THE pastoral and spiritual needs of patients who identify as having no religion are not being met because almost all health-care chaplains in the UK are Christian, a new report suggests.
Its methodology has been strongly criticised by the Church of England, however.
The study was commissioned by the NHS in 2017 — in the context of the Equality Act 2010 — to understand better how people from underrepresented and marginalised groups experienced religion, belief, and non-belief in the workplace.
The final report, Fit for the 21st Century?, was published this month by the Network for Pastoral, Spiritual, and Religious Care in Health (NPSRCH), which promotes “high-quality, person-centred” pastoral support in health care for both religious and non-religious persons.
It states: “While there is undoubtedly excellent practice, and the non-exclusive approach of many staff and volunteers should be commended, NHS chaplaincy services today are, for the most part, provided by and to those with Christian beliefs. The current system seemingly does little to try and address this issue. . .
“It is hard to understand why attempts to address such damning conclusions about inequality have not been taken forward more effectively.”
In its survey of 99 NHS acute trusts between April 2018 and March 2019, two-thirds (66 per cent) of the more than three million episodes of care recorded were Christian; one quarter were non-religious. Of the 211,578 chaplaincy visits recorded in this time, 94 per cent were to Christian patients.
“When we consider that this question does not relate to specific referral requests, but accounts for all recorded interactions with patients (e.g. bedside visits etc.), there is a clear bias towards Christian patients,” the report states.
Of the more than 78,000 patient referrals to pastoral support in this time, 85 per cent were to Christian chaplaincies (C of E, Roman Catholic, and Free Churches). The report points to a YouGov survey in 2017 which showed that 96 per cent of non-religious people did not make use of a chaplain, despite 45 per cent indicating that they would if one were available.
The report acknowledges that “this disparity is to be expected, as there is a higher number of Christian patients (up to 67 per cent); however, the huge disparity between care for Christians and non-Christians requires immediate, further examination.”
Simon O’Donoghue, who chairs the NPSRCH and represents the non-religious group, writes in the report: “Some of this inequality is born out of a rapidly changing external context, with chaplaincy services having been originally developed at a time when the nature of our society was very different. However, as society has become increasingly plural and non-religious, it is important that services evolve to reflect such changes.”
The report recommends that NHS managers review and “reprioritise” the current provisions and advance the inclusion of underrepresented groups. These are minority faith groups, non-religious groups, minority groups within faiths (e.g. Ethiopian Jews and Coptic Christians), and disadvantaged groups including BAME people, LGBT people, people with disabilities, and women).
Chaplaincy managers, it states, should also be more proactive in including underrepresented groups, chaplaincy bodies should have a greater focus on training and development, and the NHS should call for greater investment and attention in this area.
A Church of England spokesperson, however, said that the report was “fundamentally flawed”. In a statement in the appendix, they write: “Regrettably, the Church of England cannot endorse this report.
“We welcome ways of exploring how the pastoral, spiritual and religious needs of patients can best be met through comprehensive and inclusive healthcare chaplaincy, but, unfortunately, this report is fundamentally flawed in its premises, methodology, content, and governance. We view this report as a missed opportunity, and we cannot support its publication.”
The Bishop of Carlisle, the Rt Revd James Newcome, who is the lead bishop for health care, agreed, on Tuesday. “These concerns were echoed in the foreword to the report by Paul Deemer, Head of Diversity and Inclusion at NHS Employers, who stated: ‘In terms of the final set of recommendations, we would strongly support the call for more research to be carried out.’”