Archive for June, 2009

Life, the Faith, and Praying with Patients: 29 June

June 29, 2009

A Zimbabwean woman married a Polish man in Bilston. Sounds like a bizarre international game of consequences… That was on Tuesday last week. On Wednesday the bride sent me a lovely ‘Thank you’ message by text. Very 21st Century.

My MP’s secretary rang about my letter on Afghanistan. They couldn’t find any record of the Foreign Office having written about this. It seems they weren’t sure to whom they should forward my letter. My MP never expresses an opinion – he just forwards the comments on. Once I asked him to pass on thanks to the Government, in the same vein. He didn’t, and didn’t tell me that he hadn’t…

BBC News say the British Medical Association will this week debate doctors praying with patients. The Christian Medical Fellowship are concerned that recent NHS Guidelines are too restrictive. Good for them! I wrote to encourage them:

Dear CMF,

I understand that you are raising with the BMA recent guidelines on the practice of spiritual care of patients which seem to be too limiting. May I encourage you to keep up this challenge?

For 2 years I worked, part time, as a hospice chaplain. Even in that role in that place there were people who were zealous about making sure that ‘religion was not rammed down people’s throats.’ Doctors and nurses must face this suspicion even more and it is not helped when the suspicion is given weight by limiting guidelines.

(Some religious people can indeed be over zealous, to say the least. It is good to recognise that there can be a problem when addressing spiritual issues. But exaggerating the extent of the problem among health care professionals causes more problems.)

The North Somerset Trust’s guidelines, following the investigation of Caroline Petrie’s professional conduct, state. ‘It is acceptable to offer spiritual support as part of care when the patient asks for it.’ This is immediately confusing, for, if the patient has asked for it, the nurse, or whoever, is not offering but responding. This statement will be taken to mean: ‘Wait until you are asked. Don’t ever offer prayer.’ This is confirmed by the next paragraph: ‘the initiative lies with the patient and not with the nurse.’

People who might quite like a prayer won’t usually ask for it. I expect the same is true with something like acupuncture – which has to be suggested. If no-one was allowed to suggest acupuncture to any patients, it would be practised far less. Even when they knew I was a Chaplain, hardly anyone asked for prayer, but many were more than happy when I suggested it. It is the same for nurses and doctors who take seriously their commitment to spiritual care.

I have deliberately used the word ‘suggested’ rather than ‘offered.’ If the guidelines say prayer cannot be ‘offered’, maybe it could be ‘suggested’ – although that is probably splitting hairs! ‘Suggesting prayer’ is gentler than ‘offering prayer.’ Indeed there is a range of ways in which the initiative can be made: A Strong Lead: ‘Enough talking, let’s pray!’ An Invitation: ‘I think it would be good to pray together about this.  OK?’ An Offer: ‘How about having a prayer about this?’ A Suggestion: ‘Some people with health problems like someone to pray with them. Is that something you would like?’ A Tentative Suggestion: ‘Can I mention something slightly out of the ordinary? Many people pray and we could pray together if you like. It may not be your cup of tea, or may prefer simply to pray on your own..?’ Clearly the more directive half, at least, of this range is not appropriate for health care professionals. But the N Somerset Trust’s guidelines seem to rule out even the most tentative of suggestions because the initiative is not coming from the patient.

Health professionals need training and appraisal in how to make sensitive initiatives with patients, including initiatives in spiritual care. But to bar professionals from making any initiative in this one area of whole person care is too limiting. Patients will not receive the full range of care they need.

Roger Harper


Life, the Faith, and Afghanistan: 22 June

June 22, 2009

Life continues to be full: Last week included 3 funerals, 1 wedding interview and marriage preparation, 2 lengthy pastoral visits, 2 sermons, 1 tax return, 1 article outline on Healing On The Streets, 2 visits to London to see my mother in hospital, 1 long (75 minute) chat to a friend in Scotland, 1 chat to a friend in Holland, 1 very hard squash game, and 1 wonderful Father’s Day lunch – haddock baked in paper! 

Having written for a couple of weeks that I need to write to my MP about Britain in Afghanistan, here is the letter, being sent today. Feel free to use it / adapt it or your MP etc.

Dear Richard, 

Re: Britain in Afghanistan

Some time ago I wrote to you criticising the British military intervention in Afghanistan. You passed my letter to the relevant Foreign Office desk, who then replied to me. Please could you now pass on my response?

The Government has argued that military operations in Afghanistan are needed to protect our security. Where exactly is the threat? The London bombs were planted by disaffected British people, not Afghanis. In order for us to continue our large human and financial investment in military action in Afghanistan, we need to have clear evidence that we in this country are threatened more than, say Sweden or France. What is this evidence?

My experience travelling abroad is that British people are considered more at risk than most other nationals and that this risk has increased since our intervention in Afghanistan. Security checks at Amsterdam and Dubai airports have been notably stricter for flights to and from the UK. This is evidence that our involvement in Afghanistan has not made us safer, but has, instead, made us more vulnerable to attack.

The argument that our national security is best served by military confrontation with terrorists and those who harbour terrorists is a misguided innovation in British policy. Our policy for many years in Northern Ireland was to respond to terrorism through the law rather than militarily. Our soldiers in Northern Ireland supported the police and the judiciary, but did not carry out offensive operations against terrorists. We knew that terrorists had bases in Eire but we did not attack these bases. We knew that it was better to treat the terrorists as criminals rather than as enemy soldiers. The terrorists wanted us to see them as an ‘army’ with the dignity of soldiers. We refused, insisting, rightly, that they were a gang of outlaws who would be brought before the courts.

Since ‘9/11’ our Government has changed policy. We now dignify terrorists by treating them as an enemy army and sending our soldiers to fight them. Instead, we should be working with the International Criminal Court and other agencies, including especially the Commonwealth, to bring terrorists before the courts. This may need new approaches and even institutions but it is the better way of dealing with terrorism. The military response, as now carried out in Afghanistan, strengthens terrorists among their own communities, who feel equally under attack, prolongs an unwinnable conflict, and endangers the lives not only of British service personnel but of British people everywhere.

Please think again and go back to tried and tested British policy on terrorism.

Yours sincerely,

Roger Harper

Life, the Faith, and Everything: 15th June

June 15, 2009

Tuesday had a real vicar’s day. 8.30 Morning Prayer. (All 15 traffic lights from Walsall to Bilston were green!) 9.00 Staff meeting – who needs a visit? what to put on the notice sheet? 10.00 Funeral in Church and burial – a large gypsy family. 12.00 funeral visit. 1.00 Lunch talking to a church member about their great experience at Scargill house. 2.00 Visit to a woman whose husband, in his 60’s, is wheelchair bound after polio, now has Alzheimer’s and is in a nursing home. 4.00 Hair cut. Catch up with paperwork. 6.00 Delicious gluten free fish and chips from Brownhills chippy. 7.00 Funeral visit. 8.30 Long talk with Local Ordained Minister, getting to know him and his ministry. Home at 10.30. People think Sundays are the busiest days… 

Thursday interview at Cranham Park, fringe of East London, for Associate Minister job. Great set-up, great people. Cranham was described as the poor part of Upminister. (Upminister has a whole Bang and Olufsen shop!) Cranham is a mirror of Aldridge, where I was from 1997 to 2002, even down to brick making as the local industry. They asked lots of good, personal questions, and were interested in my answers. The panel chair said he would enjoy a good pub discussion with me. But I reckon being in their pulpit is a different matter: they decided not to appoint.

Drove past a few Christian Party billboards. ‘Labour can’t do it. The Conservatives can’t do it – so vote for us.’ A bizarre message, implying that it would be better for the existing parties to ‘do it’ if they could. Another billboard made more sense: ‘Britain is a Christian country.’ Oh yes? Since when? Too many people confuse Christendom with Christianity. They should read A British Crash, particularly Paul Cooper’s Battle of Britain sermon.

Received a wonderful message: Please would I go on BBC Radio WM on Sunday morning to talk about A British Crash!

Friday talked with Dave Bonny, Walsall Methodist Minister. He said he wasn’t sure if he liked David Jeffery, the narrator of A British Crash. David’s likeable, but a bit of a plonker! Knowing David as I do, he is self-deprecating. He highlights his own shortcomings and portrays others in a better light.

Drove to Bath to meet up with a couple of Ugandans visiting this country. As we prayed together I sensed Jesus saying to stay for dinner, despite me wanting to be home earlier. Lovely bring and share meal with the hosts’ Home Group.

Drove home relaxed but tired. Noticed that I was suddenly feeling miserable as well, as I haven’t done for a while. Then noticed that I had missed the slip road for the M5 North and was nearly at the Severn Bridge! Depression is defined by some as being aware of having no future, living with no light at the end of the tunnel. Could some depression be caused by going the wrong way?

Saturday back down to see Mum in Watford General Hospital. She’s recovering from her hip op, thank God. I brought her an ice cream. A Health Care Assistant came unrequested with paper towel for when the ice cream started dripping. Great care all round. The woman in the bed opposite, a Church Army Evangelist, wanted to know about A British Crash and bought a copy.

Sunday to the Mailbox in Birmingham, local home of the BBC. The producer had told me I would be asked why I wrote A British Crash. (‘For fun, and to share come of my experience, thoughts, and questions about life and faith.’) Instead it was ‘Why had I had to set up a new publishing company?’ Their angle was ‘Is this another sign of the general, secular, world marginalising faith?’ The presenter even asked where people could buy the book. Good man!

Preached comfortably for 25 mins – rather too long for some people. They want 15 mins max. Maybe now that our respective preferences are clear, we can meet half way. Offered to pray with people during communion. 6 people came with various needs. Yet another funeral visit in the afternoon, before enjoying feeling close to Jesus in Evensong, led by a Lay Reader.

Read about Netanyahu’s speech – how Israel might accept a Palestinian State. (He used to live in the same street as my cousin in Jerusalem. She wasn’t a fan.) A State with no military services whatsoever? Not much of State generally. And the settlements to continue to grow naturally? Is he stating a position that he knows will be unacceptable, because he doesn’t want any agreement? Or is this his first, highly exaggerated, bargaining position?

Netanyahu spelt out what I see as the central problem: Israel has to continue as the State for the Jewish people, as Nick Griffin wants Britain to be the State for the British people. I am British but I don’t believe that sort of State to be right here. I am almost Jewish but don’t believe that sort of state to be right there either.

Roger Harper

Life, the Faith, and Everything: 8th June

June 14, 2009

This week has been quieter.

 Thursday morning woken early by a phone call from my mother’s Mongolian carer. (He’s the brother of my brother’s wife. With his girl friend they look after Mum.) She had climbed out of bed dreaming and fallen on the floor. He was calling from A&E in Watford. Later spoke to a doctor who said they were going to replace the hip.

 Voted in the Euro elections. Surprised to see ‘The Christian Party.’ There had been no mention in the Christian Press I read. ‘Proclaiming the Lordship of Jesus’ was their slogan. Horribly reminiscent of Christendom.

 Friday. My first public event as an Author – opening the Garden Party for the 30th Anniversary of Rectory Gardens Sheltered Housing. Angela the Warden has read A British Crash, enjoyed it and was keen to help me sell it. Stiff competition with 50p tombola tickets. My little speech was far from perfect, a good learning experience for me.

 The sky was darkening and rain was spitting. I ended up praying for sunshine, literal and metaphorical. As I finished sunbeams were streaming through the window! The sunshine stayed for the Primary School children May Pole dancing.

 Richard Shepherd our local Conservative MP was also present, following on my talk with an apt comment. ‘You keep me on my toes,’ he said to me genially. A smooth man with no excessive expenses to his demerit.

 Drove to Watford. Mum was remarkably bright. Operation tomorrow.

 Saturday. Interview for Associate Vicar in Ealing. A different, upper middle class, world from Bilston. For the first part, we were infested with flies, mysterious in their origin, but annoyingly real. Quite soon I was even surer that this place was not for me. They agreed.

 Mum had had her operation and was sitting up with no grogginess. I surprised on Health Care Assistant by guessing correctly that she was from Nigeria. The whole world has come to nurse in the NHS. Where would we be without immigration?

 Sunday. Read Obama’s Cairo speech as forwarded by Michael Lerner  my favourite rabbi – Much good stuff, but does it go far enough?

 Obama recognised American over-reaction to 9/11, but repeated the myth that Al Quaeda etc. want to kill as many Americans as possible. If that had been the aim on 9/11, they could have achieved it in much better ways. They were targeting symbols of American power, not Americans in general.

 Does halting Israeli settlements in the Occupied Territories include dismantling at least some? Or making them part of a Palestinian State?

 Many people will say that Obama has gone as far as political reality will allow. I, and Michael Lerner, think he is missing an opportunity to change political reality.

Roger Harper

Life, the Faith, and Everything 1st June

June 1, 2009

Monday celebrated my mother-in-law’s 84th birthday with lunch at her bungalow in Shropshire. Her best friend, Connie, said she had read A British Crash and enjoyed it. ‘For those who give it some attention, there are some good messages there.’ Connie is 86, and a walking wonder having come through various illnesses including recurring cancer. She lives in a small room in her daughter’s house, in a tiny hamlet, in remote Shropshire. One of the greatest adventures of her life was going to Cambridge last year for a weekend. How can we encourage more 80 something year olds to read ABC?

Tuesday met with a bereaved daughter who wanted to talk to me apart from her 4 sisters and brother. ‘Please will you mention Dad at the funeral?’ she asked with tear-filled eyes. Dad went off years ago with his brother’s wife. One daughter refuses to have anything to do with him. I said I would see what I could do for Thursday. Good long time listening and praying.

To Rainbow Cottage for a break and to meet my friend Eric. We set up his new gas barbeque / portable kitchen outside for it to be pitted with rain. The sky westwards had a couple of grey clouds, streaking to the earth, one of which was exactly downwind. We both prayed / told the cloud to move to one side. I’m not sure still what I think about praying for weather. It certainly can’t do any harm, and sometimes seems to make a difference. The cloud passed just North of us, smattering us very lightly and briefly. The rest of the evening was gloriously sunny. Eric had just had a weekend at RC with friends. They had an informal communion on Saturday night which he said was the best he had ever been part of. It was deemed ‘phenomenal’ by one participant, an assistant pastor in a largish church. Eric thought it was largely due to the special atmosphere of Rainbow Cottage.

Wednesday planning meeting for ‘Inspire’ the Bilston monthly informal service. Praying before, I had had a sense of people dancing at the front, a weaving folk dancy dance. Jane said she had looked at the readings for that weekend and, for want of anything else, had put ‘From Weeping to Dancing’ as the theme. But space is limited and we are not choreographers…

Thursday early at the PC to finish the funeral address and prayers. The woman had been alcoholic but gave up the booze a few years ago after a car accident. She had said she wanted no fuss – no service, but most of her family wanted more than that. I thought Jesus said to read the Lost Sheep and celebrate her coming back to her family. Thanking God for various stages in her life, I included a brief mention of the time with her first husband. No angry coughs or dagger looks. Warm thanks afterwards from a couple of people. Hope most of the family were OK with it.

Friday to Ealing for an informal visit for an Associate Vicar job for which I have been short listed – to my surprise and delight. Met with Nicholas Henderson the Vicar vicar who seemed strangely familiar. In some ways he reminded me of James Makepeace with whom I worked in Wolverhampton. When he said he knew people in Uganda, it slowly dawned on me. Nicholas was elected a bishop in Malawi a couple of years ago but was blocked because he was deemed too liberal. The church seems to be thriving, not ready for the Sunday afternoon all age worship I proposed in my application. If I was on their panel, I would not have short listed me. Interview Saturday next week.

Saturday at my mother’s, giving her Mongolian carers a day off. Mused on Ecclesiastes, which I am reading slowly with Jeff Lucas through his Life Every Day notes. 3 times Solomon says that the greatest satisfaction, in a world without ultimate meaning, is finding enjoyment in work. He had seriously tried wine, women, song, fame, and fortune so knew what he was talking about.

Sunday visited a London church advertising for the second time for a Priest. The woman leading said that the priest’s car had broken down so he couldn’t come. (Don’t they have taxis in London?) At the peace I introduced myself as a priest, but she, rightly, said she didn’t know me. She gave out last week’s wafers, split into tiny pieces, instead. Beautiful building, masses of lovely candles. About 40 people, mostly West Indian. The hymns were not sung with gusto, too high brow for the people. The pews had been rearranged to fill the space and accommodate fewer people. With only a few more attending the church would feel pretty full. Generally too staunchly Anglo Catholic for me, more interested in their ‘modern’ tradition than in growth.

Sunday evening I told the Evensong congregation in Bilston about a remarkable Saturday in Uganda, when two women had cackled and hooted with Holy Spirit laughter, with occasional burst of English, which they had never learnt. Not that I was telling them to imitate this example in the midst of Evensong, just not assume that the Holy Spirit always flows gently. Despite the popular modern song, being aware of the fiery presence of the Lord doesn’t always lead us to be still – sometimes the opposite, as at Pentecost. Every week we pray for ‘rest and quietness’ in this life. Is this hankering after peace and quiet idolatrous? 

My friend Fred Branfman, who, years ago, alerted the US to the bombing of Laos being carried out in their name, wrote with his latest article about the need to replace General Petraeus, the US commander in the Middle East. Petraeus was the ‘surge in Iraq’ man, now leading the surge in Afghanistan. Fred considers the main effect to have pushed the Taliban into Pakistan, to disastrous effect. Reminded me to write to my MP again about the bloody mess in Afghanistan.

Borders Birmingham have moved my book signing to August 1st. May A British Crash start moving in its home town!

Roger Harper