Picture credit: Christian Concern
Artillery Row

A Catholic chaplain in a hostile environment

Freedom of religion should be respected

I started working as a part time (“bank”) chaplain at Springfield Hospital in April, working two afternoons a week coming from the nearby St Anselm’s parish. I immediately realised that there was a need for a Catholic presence as patients started asking for Confession and for Holy Communion and I set up a weekly Communion service on one of the wards. I also found that although there had not been a Catholic priest for some years, there was a cupboard with vestments and chalice for saying Mass. I therefore got permission from the head chaplain and started to say Masses in the chaplaincy.

I started to see any patients that asked for a Catholic chaplain. I also set up a Bible study group on a ward. It was an eye opener to me how needy and uninhibitedly trusting some of the patients were. Often they had been admitted compulsorily, and felt this was in error, and resented being in the hospital. They tended to lack insight as to why they were admitted. A psychiatric ward can be a disorientating place for someone to suddenly find themselves in: there are patients with several different conditions and only a few diagnoses such as eating disorders have their own separate ward. This means that in addition to getting to understand their own illness, the person has to be in an environment of individuals that might behave inappropriately or bizarrely at times. The patients are locked in and have limited access to the consultant. The doctor’s rounds take on an inordinate significance as he or she has the sole power to release them. 

A chaplain’s role in many instances is therefore one of supporting

A chaplain’s role in many instances is therefore one of supporting, helping a patient to negotiate these new and strange internal and external environments and rules, particularly those with previous religious affiliation by praying with them and administering sacraments as requested. I found how comforting Bible reading and study groups were to patients. Although it was not an easy environment, I warmed to my chaplaincy role, as I saw how much in need the patients were and how rewarding it was to even help a little.

I had only been working at Springfield for four months when I was told that a Catholic patient wanted advice from a Catholic priest. He asked if we could walk outside a little and I asked a member of staff to accompany us. We discussed his situation on the ward and his family. He asked me if I would meet his male partner whom he wanted to marry and what I thought of this. I asked him in turn what God would think about this. He also said his father was very upset about his lifestyle. I said I probably would be too in his father’s situation and encouraged him to speak to his father. He mentioned his mother to whom he was close. After about 20 minutes he ended the session without appearing upset.

I never saw him again but he complained to the hospital that I told him that he was “going to hell” and that he “should not be with his partner” — which I had not. The NHS trust Acting Chief Executive, whom I have never met or who has never communicated with me, sent the patient a letter apologising to him for my “comments”. She said that she would ensure that I “understand that Trust policy on Equality and Diversity takes precedence over religious beliefs,” although the Equality Act includes religious beliefs as protected. Without warning, three months later I was told to hand in my badge as the Trust was no longer able to pay my salary. 

Within less than nine months the hospital had fired me — almost certainly because of the complaints of a patient against me without hospital protocol having been followed and even though I offered to work without salary. Indeed, I had difficulty believing that there was not something else behind this precipitate action.

Firstly, the claims of the Chief Executive were egregious. They not only showed her total lack of knowledge of the law but also revealed that she was totally unsupportive of her chaplaincy, of myself as a member of her chaplaincy staff and of any of the religious needs of her 240 or so patients. I began to see why the lovely large hospital chapel that had served patients for many years was being used as a children’s gym and due to be sold to developers. Also why the chaplaincy rooms were being taken away and that “hot-desking” was being planned for chaplains instead of having a set chaplaincy location.

Secondly, I was surprised that a Catholic asking to speak to a Catholic chaplain about homosexual marriage would be surprised by the answer I gave. In getting a response that was entirely predictable and reflective of the Catholic Church’s position, they were however furnished with ammunition for a complaint. 

Around the time that this was happening, the hospital was showcasing its Stonewall LGBT ranking on its website, and more recently proudly announced a silver workplace equality award in 2022. Was the presence of an orthodox representative of the Catholic faith spoiling the glowing, progressive picture the hospital was painting for the public?

Whatever the reasons, the documented downgrading of religious belief by the Chief Executive undermines not only her NHS trust but also all the patients under her care as well as the chaplains of different faiths that she employs. There is a tendency throughout the NHS to force their patients to accept generic “spiritual” care instead of giving support for their religious beliefs. Religious faith is particularly important in sickness, particularly when in danger of death. Specific own-faith support is essential in mentally ill patients in whom generic “spiritual” advice may be meaningless. 

Limiting this is inhumane

Limiting this is inhumane, in addition to being outside the law. Good, religion-specific chaplaincy support is under threat in the NHS but is essential in all hospitals and a government enquiry is urgently needed into restoring Hospital Chaplaincy to its rightful place.

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