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Bishop of London urges clergy to work with GPs

26 May 2023

‘Social prescribing’ of local initiatives a key theme of medical conference

Luke Resch

The Bishop of London, the Rt Revd Sarah Mullally, addresses the conference

The Bishop of London, the Rt Revd Sarah Mullally, addresses the conference

CHURCHES can do great work in collaboration with charities and health services for the betterment of people’s mental well-being, the Bishop of London, the Rt Revd Sarah Mullally, told a conference last week.

The conference, organised by ChurchWorks in collaboration with Waveley Abbey College and hosted at Westminster Chapel in London, drew together representatives from a range of denominations, along with medical practitioners and charities, to discuss work already being done, and directions in which it could develop.

Social prescribing, in which doctors refer people to community initiatives as part of holistic treatment for mental-and physical-health issues, was a particular focus throughout the day.

Bishop Mullally reflected on the ways in which churches could aid the work of social prescribers. “At the heart of social prescribing is the need to connect people. It relies on connecting people with other people and with resources, with welcoming and supportive contexts, and that’s exactly what churches do: we build networks and provide safe spaces which combat social isolation, which has a profound impact on people’s health,” she said.

And she encouraged church leaders who were running programmes already to get in contact with NHS facilitators. “Ring up your GP and ask who your social prescriber is, and have a conversation about what you can offer,” she said.

The conference was opened with a a video message from the Archbishop of Canterbury. He told those attending that “faith doesn’t mean the absence of mental-health challenges, but it does mean that there is comfort for us when we are experiencing hard times. . . The Church can and should be a place where we’re comfortable talking about mental health.”

Archbishop Welby has previously revealed that he suffers from depression, and is taking anti-depressants (News, 12 October 2017; News, 21 October 2019).

“We need to be quick to support people in church as well as working closely with mental-health professionals,” he said. “The pastoral and spiritual care of the Church is not a substitute for the expertise of mental-health professionals, but the gifts offered by spiritual and pastoral guidance, and by the love of the church community, have a valuable role in our well-being.”

This message was echoed by the Revd Glyn Barrett, who leads the Pentecostal Audacious Church in Manchester: “Though prayer is good, and necessary in all circumstances, we need something else as well.”

Archbishop Welby encouraged those attending to use the conference “to build the relationships that have the potential to transform the care offered to people with mental-health challenges”. Throughout the day there was a focus on collaboration.

In an interview during the conference, Bishop Mullally and the report author, Jessica Agboola, stressed the importance of respecting differences while working in an interfaith or ecumenical context.

The executive director of Elim, a group of Pentecostal churches, and one of the ChurchWorks commissioners fronting the event, Olivia Amartey, agreed: “We’re always going to have an issue where my denomination doesn’t fully correlate with all the ethos and theology of your denomination, but we all care for people . . . let’s start from there.”

The Revd Agu Irukwu, lead pastor of Jesus House Pentecostal Church, in north London, said: “We’re doing a lot: part of why we’ve gathered is to say: ‘We’ve done a lot, well done to every single one of us.’ But we can do more,” said, who is lead pastor of Jesus House Pentecostal church in north London.

“I did not come to bring grim news, but to encourage us as the Church: we are uniquely positioned to help. . . Tell me another organisation that has the spread that we have: we are in every town, every village, every city [and] we have a pool of volunteers, people who are committed, dedicated, willing. I’m not sure I know any other organisation who has such a pool of volunteers,” he said.

Mr Irukwu stressed the value of collaboration with the NHS and government, saying that it was “a big part of mobilising the Church and faith groups during the Covid pandemic”.

A break-out session lead by Faith Kenny, a social-prescribing link worker in Southampton, had standing room only. “These are things that churches have been doing forever,” she said, and explained how activities as “churchy as coffee mornings were a valuable way of improving people’s health and well-being.

In an interview beforehand, Ms Kenny explained how social prescribing works in Southampton: GPs or nurses will refer someone, and then link workers like herself will work one-on-one with that person over a period of several months, helping them to get involved in community activities suited to their interests and particular needs.

“We have an ever-growing directory of resources,” Ms Kenny said. “A big part of our role is making contact with organisations in the community.”

In a panel discussion, Dr Jane Fryer, a GP and medical director for system improvement and professional standards in the NHS, stressed that, with the pressure on mental-health services at an all-time high, it was necessary for the health services and communities to “find a new way of working in partnership” to support well-being. She said that social prescribing was one way that this could be achieved.

Dr Fryer, who attends All Saints’, Peckham, also echoed Archbishop Welby’s point about the importance of recognising when professional intervention was necessary. “When people are really unwell, we mustn’t go beyond our competency,” she warned.

Also on the panel was Partick Regan, the founder and chief executive of the charity Kintsugi Hope (Interviews, 13 July 2018; Feature, 12 May). “I’m a firm believer that scars are part of our beauty,” Mr Regan said, as he explained the rationale behind the mental well-being courses the charity facilitates.

Bishop Mullally concluded: “I hope that you have felt that you’ve been inspired, educated, and equipped by your experiences today. If we’re not inspired, we are unlikely to act. If we’re not educated on the issues involved, we may well act in a way that is unhelpful or, in fact, harmful. If we are not equipped our actions will not be effective.”

She talked of some of the work that the diocese of London has done in this area, including the publication last year of a report called On Faith, Place and Health: Harnessing the power of faith groups to tackle London’s health inequalities (News, 12 October 2022).

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