07 August 2014, The Tablet

Any chaplain will do? New Government rules are an attempt to nationalise our faith

by Bishop Tom Williams

“From Christ’s words, the suffering know that sickness has meaning and value for their own salvation and for the salvation of the world. They also know that Christ, who during his life often visited and healed the sick, loves them in their illness.”

Thus stated Pope Paul VI in the manual for Catholic Chaplains in 1973. As a hospital chaplain and the bishop responsible for healthcare, I have followed the sentiment and ecclesiology of this manual for the last 40 years and dearly hope that as a Church we will continue to do so in the foreseeable future.

The new NHS guidelines for hospital chaplaincy are not a substitute for this document. The guidelines promote, indeed require, a professionalism of healthcare chaplaincy which may well be incompatible with a denominational approach. As a Catholic priest and hospital chaplain I have always attempted to work in partnership, not just with other denominations, but with all involved in caring for the sick: doctors, nurses, ancillary staff and, never to be underestimated, family, which includes their family of faith, their local parish community.

As the Catholic Church, we do have an effective and relevant model of chaplaincy. Other denominations do too. The Sikhs, the Hindus, the Jews, the Muslims, the Anglicans and the Free Churches, even the Humanists. Each has an effective role.

But the clear intent of this NHS document is to suggest that effectiveness is only achievable through a model of chaplaincy that is primarily generic.

Gone are the references in the 2003 document on health care which embodied recognition of the value of the faith of the patient and of the minister, for example:

“Each member of the Chaplaincy/spiritual care team retains the religious responsibility of his/her own faith community”

“All appointments are made in partnership with the appropriate faith community/ies”

“Appropriate and timely access to services from smaller faith communities is provided.” (NHS 2003 guidance, page 8)

As far as the Catholic bishops of England and Wales are concerned, the local ordinary or bishop wishes to work in partnership with each and every healthcare trust for the pastoral and spiritual care of the faithful. We have a long and cherished tradition of caring for the sick, and we want that to continue. Our priests and lay chaplains and their many volunteers continue to offer an invaluable service of love and dedication. Yes, it must be in partnership with trusts; yes, it must be properly regulated and administered; yes, all chaplains must be properly trained, and sensitive to the needs of each patient; and yes, chaplaincy must be recognised as an essential part of the overall care of the patient.

We are already achieving those goals in the majority of our trusts, often despite misunderstandings and ignorance about the true nature of the Sacraments and the role of ordained ministry.

These new guidelines offer a language of pragmatism and efficiency that cannot be allowed to trample over a patient’s wishes, or, in the case of our Catholic faith, the traditions of 2,000 years of being church.

Our continual aim, as church, is to be faithful to the teachings of our Lord and Saviour – to be generous, caring and full of love and compassion. In today’s world of material possessions, finance and target-setting, vocation and caring for the sick can often be lost in a sea of legislation and financial restrictions. All members of the faithful have a part to play.

Our faith is personal, not private, and therefore the state should not nationalise it. This NHS document tries to do this.

Tom Williams is an auxiliary bishop in Liverpool with responsibility for healthcare in the bishops’ conference of England and Wales

What do you think?


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Comment by: John Bell
Posted: 11/08/2014 22:37:10

I don't read the 2014 Guidelines as having any of the negative messages that Bishop Williams identifies. They seem to reflect the ethos of the chaplaincies within which I am involved and where there is full cooperation between volunteers and chaplains of different denominations or religions. Since one of the advisors on those guidelines is a chaplain in one hospital in which I am involved, I do not expect the new Guidelines to offer any change in direction. I find I can conduct my ministry without difficulty. The Guidelines put responsibilities on chaplaincy teams and management to work together. That is a process of mutual trust and cooperation which cannot be imposed.

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