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Interview: Brendan McCarthy, C of E medical adviser

03 April 2020

‘I am concerned that there will be pressure to ease restrictions too soon’


It’s amazing to think I’ve been doing this for 11 years. My role as the C of E’s Adviser for Medical Ethics, Health, and Social Care Policy covers everything from before birth (embryology) to after death (organ donation). But currently my focus is on advising the Church in its response to Covid-19.

I was a hospital chaplain for seven years, then, for 14 years, I co-ordinated a community organisation that incorporated pastoral, social, and business outreach to the community.

For six years, I was an adviser to the Parades Commission of Northern Ireland; so I’m familiar with working with groups that have to make important decisions under pressure.

I live in Ireland; so I’m used to working remotely. The Republic of Ireland is probably a little bit behind mainland Britain, and Northern Ireland is probably a little bit more behind them, so this has given us a little bit more time to prepare.

People are preparing really well: taking advice, even though our government’s advice goes a little further. They say the Irish have only two responses: “Ach, it be all right,” or “Fair enough, we’ll do what we have to do.” Most are in the “fair enough” category.

We’re all Zooming like never before. My daughter and I lead two community choirs, and we also have a theatre company; so we continue with that. There are virtual pub quizzes with a pint of Guinness or a cup of tea, and a virtual clink of glasses. We do play readings together. Someone told me: “I’m sorry I can’t make it tonight. I’m too busy Zooming with other people.”

I’d been following the development of the outbreak closely since the start of the year with growing concern. A watershed moment for me was the death on 7 February of Li Wenliang, the heroic Chinese doctor whose early warnings were suppressed.

I’m neither English nor a member of the Church of England; so I think I can speak with a degree of impartiality. I believe that the Church’s response has been better than anyone could have expected. No one, anywhere, was prepared for this, but the Church has concentrated its energies in playing its part fully in a national effort to minimise the effects of the virus, and to create positive ways of enabling people to deal with the challenges that it has brought.

What’s impressed me most is the collegiate way in which people have worked together. Both within the Church and wider society, there has been a great pooling of minds, resources, and energies, with egos taking a back seat. In the words of Benjamin Clementine: “The greatest heroes in life are the anonymous.” That’s how it should be.

Already, doctors make difficult critical-care decisions based on probable clinical outcome. That’s not the same thing as triaging according to age. I don’t expect that to change with Covid-19.

For some people with this virus, age is a factor, but for some people it isn’t. My older daughter is an A&E doctor, and we’ve been talking about this question since she did some additional training to be a back-up in ICU. She was very clear, as other NHS doctors are, that the GMC [General Medical Council] guidelines are that every patient is treated according to their clinical need and the probable clinical outcome. I’m very supportive of that.

The suggestion that older people should accept an untimely death rather than cause financial hardship to younger people goes against the essential understanding of our human value and solidarity.

We cannot overstate the dedication and courage of the health-care professionals, including chaplains. They all have to calculate risk — from ICU consultant to every cleaner and ancillary worker — and they are deciding to put the welfare of the rest of us before their own. It’s not taken lightly. They’re fully aware of the risks they are taking, on your behalf and mine.

At present, chaplains and parish priests are able to conduct funeral services as normal, although funerals can take place only in the churchyard or crematorium, with only immediate family present. As the epidemic progresses, it might be necessary for services to be shorter, but there’s an absolute resolve from the C of E that a priest will be available for all funerals.

There is one simple overriding message: “Stay Home, Protect the NHS, Save Lives.” Everything that we can do by our words and by our example to drive that message home is essential, even if it means that we have to make painful sacrifices. Clergy worshipping at home demonstrates their identification with people who are living under the necessary restriction of not being able to go to their parish church.

Statistics don’t die or grieve; people do. My concern is for every individual and family who will have to face a challenge that they couldn’t have imagined a few weeks ago. I am also concerned that, when the peak of this epidemic has passed, that there will be pressure to ease restrictions too soon, resulting in a second upsurge in infections and deaths.

We don’t know when things can go back to normal, and it’s better to be honest about this than to give false assurances. The Chief Medical Officer has been very good in this regard. The range between the worst reasonable outcome and the best reasonable outcome is wide, but by preparing for the worst we can lessen the chances of it happening.

Many people are struggling to come to terms with the here-and-now, and that’s where our primary focus must be. But I hope we’ll take time to reflect on how we can do things better in the future. In particular, I hope we take the opportunity to press the reset button on the frenetic world that we had created.

The thing I’m looking forward to most when this is over is my weekly five-a-side football game.

I grew up in a rural, working-class Irish Catholic family, with a Church of Ireland grandfather. We were very close-knit and, unusually for the time, were encouraged to be independently minded free-thinkers. My brother and I were the first in our extended family to go to university. I’m now married with four adult children, and I’m delighted to say that we are also very close-knit, and our children are even more independently minded than I am.

I have a very vivid memory of my first identifiable experience of God. I was five or six years old, and was at a Benediction service with my father. The choir of the village chapel was chanting the Tantum Ergo, incense was rising, and I was surrounded by statues and religious art. I remember being overwhelmed with the sense that I was part of something bigger and greater than I could imagine, and that something was my real home.

I have sought actively to follow that “bigger and greater something” all my life. That has made me spiritually nomadic, though it has also enabled me to engage positively with a wide variety of Christian traditions and theologies (and other streams of thought). I am truly grateful to all of them without feeling part of any of them. I am very appreciative of Anglican diversity, greatly drawn to Quaker simplicity while, at the same time, loving the drama and beauty of Orthodox worship.

I love the noisy chaos of family meals, but I also love the sound of my dogs sleeping.

Football keeps me sane: playing, supporting, watching, discussing; and, conversely, drama and poetry: reading, writing, directing, and performing.

I’m very rigorous with myself on sources of inspiration. I have to find inspiration from within. While that very often comes through contemplation or reflection on the words and actions of others, I must be responsible for my own inspiration.

I don’t really experience prayer as a separate part of my life; so, whoever I’m with or whatever I’m doing or thinking about, that’s who or what I’m praying for. I love the Lord’s Prayer, and I keep it running in the background of my mind to help frame my interactions with others.

Eternity gives me infinite hope. For the immediate future, I find great hope in our God-inspired capacity to love, learn, create and enjoy, in spite of what life throws at us.

I’d choose to be locked in a church with Oscar Wilde. I think we’d laugh a lot, be terribly pretentious, and have a great conversation about spirituality and what it is that makes us human and might make us humane.

The Revd Dr Brendan McCarthy was speaking to Terence Handley MacMath.

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