The job of nurturing well-being

By Mark Vernon
9 Apr 2009

I know several hospital chaplains, and respect them not least because they work hard, and so feel I want to defend them against the campaign of the National Secular Society (NSS) to abolish their NHS funding.

I recently went to the farewell do of one such friend who worked in one of London's largest hospitals. The biggest room in the place had been booked, and yet still it was packed. There were many patients present and staff, not all believers by any stretch, and yet all quite clear that this chaplain had fulfilled a role that no-one else could, and that it was a hugely valuable role in terms of the healing the institution can bring. This was in no small part because the role of the chaplain is often to stand outside the formal structures of care that such institutions otherwise need to function.

Incidentally, taking services is a tiny part of their work; the NSS talks as if it is the main part. One wonders whether they actually talked to any chaplains during their research.

It can be hard to quantify the benefit of having chaplains. Their work is not amenable to a cost-benefit analysis. But that does not mean it has no value or effect, just that it has to be assessed in human rather than statistical terms.

The National Secular Society argues that chaplains might still work in hospitals, only paid for by churches, synagogues and the like. But that misses the point: chaplains are there to aid the healing process. I've had my own experience of that.

When my partner went in for open heart surgery, we asked a chaplain to anoint him the evening before the operation. It stilled us - so much so that when we later spoke with the anaesthetist, my partner having agree to take part in a trial of some new delivery mechanism, he commented how physically still he had been on the operating table. Apparently, many thrash about all over the place; they have to be more heavily sedated and they tend to take longer to recover.

Chaplains are that rare thing in the contemporary National Health Service, professionals paid to spend time with people. Except that because they are so rare, the pressures on their most precious commodity are immense. As Ben Goldacre puts it in relation to alternative therapies, of which he is sceptical, but which certainly involve spending quality time with people: “[It’s about the cultural meaning of the treatment”, and that is beneficial.

So seems clear to me that spiritual and pastoral carers are a valuable part of the NHS, probably under-resourced if anything.

Moreover, the NHS spends tens of billions of pounds a year; a few million saved on chaplains would be neither here nor there, even in credit crunch times. So, it's hard not to presume that the National Secular Society issued this press release during the week before Easter knowing that media organisations would be likely to pick it up.

They may even have thought that chaplains are an easy target, though I imagine that most who've had dealings with a chaplain whilst in hospital would conclude that the campaign is misinformed.

Of course, for the NSS, removing religion from public life is a point of principle, not just a PR strategy. That is an ideological position and one that orientates the care of human beings exclusively towards the care of their bodies. This is crucial, of course. When my partner had his surgery, we wanted someone with great skill at doing heart value replacements, not someone with good bedside manner (though as it happened he had enough of that too). But then, as we learnt, there was more to his recovery than the success of the physical procedure alone.

There is certainly a balance to be struck over the shape of chaplaincy in a secular society. But to my mind and in my experience, it is the work of the hospital chaplain itself which shows why a straightforward eradication policy is just too clumsy - inhuman even, given we're talking about staff, patients and their wellbeing.

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© Mark Vernon is a writer and philosopher. An agnostic with a keen interest in religion and spirituality, his books include The Philosophy of Friendship, After Atheism and Teach Yourself Humanism. An honorary research fellow at Birkbeck College, London, his new venture is called The School of Life. Mark's website is called Philosophy and Life, listed among the Sunday Times' best blogs 2009.

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