A secularist call for an end to taxpayer funding for the NHS chaplaincy service has been described as "erroneous and simplistic" by Unite, the largest union in the country.
Unite, which embraces The College of Health Care Chaplains, has instead called for more independent research and study.
The comments came in response to the National Secular Society's demand today that religious groups should fund their own presence in hospitals and its questioning of the value of any spiritual support within the NHS.
The Unite union outlined three ways that the chaplains 'add value' to the health service and to patient well-being.
It said: "Having chaplains in hospitals means fully-stretched nurses, particularly at night, don't have to balance the needs of bereaved families, when other patients need urgent care. Nurses know they can rely on the availability of a professional chaplain.
"If a patient dies and has no relatives, the NHS conducts the funeral (contract) services and having an NHS chaplain doing this means that the £100 legal fee for the service is not paid to an outside cleric - thus saving the NHS money. With the recession biting hard, there are an increasing number of contract funerals, as relatives can't afford the funeral arrangements.
"Having a chaplain 'embedded' and 'on call' in the hospital ensures the highest professional standards when dealing with baby and child deaths and for liaising with fellow healthcare professionals, as the NHS chaplain has more experience of the trauma that these deaths evoke in a hospital, than a faith leader coming in from the outside."
Unite also said that the NSS report seems to concentrate its fire on the Church of England, while the College of Health Care Chaplains has members from all the major traditions.
The Rev Dr Chris Swift, a former President of Unite/The College of Health Care Chaplains, said: "The NSS report is based on erroneous and simplistic assumptions that do not delve into the real work that chaplains from all faiths carry out in the NHS on daily basis in often emotionally fraught situations."
He added: "Over and over again, our members receive feedback from relatives and friends on how useful and comforting it was to have a NHS chaplain on hand."
"I would like to see more independent research and objective study into the value of NHS chaplaincy. This research would demonstrate that chaplains are worth more than the notional £40 million quoted by the NSS," said Mr Swift.
'He added: "The value of the chaplaincy service has been repeatedly recognised by the Department of Health."
Paul Woolley, Director of Theos, which researched chaplaincy cuts in 2007, said such services were "vital" and added: "£32 million pounds is a tiny fraction of the £100 billion NHS annual budget - 0.032%."
The religion and society think-tank Ekklesia has also argued for "a forward-thinking review and reliable data, both qualitative and quantitative.”
It says that spiritual and pastoral care in the NHS is important, and adds that the purpose of funding such provision is not to support the denominational work of particular groups, but to provide a service for all patients, both religious and non-religious.
“As far as Christians are concerned, the spiritual care of the sick and the provision of resources to do this, remains a basic obligation of the church community," said Ekklesia co-director Simon Barrow. "The role of the church for those in its specific care, and that of the NHS in supporting patients from a variety of backgrounds, may be different. But they can work together.”
However Ekklesia says that the idea that spiritual and pastoral care in the NHS should be provided and funded by religious groups alone "might be seen as an odd view for secularists to advance, unless they are assuming that spirituality and religion are synonymous or that only religiously committed people have spiritual needs. This is obviously not so."
Also on Ekklesia: 'Why health chaplains are vital', by Professor Stephen G. Wright - http://ekklesia.co.uk/node/9194
Comment from Ekklesia: http://ekklesia.co.uk/node/9182