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Spiritual care or militant secularism in hospitals

more: Articles, Palliative Care, Articles/Palliative Care

16th April 2009

“Hospitals have never needed God more. A&E departments are a war zone. There could not be a worse time to get rid of their chaplains”.

Melanie Reid has raised a fascinating and, some might say, long-overdue subject in The Times. She has written about Channel 4's fly-on-the-wall series "The Hospital", with its scenes of abusive and often drunk patients creating havoc in A&E departments and resigned and detached doctors and nurses attempting to deal with them; and she has asked her readers to consider, alongside this, a call by the National Secular Society for an end to NHS funding of hospital chaplaincy services. Ms Reid perceptively spots the social and moral vacuum that lies at the root of such appalling social behaviour and she rightly questions the National Secular Society's suggestion that the margin of NHS funds spent on hospital chaplains would be better spent elsewhere. She comments:

"In a world sometimes scarily lacking in values, chaplains have a vital symbolic role as well as a practical one. Chaplains, in my experience, do not proselytise; they simply afford patients the kind of time, care and compassion that medical staff can no longer give them. No, they cannot cure binge drinking, but they do stand for something resolutely good and wise".

"The secularists have missed the point completely", concludes Ms Reid. "Hospitals have never needed God more. A&E departments are a war zone. There could not be a worse time to get rid of their chaplains".

The article is prompting some interesting letters. One correspondent, a hospital chaplain, has written:

"Most of our time is spent with those who would not describe themselves as "religious" but who have real spiritual issues. We are trained and experienced in responding to these. Grappling with thoughts about what, if anything, lies beyond death, actually is very important for many people who are coming towards the end of their life or who are facing the death of a loved one. Perhaps the National Secular Society should speak to some of the recipients of chaplaincy care to see whether they value it".

At the root of the problem is a misunderstanding of what is meant by the phrase 'spiritual care'. The NSS seems to share a common misconception that secular man (or woman) does not have spiritual needs. It stems from a confusion of spiritual life with organised religion. All men and women have spiritual needs, whether or not they are 'religious' - needs that go beyond the thought processes and calculations in our heads and which are concerned with how we perceive ourselves and our lives in relation to something much larger than ourselves, which for many people these days is rather ill-defined. Dr Scott Murray, St Columba's Professor of Primary Palliative Care at the University of Edinburgh, has described it like this:

"Spiritual needs are the needs and expectations that human beings have to find meaning and purpose in life; such needs may be specifically religious but even people who have no religious faith or who are not members of an organised religion have belief systems relating to meaning and purpose"

Dame Cicely Saunders, the founder of the modern hospice movement, recognised this in her pioneering work to get recognition for what she called 'total pain' in dying people - physical, mental and spiritual pain. And modern palliative care, a clinical speciality that has been recognised in Britain for over 20 years, has taken on the baton from her. In treating incurably ill people, today's palliative care physicians and nurses recognise that many of their patients have needs that go beyond physiological and mental pain, and modern palliative care teams include staff who have experience in the spiritual dimension of suffering.

Against this background the militant secularism of the NSS comes over as being rather dated. Melanie Reid is to be congratulated for highlighting something which will have struck a sympathetic chord with the overwhelming majority of her readers.

Hospitals have never needed God more

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