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Julian Mann: Is there a link between the NHS crisis and the decline of Christianity?

Julian Mann has been vicar of the Parish Church of the Ascension, Oughtibridge, South Yorkshire since 2000. Before getting ordained he was a reporter for Retail Week. He is married to Lisa and they have four teenage sons.

Screen shot 2013-08-18 at 15.13.26The moral failings of individuals working in health care has played a part in recent NHS scandals, so surely it is legitimate at least to pose the question.

Even the most ardent secularist cannot deny that Christian believers played a major part in the development of health care in Britain, particularly in the second half of the nineteenth century.  Yes, it is true that rivalry between different Christian denominations hampered the efforts of health care reformers in that period. But improvements were achieved by such outstanding individuals as Florence Nightingale and Sidney Herbert, who had a strong sense of Christian vocation.

A personal account of one's own experience of the NHS is inevitably anecdotal, but hopefully constructive nonetheless. I have been regularly visiting parishioners in hospitals since I was ordained 17 years ago. In that time I have ministered to people suffering from a wide range of physical and mental conditions. I have also been a patient in the NHS during the past ten years, suffering from a chest condition that took some time to diagnose and so involved several visits to hospital.

When I first started hospital visiting in the mid-1990s, the nursing staff were respectful and helpful to a Christian minister coming onto the wards. But I noticed a marked change in the Noughties. I have never been refused admission onto a hospital ward but I did register nonchalance, particularly from younger nurses and, in one case, rudeness towards the end of the decade.

I was reading a Psalm to an elderly parishioner who was hard of hearing. A nurse told me - quite loudly - that I was being too loud. That may have been the case, but her manner was hostile. This particular parishioner had served in the RAF in World War II. An important milestone in his own spiritual journey was when he received an evangelistic Christian tract in 1940 that he said had been sent to every new serviceman.  That experience on the ward certainly made me reflect on the enormous spiritual and moral change the country he fought for had undergone by the time he was reaching the end of his journey.

As a patient I count myself extremely privileged to have received the care and attention of some fantastic NHS professionals in the hospital where I was also a visitor. But on one occasion I was on the receiving end of an inappropriately tactile examination from a young female doctor.

Her behaviour did not register with me at the time but only later. That is because when one is ill with an undiagnosed condition one is experiencing uncertainty and anxiety. The mental and emotional discomfiture is as bad if not worse than the physical condition. It is that reality that Britain's pioneering Christian health care reformers were sensitive to. They realised that the spiritual and moral character of doctors and nurses was very important because of the need to care for the whole person - mind, body, emotions and, one feels obliged to say, soul.

No careful reader of the accounts of Jesus' healings in the Gospels could deny his profound compassion for individuals. Before he healed the blind beggar Bartimaeus, as recorded in Mark's Gospel, Jesus asked him: 'What do you want me to do for you?' It was that divine example of compassion for suffering humanity that motivated those who laid the foundations of our health service. Is it therefore any wonder that when a different ethos is overlaid on that foundation, the building starts to crumble?


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