A few years ago I came across a forum on the internet that I found genuinely offensive. It was a discussion group for NHS workers who belonged to an evangelical Christian network. Participants in the forum boasted about their attempts to convert their patients. One post was from an Allied Health Professional working in a school for children with severe learning disabilities. She was thrilled to bits that a Muslim child at the school had asked her about Jesus, and she regarded this as a major victory for Christianity.
The contributions that I looked at were characterised by an astonishing arrogance, and – although this would, of course, never be admitted – a real contempt for anyone who did not share these evangelical beliefs.
I have little sympathy with Caroline Petrie, the evangelical nurse who was suspended for asking a patient whether she would like to be prayed for. Petrie has now been reinstated following a high profile media campaign. The Telegraph, for example, alleges that ‘individuals… have faced aggressively punitive action from the authorities merely for demonstrating their Christian convictions’. Melanie Phillips, writing in the Mail, pontificates, ‘This is the way a society dies’. How dare we defend the rights of people who don’t want to be prayed for!
There’s an interesting interview with Petrie, in the Mail On Sunday. The incident for which she faced disciplinary action was not in any way a one-off. Petrie has designed a prayer card, which she gave to over 50 of her patients as she went from home to home changing dressings and measuring blood pressure. This is OK, though – ‘if they just threw them in the bin, she did not mind’. Tremendously magnanimous of her.
I can understand why patients might be angry or upset to be offered this. I certainly would be. The prayer card is here:
Last October, the carer of one patient complained about the prayer card distribution, and Petrie received a formal warning from her employer. A second patient triggered the more recent suspension. The patient turned down the unwanted offer of a prayer, commenting ‘It could perhaps be upsetting for some other people if they have different beliefs or thought that she meant they looked in such a bad way that they needed praying for.’
The patient’s common-sense view is not shared by Petrie. Asked if she will do it again, she says “Yes”.
Personally I’m an atheist. I have been since I was five years old. My own belief in atheism is as profoundly held as Petrie’s belief in Christianity. Do I bang on about this in my professional role as a speech and language therapist? No – and it would be grotesquely inappropriate if I did. My job is to work with children with disabilities, and to support the parents of children with disabilities. I seek to give respectful, equal, sensitive care to ALL those I work with. I’ve worked for eight years in a part of London where very many families are either Muslim or Orthodox Jewish. It’s not my job to tell them why I’m an atheist. It’s my job to provide culturally appropriate care.
This seems pretty self-evident to me. My take on this is shared by my colleagues (across several faiths and none). It’s also shared by the Hospital Chaplains I’ve worked with. For most health workers, there is a straightforward understanding that our starting point has to be one of respect for other people, and respect for their beliefs. The overwhelming majority of health workers understand that it’s not our job to proselytise. Thankfully, most of us also understand that it’s unacceptable to try to ‘cure’ gays, or to stop women from accessing abortion or contraceptive services.
This stuff actually matters. It’s not about ‘political correctness gone mad’ or ‘discrimination against Christians’ or any of the other fanciful claims we’ve seen over the last few days. It’s about providing high quality health care for everyone.