"LOSE 14 lbs in 3 weeks." The Methodist chapel in Bolton had,
for years, posted Bible verses on hoardings to inspire passers by.
Now, its message was altogether different. Not so much save the
soul as trim the body.
Church halls have hosted weight-loss groups for years. They are
a cheap and cheerful space for hire at the heart of communities,
where diet disciples can strengthen themselves through confession,
grace, and sacrifice to forgo a world of temptation, and avoid the
perils of obesity.
And avoid them they must. The national body-weight index has now
ballooned to crisis proportions. Some churches are taking a more
serious look at the shapes and sizes of the bodies around them.
And, while weight-loss franchise groups might once have been seen
as a moneyspinner (to keep the church hall in paint and roof
tiles), now, the aerobic sessions and public weigh-ins seem like
the front line for the health of the nation.
The health think tank the Kings Fund suggests that "Sixty to 70
per cent of premature deaths are caused by behaviours that could be
changed." This figure does not distinguish between mental and
physical health: indeed, it includes accidents, and the effects of
environmental factors such as pollution, and allows for the impact
of housing and employment on the general well-being of a
By losing weight, moderating our drinking, and spending more
time on our feet, we reduce the risks of disease. The
health-promotion activist Dr David Katz says: "Not only do we add
years to our lives: we also add life to our years."
The medical profession will still strive to meet the challenge
of our sicknesses, but it will be our personal and collective
embrace of health which will save us: prevention rather than
The urgency of the task should not be understated. With so much
media attention focused on the funding and reorganisation of the
NHS, we too easily miss the big picture. Demand for health services
is rising rapidly - hospitals experienced a 5.6-per-cent increase
in GP referrals in the year to July 2014; elective procedures
increased by 3.5 per cent.
With an ageing population, and the rise in lifestyle-related
diseases, the NHS may never catch up. The chief executive of NHS
England, Simon Stevens, recently declared: "Obesity is the new
smoking gun, and it represents a slow-motion car crash in terms of
avoidable illness and rising health-care costs."
OTHER pioneering initiatives demonstrate that churches are
adopting proactive, participative approaches to the health of the
person. Many of these work on the basis that if people address
health in conjunction with spirituality, the capacity to change
behaviours is increased. They will become healthier.
The Daniel Plan - devised by an American pastor, Rick Warren,
and a stellar line-up of celebrity doctors, in response to his
realisation that most people in his church were obese - is one new
intervention, and it is now available in the UK. St Jude's,
Plymouth, has this year launched its preliminary Daniel Plan
The plan, published by Zondervan, recalls the successful
vegetarian diet of the Old Testament character. Its mix of biblical
inspiration and congregational programming opens up a bold new
model for living: it has an integrated concept in which body, mind,
and spirit gain equal attention.
The latest dietary advice and fitness plans are backed up by the
motivation offered by small-group and congregational-peer support.
Those preparing for their next Lenten fast will find that the
programme conveniently provides "40 days to a healthier life". And,
despite the implication of the plan, omnivores are welcome.
A more British phenomenon, the healthy-living centre, caught the
attention of both politicians and clergy under New Labour's reign.
They were designed to encourage participation in health and
well-being activities among members of hard-to-reach communities.
After the ground-breaking example of the Bromley by Bow Centre, the
model was exported to other churches. St Edmund's, Dartford, was
among the most prominent. It has a new church building that seeks
to integrate its pastoral, liturgical, and health-related
Art classes, community cafés, complementary therapies, music
groups, and formal health services are all common features of the
remaining centres. They support people in reorientating their
perspective to healthy patterns of life.
Other churches, such as St Peter's, Harrow, host GP surgeries
and help to generate community participation in health-promotion
activities. Many Christian GP practices work with church
congregations to expand the breadth of health-related
Karis Medical Centre, Birmingham, pioneered chaplaincy for its
practice, as well as a city-wide community-based sports programe,
Sport4Life. Working with churches led to the establishment of the
Karis Neighbour Scheme, which enables volunteers to care for people
in a wide variety of ways.
Burrswood, a Christian hospital, recently introduced a
counselling programme to address the emotional factors in weight
gain. Shame and low self-esteem are typical symptoms facing those
who exercise a healing ministry. The chicken-and-egg conundrum of
declining self-esteem and increasing weight requires a gentle
ministry of encouragement alongside the practical action required
to modify diet and lifestyle.
As policy-makers agonise about how to organise social care in an
ageing society, churches have again taken the lead. There are
church-led initiatives that provide professional services to the
elderly: some, such as Prama, in Dorset, utilise strong daily
participation by their supporting churches to mix voluntary support
with paid home-based care.
Rotherfield St Martin describes itself as a church-in-community
charity. Its member-based voluntary association supports elderly
and vulnerable people in the village of Rotherfield, near
Crowborough, in East Sussex, with a comprehensive package of
services to enable people to be able to stay in their own homes.
Services provided for villagers include social activities,
befriending, health promotion, computer training, dementia care,
exercise, and volunteer drivers and dog-walkers, among others.
SO HOW does the Church articulate a theology of health? And how
might this influence our mission? Clinicians and clergy share much
in common: one profession assumes that the sick are seeking health;
and the other assumes that the sinful are seeking salvation. Both
contend with suffering. But, with the advance of medical science,
clinicians have gained the lion's share of attention. The cure is a
more tantalising prospect than the care; the focus is on this world
rather than the next.
The medical profession, however, often fails to consider the
whole person. The King's Fund refers to "patient activation", while
the independent charity the Health Foundation has a programme on
"self-management". These are technocratic references to what the
"patients" can do for themselves to keep well. But these are far
from offering a compelling account of healthy personhood.
The former Archbishop of Canterbury Lord Williams has suggested
that true health is the reconciliation of flesh and spirit. This
affirms the underlying nature of personhood. But we would want to
know more about the value and purpose of flesh in that encounter.
Even if we recognise flesh and blood in our eucharist, its meaning
is rarely expressed through contingent bone and muscle.
The sheer optimism of life in the era of health demands a
theology that celebrates the body and the mind, not simply the
Theologians such as the Revd Professor John Atherton and
Professor Elaine Graham, who have responded to the happiness
discourse set out by Lord Layard (New Labour's former "happiness
tsar") and his associates, note that growing prosperity does not
necessarily deliver improved well-being.
Their emphasis on health-promoting relationships and social
capital provides insight into what might allow people to thrive,
but the health implications are, as yet, underdeveloped. The
challenge will be to provide theological pointers for the "good
things" that we should actively pursue in order to bring resilience
to mind and body.
"Health and wealth" Pentecostalists would argue that God
provides these goods for those who ask (and give). But, even if we
accept that the conditions for good health need to be apprehended
by people through their own individual and collective efforts, can
we say, with the authors of The Daniel Plan, that
transforming our health is a divinely inspired vocation?
Harold Koenig, who is a veteran researcher into the effects of
faith on health, notes that, while churchgoers gain many health
benefits from their worship and fellowship, they tend to be a
little more overweight than the average. Is this something to do
with all those cakes and quiches served at church socials?
The Daniel Plan is thus a timely intervention. It is backed by
huge resources, and could appeal to the aspirations of a large
swath of British people. It could conceivably overtake the Alpha
Course as an evangelistic strategy. More than just answering
questions and touching spiritual sensitivities, it confronts what
we are as physical persons. It addresses our capacity to live
The 2012 report to the General Synod Health Care and the
Church's Mission highlighted the unintended trend away from
local voluntary action for health. It noted that the formation of
the NHS generated inexorable momentum for a centralised, state-led
monopoly of care. The temptation amid the swirl of political debate
is to conflate the health of the people with the capacities of the
As the contributors to Anglican Social Theology, edited
by Malcolm Brown, point out, post-liberal and Evangelical
theologies suggest a more varied and participative approach to the
welfare of the people. Models of practice noted earlier suggest
that these theologies are likely to lead us into the future.
Perhaps the language of the "health of the people" should become
more audible in the Church, and thus become a driver for local
participatory action. A substantial opportunity for mission could
be before us.
The Revd Paul Holley is Co-ordinator of the Anglican Health
Network, and Vicar of Christ Church, Colbury.