob, spoke about the results of a survey of 40 parishes which suggested that 62 per cent of pastors "do not feel very well-prepared for counselling people with depression". She has since helped to develop resources for churches, and suggested that clerics should consider working with psychiatrists to deliver services that explored depression.

Examples of specifically Christian health-care delivery in the UK included the Karis Medical Centre, in Birmingham. One of the partners, Dr Ross Bryson, described how a woman from Central Africa, who was staying in a hostel and seeking asylum, had seen her husband murdered before she arrived in the UK.

She was now "starting a new life in a caring community", which included talking to people at the surgery as part of a scheme to bring people together. Programmes run from the centre included English lessons, friendship schemes, help with filling in forms, and a community allotment.

During the second day of the conference, the Senior Chaplain of United Lincolnshire Hospitals NHS Trust, Canon Jeremy Pemberton, suggested that "chaplaincy is a place for uncomfortable clergy," which led to a discussion with the panel about the Church's treatment of gay clergy.

At the end of the two-day conference, there were calls for it to be repeated, and for better sharing of best practice to avoid congregations' "reinventing the wheel", with a particular need for advice on how churches engaged with commissioners of health care. Audience members questioned whether the involvement of churches in this field was "the best-kept secret in the Church in this country".

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