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

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

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