Britain’s National Secular Society (NSS) and the question of hospital chaplains were in the spotlight this morning on the country’s flagship radio news programme, Today, on BBC Radio 4.
The National Health Service (NHS) spends around £40 million a year on hospital chaplains of several religious persuasions, something that should be funded by the churches and other religious groups, said the NSS’s president, Terry Sanderson, on the programme.
The balance was provided by a Catholic priest and hospital chaplain from London, Paul Mason, who said the chaplains did a lot of good work and there was a call for their services.
I suppose the question that has to be asked is this: for those who need them, do they do a good job in the therapeutic sense, irrespective of whether what they do is officially called therapy, and irrespective of whether what they believe about invisible people and impossible events is a load of bollocks?
Forty mill is a lot, but a small part of the total NHS budget. Yes, as Sanderson says in a BBC news website report, it could pay for another 1,300 nurses or 2,645 cleaners, according to the NSS’s calculations. But knocking various kinds of, say, psychotherapy on the head might do that, too. Yet people would, presumably, say psychotherapy is important to patients’ wellbeing and chances of recovery. Talking therapies can take several forms.
Bearing in mind that many of the people who feel the need for chaplains are at very dark and low points in their lives – many of them facing an imminent appointment with the Reaper – shouldn’t we look for savings elsewhere, such as among highly paid NHS managers and their perks, or the defence budget, or the arts?
None of us would like to see the arts starved of money, but is life and whatever helps it along more important? What about sport? Anyone can find a way of playing sport without having to spend huge amounts of money. Yet the country has a sports budget. Why not knock that on the head, and pay for nurses and cleaners and better drugs, more dentists and more R&D?
There are all kinds of ways of asking these questions, and, yes, I do think the various churches and mosques and other places in which the Deluded Herd find their pleasures should stump up some cash. After all, when a chaplain pops to the local hospital to see Mr Jones, is it not the equivalent of popping to his home to see him? Why should he or she get extra pay for the former?
Clergy do carry out home visits to the sick, one assumes. There are a lot of Mr and Ms Joneses sitting at home, possibly ill, lonely or both, being visited – and no one’s paying for those visits except the religious organisations themselves.
But it may be that some churches take on extra staff in order to cope with chaplaincy duties. Perhaps the existence of some chaplains (and I’m using this word to cover all religious representatives) would not be possible without money from the NHS.
So, while I can see a case for churches and other places of “spiritual” nourishment to fund what their representatives are doing, anyway, I can see a case for the NHS to fund some therapy, if, indeed, that is what it amounts to.
The litmus test is: does it help people to get well? Is the NSS being petty in this regard? Should it be concentrating its efforts elsewhere (and it does seem to be having success with its debaptism campaign, and all power to its elbow)? Is its objection borne more out of the fact that this particular kind of “therapy” involves religious belief?
And the religion in this case is not being forced on anyone who doesn’t want it, unlike the case in schools, which we are right to be concerned about.
Just questions. Make up your own mind. You can hear the debate on the Today programme here.