Tim Dieppe comments on Bishop Stephen Cottrell’s statement that clergy volunteering their services as hospital chaplains will not be allowed to visit the sick and dying.
The Times reported that a letter was sent this week by the Right Reverend Stephen Cottrell, the Bishop of Chelmsford, to all bishops and those involved in chaplaincy provision banning clergy who have volunteered their services as hospital chaplains from ministering to any sick or dying patients at the bedside. Bishop Cottrell is due to become Archbishop of York in June. Last year it emerged that evangelical clergy in his diocese have been told they ‘can leave’ if they disagree with the Diocesan approach on human sexuality.
Ban from all wards
The ban extends to going on any wards or near patients, including those not displaying symptoms of Covid-19. This would therefore apply to patients suffering from a heart attack, for example. The ban also applies even when the clergy are able to wear personal protective equipment. The Church is concerned about the risk of spreading the infection even when protective measures are taken.
Hospital asked for chaplains
The chaplaincy service at Barts Health NHS Trust is short of chaplains and is reported to have asked the church for assistance. Thirteen members of the clergy volunteered, but they have been told that they cannot go on any wards. A press release from the Diocese of Chelmsford confirms:
“As things currently stand, these additional volunteers cannot assist in face to face patient contact as this would increase the risk of infection transmission within, into, and out of the hospital.”
The deputy head of chaplaincy at Barts told The Times:
“The hospital would welcome qualified professional volunteers who can give end-of-life care and provide solace. We would train them and give them PPE [personal protective equipment].”
The hospital, then, is concerned about the lack of spiritual support, and has protective equipment to prevent infection spread, but the church is refusing to let clergy provide spiritual help.
This is how the gospel has spread before
When people are suffering, they naturally reflect on spiritual matters and are more open to prayer and a message of forgiveness. Christians throughout the ages have risen to this need and without thought for themselves have ministered and cared for the sick and dying. Tyler O’Neil has explained how the gospel spread during the Roman plagues as Christians gave themselves sacrificially to save lives by caring and ministering to the sick and dying. The gospel can spread again in the Covid-19 pandemic if Christians volunteer to serve and minister to the sick, as many clergy did. But not if they are banned.
Non-conformists will step up
While Church of England clergy are banned from entering hospital wards, the hospital still desires a chaplaincy service for people suffering and in need of spiritual care. It appears that it will be non-conformist ministers who will rise to the call, if Church of England ministers are banned. Other religions will also rise to this call, thus exposing the cowardice of the Church of England authorities.
The Bishops, not the government
Fr Marcus Walker is the rector at Great St Bartholomew’s, London. He comments that when priests are ordained, they are charged, amongst other things, with ministering to the sick and preparing the dying for their death. He laments:
“Today we are banned from doing this, not by a hostile government or a suspicious health service but by our own Church.
“I beg the bishops to reverse this decision before we forfeit for ever the right to call ourselves again the national church.”
Spiritual health more important
The spiritual health of patients is actually more important than their physical health. Eternal destiny is at stake. The Church of England appears to have lost this perspective. One spiritual soul is worth saving, even if it risks endangering the physical health of others. The hospital recognises this, even if the church doesn’t, and the actual risk of spreading infection appears to be low. Precautions should be taken as far as practicable, including wearing protective equipment and exercising social distancing. They could even self-isolate afterwards if so recommended. These precautions should not prevent people from being spiritually ministered to in their time of need.
No livestreaming from churches
This comes during Easter week, when clergy have also been told by Bishops not to livestream from their church buildings. In this case there is not even any risk of spreading infection. If a vicar goes into his church building alone to livestream some prayers and a sermon, what possible harm can this do?
People are turning to God
Internet searches for ‘prayer’ are skyrocketing as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. People are looking for spiritual answers to the questions thrown up by this crisis. We are faced with the fragility of physical health and life, and economic fragility too. The Church can and should use every possible means to meet this new-found spiritual hunger. The harvest is plentiful. The workers are few. And some workers are being banned from getting into the field.