Chaplain wins apology after being told to remove small cross

28 November 2022

Marie Curie has unreservedly apologised to a Christian chaplain after he was told he would face ‘consequences’ and would need ‘re-training’ if he did not remove a half-inch badge pin with a cross on it from his jumper.

Derek Timms, a 73 year-old businessman turned chaplain from Solihull, was told by a Methodist minister at the charity’s Solihull branch, that he must not wear the cross as it might ‘offend’ and create ‘barriers’ with patients.

Having lost his wife earlier this year, Mr Timms wears the cross, not only as a manifestation of his faith, but in memory of his marriage.

As well as the tiny cross pin badge attached to the outside of his jumper, Mr Timms wears another discreet cross necklace containing some of his wife’s ashes.

Mr Timms, who has worn the miniature cross for four years at Marie Curie without complaint, has been supported throughout the ordeal by the Christian Legal Centre.

The controversy began in September, shortly after Marie Curie’s Solihull branch announced that the job titles of members of the chaplaincy would be changed to ‘spiritual advisors.’ The move signalled that the visibility and role of the Christian faith would be neutralised at the organisation in favour of an ‘interfaith’ approach.

A new Methodist minister began leading the ‘spiritual advisors’ and after meeting Mr Timms told him in an email that she was ‘surprised’ he was wearing crosses and that he should ‘refrain’ from wearing them.

The email said: “In line with the ethos of hospice and healthcare chaplaincy, no religious symbols should be worn by those engaged in spiritual care. We need to be there for people of all faiths and none. Whilst I recognised you shared a story about one patient liking the cross you wore, it can create a barrier to others. The idea is that we should be appear neutral and that enables a spiritual encounter that is about what the person we are visiting needs.”

In response, Mr Timms asked why the crosses were prohibited as it “shows people I am a Christian chaplain.” He asked whether the same approach applied to Sikhs with turbans and Muslims wearing a burqa or prayer dress. He said that: “My faith helps me to help the patients and staff whether they have faith or not”, and added that, “I assume that on Tuesday if I am wearing my cross I will be sent home.”

‘Put it in your pocket’

The ordained Methodist minister responded saying that it was not about the cross but about creating barriers with non-Christians. As a ‘compromise’ it was suggested that: “If you would like to have a cross out of sight in your pocket and put it on when you know for sure that you are going into the room of a person of Christian faith, that would be acceptable, but also not particularly necessary.”

Mr Timms then searched the Code of conduct for Healthcare Chaplains, the NHS Chaplaincy guidelines, the Chaplaincy Code of Conduct and the Marie Curie Webpages, and failed to find any reference to either the wearing of crosses or any other religious symbols being prohibited or otherwise.

After raising this, however, Mr Timms was told that this was not about whether he could or could not wear the crosses but ‘the ethos of what it means to be a chaplain or spiritual care provider.’

As a result, the Minister added that they would need to have a face-to-face meeting where they would need to ‘make a decision about if you are suitable to continue providing spiritual care for us here.’

At the meeting on 20 September, Mr Timms reiterated that he did not believe he had done anything wrong. The Minister said that based on this refusal to comply or recognise wrongdoing, he was going to need some ‘re-training.’

Wearing a cross, he was told, was ‘not the ethos of the chaplaincy’ and he ‘should have signed a code of conduct. You should have adhered to the bounded laws that are part of his organization.’

Furthermore, Mr Timms was told that: “I think you do have to think about whether this is the right place for you then because there are going to be changes. I’ve already asked you and I’ve compromised if you want to put it in your pocket.”

He was then told that unless he took his cross off, he could not work at Marie Curie as a chaplain. He then handed in his identification badge and left the premises.

Legal support and apology

Supported by the Christian Legal Centre, Mr Timms then wrote to the Methodist minister saying:

“I have had a crisis of conscience since I received this request. I would note that I have worn the pin for 11 years on a daily basis as a chaplain before joining Marie Curie Solihull. I have worn it for 5 years while working for Marie Curie. I have serious and cogent reasons for wearing it and consider it a manifestation of my faith and a devotion to God. The cross I wear around my neck is also highly meaningful to me as it represents a physical devotion to both my late wife and to God who brought us together and blessed our marriage.

“I have searched the Marie Curie Solihull website, policy documents, the NHS website and nowhere can I find where there is a written policy which prohibits the wearing of crosses in my specific situation or why it is prohibited.”

Mr Timms shared key excerpts from a judgment from a high-profile legal case on the freedom to wear the cross in the workplace.

In Eweida and Others v. the United Kingdom, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that: “It is a fundamental right to be able to manifest one’s faith by wearing a cross or other religious jewellery in the workplace. The Court reasoned that this right exists, in part, because a healthy democratic society needs to tolerate and sustain pluralism and diversity. Equally important, the Court noted, is the ability of a believer who has made Christianity a central tenet of their life, to be able to communicate the value of their faith to others. There is no requirement, according to the European Court, that wearing the religious jewellery in question is a duty mandated by the religion in question. It is enough that the individual wearing the religious symbol has a belief that their wearing of the symbol is intimately linked to their faith.”

Mr Timms’ letter was then escalated to the Marie Curie regional head office who this month wrote in response: “I can confirm that currently we have neither an organisational or uniform policy that would support our recent request to remove your cross while supporting patients and families in the Hospice. I apologise unreservedly for the distress that we have caused.”

Christian employees facing discrimination for wearing the symbol of their faith is not isolated to Mr Timms. Earlier this year, following a landmark legal judgment on the freedom to wear the cross in the workplace, former NHS nurse, Mary Onuoha won her discrimination case against Croydon Health Services NHS Trust.

An employment tribunal judge ruled that disciplining Mrs Onuoha for wearing the cross breached her human rights and created an “humiliating, hostile and threatening environment” for her.

‘Shocked and hurt’

Responding to the apology, Mr Timms, who supported vulnerable patients and families throughout the pandemic at Marie Curie, said: “I was shocked and hurt by how I was treated.

“There was and is no need to suppress the symbol of the cross and in so doing send a message that the Christian faith needs to be neutralised or removed entirely from a chaplaincy front line service.

“Interfaith ideology is becoming so firmly embedded throughout the Christian faith that it is essentially cancelling itself.   

“When I became a Christian, I wanted to show people the faith that totally changed my life. I vowed that I would stand up for Jesus and wear a cross to show people the faith that I have.

“I started wearing a cross 14 years ago and have not stopped since. No one is going to tell me that I can’t wear it as it means so much to me. No one has ever been offended until now.

“The easiest thing to do would have been to say, ‘I’ll take it off’, but I thought, ‘no’, I should be standing up for what I believe in.

“If I had given in, I believe I would have been saying that I am embarrassed to be a Christian.

“From experience, by wearing my cross, patients trust me, they might not have my faith or belief, but they trust me. I always meet people ‘where they are’ whether they are a Muslim or atheist, and it has always been a privilege for me to support people at the toughest moments in their lives.

“I welcome and appreciate the apology from Marie Curie but believe my work as a chaplain now lies elsewhere.”

Chaplains should be cherished

Andrea Williams, chief executive of the Christian Legal Centre, said: “Derek is a kind man who is passionate about Jesus and sharing the hope and faith that transformed his life. 

“He has never had a single complaint until now for wearing his tiny Cross. He showed great courage by refusing to cave into the significant pressure to remove what mattered so much to him. 

“Methodist Sunday school teachers were the ones that introduced me to Jesus when I was a little girl. They would be horrified to think that a Methodist minister could say such things to Mr Timms.

“We call on chaplaincy teams and leaders across the UK to not be ashamed of the Christian faith, but to uphold and cherish the crucial role Christian chaplains play in supporting people at the most vulnerable moments in their lives.”

Find out more about Derek Timms
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