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Britons debate who should pay for hospital chaplains


Canterbury, England, 29 April (ENI)–Britain’s privately-funded National Secular Society has called on the government to end public support for hospital chaplains. The organization has sent a report to Britain’s Health Minister, Alan Johnson, calling on him to review hospital chaplaincy services with a view to ending taxpayer funding for them.

"People are shocked to learn from us that chaplaincy services are costing the hard-pressed [publicly funded] National Health Service more than 40 million pounds (US$60 million) a year," Keith Porteous Wood, chief executive of the NSS, told Ecumenical News International.

"This amount of money would pay for around another 1300 nurses or over 2645 cleaning staff," said Porteous Wood. "I believe that the vast majority of people in Britain would say they’d go for extra nurses and cleaners and not religious services in hospitals by priests, imams and rabbis."

The Rev. Chris Swift, a former president of the College of Health Care Chaplains, told the BBC, the national broadcaster, that the NSS report was based on "erroneous and simplistic assumptions" and that it did not delve "into the real work those chaplains from all faiths carry out in the NHS on a daily basis in often emotionally fraught situations".

The CHCC is a multifaith, inter-denominational professional organization open to recognised health care chaplaincy staff.

Peter Kearney, a spokesperson for the Roman Catholic Church in Scotland, however, told ENI in a telephone interview: "The Catholic Church in Scotland agrees that religious and spiritual carers should not be employed by the NHS or funded by the NHS."

The Anglican Times newspaper on 16 April had quoted the Rev. Chris Johnson, chaplaincy manager for the Bradford NHS Trust, as saying there should be a debate on the issue so that chaplains’ work might be more widely understood.

"There are so many different models of chaplaincy over the country, and no standardised expectation of what the chaplaincy should be doing," said Johnson. "If I’m a physiotherapist, I know what I can expect. It’s not the same with chaplains. You get some who are very religious and provide nothing but religious care; and you get people at the other end of the scale who are very similar to social workers."

The debate comes at a time when the major political parties in Britain are making predictions of hefty public service cutbacks in years to come because of the massive debt the government has built up.

The secular society report says that religious clerics are paid substantial money to conduct services and that in some cases organists are also on hospital payrolls. The NSS said it contacted 233 acute and mental health trusts, which spent a total of 26.72 million pounds (US$40 million) on chaplains, at an average of 48 953 pounds ($72 330) each.

Terry Anderson, president of the NSS, commented, "We are not asking for an end to chaplaincy services but we are asking that the taxpayer not be made responsible for funding them."

(c) Ecumenical News International