Yesterday the National Secular Society demanded an end to the NHS funding of hospital chaplains. Coverage from the National Secular Society website is here. There’s been a fair bit of press coverage on this, and the issue has also sparked debate within Unite.
I’ve been an atheist for the whole of my adult life. However, I think the National Secular Society has got it wrong on this one. It’s absolutely reasonable to expect district nurses to have enough respect for their patients that they don’t go around forcing prayer cards on them. Actually, it’s equally reasonable to respect the wishes of patients who choose to seek support from hospital chaplains.
As a senior trade unionist, I represent hospital chaplains. Many of them are members of Unite, and many are active trade unionists. Hospital chaplains are NHS workers – employed by the NHS on standard NHS terms and conditions. They’re subject to the same pressures as any other NHS worker. They’re multi-faith – hospital chaplains are drawn from most major faith groups in the UK. Their job isn’t to proselytise. They’re there to provide spiritual and pastoral care to patients and patients’ families. My consistent experience has been that they do so in an open and generous way, with no question of quizzing people about their faith or trying to convert them to a particular religion.
At times I’ve worked closely with hospital chaplains in my role as a speech and language therapist. I worked for a few years on a neonatal unit, with premature or seriously ill babies. I saw for myself the care and support given by hospital chaplains to the families of critically ill babies, and the way their care continued for the families who lost their babies. We have a target driven NHS these days. There’s no time for nurses to sit and talk to the mother of a dying child, or to someone who is fearful of their own death, or to the wife who has just lost a cherished husband. Hospital chaplains can, and do, and do so with enormous skill and commitment. Their employment represents an important strand of humanity in an NHS that is under attack.
Hospital chaplains have been seen as a soft target for management cuts in recent years. They deserve the solidarity and support of trade unionists. I would be very sorry indeed if we lost hospital chaplains. Hospitals would be poorer places without them.