Thursday, 21 August 2008


In the years that I’ve worked as a Chaplain I’ve been met with a friendly reception on all the wards and departments I’ve come into contact with, open hearts and minds and positive interest. Not surprisingly in a hospital, staff want to support patients. Frankly, not many give a hoot about spirituality or religion; just as it is a minority interest in society so it’s way down on the list of their priorities when understaffing and increased workloads are standard, and personally I find this attitude the most easy and reasonable to work with. They know that some patients will feel the need for some spiritual support, they’re almost always happy - unless the ward is unbearably busy - to have me there. And even then, staff have positively made the effort to get me onto the ward.

I have come across 4 episodes of direct discrimination against the patients I work with and a number of instances of indirect discrimination. In each case the person doing the discriminating was a member of an Evangelical or Pentecostal church. (Which means that I haven't experienced direct - or indirect - discrimination from Anglicans, Catholics and Free Church Christians.) Nursing and support staff, chaplaincy and management dealt with these situations swiftly and seriously and disciplinary action was taken.

UK law makes it illegal to discriminate against a person because of their religion or certain beliefs.

Religion is defined in law as any religion, religious belief or similar philosophical belief. There is no specific list, but it includes all major religions and less widely practised ones. If it’s uncertain what counts as a religion or belief under law a Tribunal can decide.
DirectGov 08

My own experiences of direct discrimination have been nurses imposing their personal views on Pagan patients, telling them that Paganism is the work of their Devil, describing the torments of their hell, and, incredibly, that mental illness is because they are Pagan. Interestingly, none of these fervent souls talked with me about their concerns but smiled and carried on as normal, suggesting that at the heart of the matter was their need to dominate a weaker person.

Indirect discrimination is less easy to define. A member of staff fairly held his nose when I invited him to join our circle when he wouldn’t give us privacy. A particularly straight face when asking what Paganism was about. Some genteel, dismissive debate when I insisted we be allowed to go to the multifaith room on the grounds that Christian and Muslim patients are allowed to, whatever the staffing levels might be.

But what about this one?

On this ward patients can spend 3 or four years living together. One of them died. All of the patients went to a service in the Chapel to remember the patient and to begin to work through their bereavement. The Pagan patients didn't go to on the basis that they were Pagan. They weren’t prevented from attending but provision was made for staff to remain on the ward with them while the other patients went to the church service.

I imagine what happened was that the staff, with the best will and intent, believed they knew that Pagans and churches and Christian services do not mix, and who can blame them when the anti-Christian noise from Paganism can be very loud? In fact the Pagan patients felt isolated from a powerful group experience. The were distressed that they weren’t able to symbolise their loss, fears and other feelings. They found it difficult to move towards some kind of understanding that their peers were able to access as part of the church service. And they felt separate from the rest of the ward at a time when mutual solace was important.

It may have been that the staff asked the Pagan patients if they wanted to come and they said no. I was contacted by the hospital the same day as the death occurred but, for any number of reasons, didn’t know about the church service. If I had I would have positively encouraged them to go and would probably have come up to attend the service with them, not because they needed protection from Yahweh but to offer a positive reinforcement in benevolent spiritual group work. Just as many Pagans tend to look down on Christians who feel unable to stand in a circle, so this disdain can be reflected right back at us if we refuse to enter a church.

But was the action the ward took in any way discriminatory? I don't know. It seems many assumptions were in place, both Pagan and non-Pagan.

And what about this? As we were performing the ritual for Jennifer, in a quiet, secluded part of the hospital grounds, a member of staff came close to see what we were up to. He’s a very decent person who knows me well. Within 10 feet of us he realised we were working, stopped, then walked on waving to us in a friendly way and called out, “Don’t do anything naughty!”

There wasn’t an ounce of malice in him or his intent. But he wouldn’t say this at a Christian memorial (or any other) service.

There are a number of issues here, not least the problems of outdoor working and the difficulty of an official Multifaith room not being close enough for all users to access easily. I didn’t bring it up with him or anyone else because I felt it would be disproportionate and counterproductive: if I’d been aware of any intentional mockery I’d have addressed it. There’s a thin and difficult line to walk between being utopian and snotty or too relaxed and accepting.

1 comment:

WitchDoctorJoe said...

I have been experiencing these same problems in the prison system. I just recently allowed to start using the Chapels, before then they/we were all out on the yard.

Check out my entry at:

Hang in there Sis!