O God our help in hospital beds …
So there you are in hospital, sick and with many reasons to feel anxious and distressed. All your usual comforts and supports are gone, you have too much time to ruminate and feel miserable.
How to deal with your troubled mental state and pressing concerns? How to retain your positive sense of identity and find distraction from an uncomfortable situation?
Of course! The answer is someone to talk to who has good psychological skills and human understanding, who will clarify issues, help you manage distress and facilitate coping with the consequences of illness. Yes, it’s a professional counsellor.
But what do you get? In my local hospital your personal support will be a chaplain trained in theology and church practice. We have five of them at a cost of well over £100,000. Also, just to broaden the insult, they are all Protestant (though they might call in another priest if you ask).
You protest. The smug answer from them and management is that the priests are happy to talk to anyone. So much for your need for someone with relevant professional skills, your objection in principle to the imposed religious context.
Here then is an easy practical suggestion to all irreligious (and all counsellors) in hospital. Ask to see an appropriate non-faith representative (there’ll be a BHA group within reach – or it could be a suitably credible acquaintance who has to be officially asked). Don’t be put off, these are your spiritual needs.
And all not currently suffering should Google up their likely hospital and find out what personal support is offered. If it is inadequate or religious, write in and complain. Use the Freedom of Information Act to find out what the chaplaincy costs. Then urge others to grumble, try a letter to the local newspaper.
Is it that priests have a lingering hope of justifying their vocation by death-bed conversions – real or fraudulent – driven by the urgent threat of Hell? Patients with faith needs who don’t have a local contact should be able to send for a priest without cost to the health service.
Atheists and secularists and the great majority of everyone else would welcome the departure of chaplains and their replacement by better. Perhaps a century or two ago the vicar was the only possibility, but now such peculiar provision is a residue of church privilege. It is an easy target that should be swept away entirely.