A new national religion?

WHEN the Prime Minister addressed the nation on Easter Day, he perhaps didn’t realise just how religious his words would sound. Mr Johnson, newly recovered from coronavirus, was understandably emotional in his ‘Lazarus speech’ on the great feast of Christ’s Resurrection: ‘We will win because the NHS is the beating heart of this country. It is the best of this country. It is unconquerable. It is powered by love’[1].

But intentionally or not, Mr Johnson’s words had a clear cultic significance. For even by Easter, ‘our’ NHS (is the ‘our’ really necessary? who else has one?) was quickly becoming an object of worship. And as Thursday’s weekly ‘Clap for our Carers’ sessions—now officially dedicated to all key workers, but still largely perceived to be for the NHS—have swept the country, this NHS cult has become even bolder. Suddenly the busybody on your street is the local Muezzin, calling everyone to prayer at 8pm, sharp, with his virtue-signalling cycling shorts and his overbearing tambourine. Duly summoned, the men of the street then compete to be the loudest, highest-handed clapper, while the women ensure that the children are holding up their NHS rainbows suitably conspicuously. Additionally, many people bring bashable din-making kitchenware. Truly, Britain is now a tinpot dictatorship.

In successive weeks in April, ‘Clap for Our Carers’ fell on Maundy Thursday (just after the Eucharist of the Last Supper), on Easter Thursday, and on St George’s Day. It thus stole primacy of honour and cult from, successively, Christ’s agony, Christ’s resurrection, and our national saint. In what bolder way could a new national religion stake its claims? Indeed, the founder of ‘Clap for Our Carers’ has stated that she wants the weekly clapping to continue even after the Coronavirus problem has ended[2]. An ongoing Thursday Obligation to Clap sounds uncomfortably like Catholics’ (now suspended) Sunday Obligation: the kind of duty properly owed to God alone.

But am I being merely melodramatic? Could one not argue that ‘Clap for Our Carers’ is an entirely natural and healthy reaction to current circumstances, comparable to the spontaneous nightly clapping that arose in Italy during the worst of the crisis there?

To answer this, one must understand the agenda behind our recent NHS adulation. In recent years a section of the country’s political, public-sector and media leaders, and celebrities, have coalesced around a shared instinctive sense, which for a few has become a conscious theory. This instinctive sense, where articulated, runs roughly as follows: Our nation is deeply divided on the most profound and eternal questions of life. But the NHS offers something we call all agree on; an altar around which we can gather; a possible source of social, doctrinal, and cultic unity. For people who believe this, the Coronavirus offers the perfect opportunity to build up this altar; and ‘Clap for Our Carers’, and one-minute silences, offer the perfect means of doing so.

Yet this attempt to make the NHS into a national altar is very dangerous. One offers worship to the thing that one sees as the source of highest values in life: theists worship God, regarded as the source of eternal truth, justice, and the like; hippie idealists worship the rock stars, as the source of hippie idealism; materialists worship the shopping centre, as a source of things to buy. If the NHS is the source of any value, it is the value of the preservation of mortal life. Worship of the NHS therefore implies that the preservation of mortal life is our highest value.

But, as highest values go, this is deeply inadequate. For sure, the preservation of mortal life is a very important end; life is intrinsically valuable. But what makes human life so valuable in the first place, is the fact that we humans can interact with a world of eternal values: we can freely choose to pursue good or evil, justice or injustice. Hence the paradox of human life: we can best affirm the value of our lives by being willing to put them at risk for truth, or justice, or love. Civilization depends on this paradox: we need policemen to risk their lives for the rule of law, we need soldiers to risk their lives for just causes; we need journalists to risk their lives to expose corruption; indeed, we need ordinary citizens to risk going out of the house in the mornings, motivated by a sense that they ought to be useful. If the mere continuation of mortal life is one’s highest aim and value, then life in fact has no value.

Many NHS doctors and nurses understand this perfectly well. Many are motivated by a sense of justice and love, and they know that the NHS, for its all bulk, is not the source of these eternal values. Therefore, they don’t worship the NHS; indeed, many of the them belong to other, older faiths. The problem does not lie with these laudable, self-sacrificing people; it lies with those who would make the NHS into a religion.

Now, it must be said that, as religions go, the new NHS religion that I have characterized above sounds seductively inoffensive. In substituting a transient value—the preservation of people’s lifes—for eternal ones like justice and truth, it seems to avoid debate about fundamentals, and all the intransigence and inhumanity that such debates can provoke. But I say again: if there is no value in life except the value of going on living, then going on living is itself worthless. This is why medical organizations like the NHS are not complete in themselves. The NHS is supposed to save life; but, in a society that increasingly looks to no moral authority except the NHS itself, the NHS now kills a great many people through abortion. Already, mothers of Downs babies often feel great moral pressure to kill their children; they face the insinuation that their babies will be a burden on the NHS. One woman recently explained to the Sun that, at a sonogram for her Down’s-Syndrome child, who was 38-weeks old, a sonographer reminded her that an abortion was possible, since her child was disabled. The NHS’ attitude, claimed the mother, was that Down’s children ‘were of no value’[3]. Indeed the actress Sally Philips, who has a son with Down’s Syndrome, has recently accused the NHS of adopting ‘eugenic thinking’.[4] Today, the old and sick are enjoined to stay at home to ‘protect our NHS’; tomorrow, will they be enjoined to pop into the euthanasia pod, also to ‘protect our NHS’? Maybe: for without values higher than the NHS, everything is on the table. Contrary to politicians’ naïve dream, there is no such thing as a comfortable, viable, consensual, life-affirming NHS Religion that we can all settle into, escaping the need for those invidious debates about eternals. Life is a spiritual fight; there are no mere spectators.

BUT we do have an Established Church. What have the Church of England’s bishops been doing to resist this looming spiritual and sentimental calamity?

The answer would seem to be—nothing. Until very recently, the Church of England had not only closed its churches to its congregations (that might have been reasonable), but it had even banned its own clergy from celebrating services within them—even clergy who lived on-site, or in an attached building. One bishop praised this extreme measure as ‘setting an example and model of what the Government is requesting in a desperate bid… to protect our NHS’.[5] But by that logic, I ought not to have gone into my garage, since that’s also a few steps from my front door. (Maybe ‘the science’ would have told me that it was a risk? Or would the NHS gods have punished me?)

            But there’s more. As the Times reported on Maundy Thursday, the Bishop of London, Dame Sarah Mullally, and the Bishop of Chelmsford, Stephen Cottrell, have banned volunteer clergy without experience of hospital chaplaincy from ministering face-to-face in NHS hospitals, citing safety concerns. Thirteen clergy had volunteered to perform this essential Christian ministry within the Barts NHS Health Trust—the trust that runs London’s new Nightingale Hospital, plus five permanent hospitals. But in accordance with the bishops’ ruling, the only face-to-face Anglican chaplaincy services in the trust’s six hospitals will be provided by the two pre-existing professional hospital chaplains.

            This, moreover, is despite the fact that NHS hospitals themselves are eager to train volunteer chaplains. As the Rev’d Tascha Critchlow, head of chaplaincy at St Bart’s Hospital—and an Anglican herself—said to the Times,‘The hospital would welcome qualified professional volunteers [i.e. professional clergy, not necessarily professional chaplains] who can give end-of-life care and provide solace. We would train them and give them personal protective equipment’[6].

The bishops seemed oblivious to this need. In fact, the Bishop of Chelmsford (the Archbishop-designate of York) suggested that the non-professional volunteer priests whom he’d barred from face-to-face service could make themselves useful in other ways—including by helping NHS workers with their shopping.[7] Meanwhile, the Bishop of London, having on Maundy Thursday confirmed her ban on volunteer chaplains’ serving face-to-face[8], then offered an Easter Sunday reflection on the importance of touch. Dame Sarah—herself a former Chief Nursing Officer of England, who took theology classes, and was ordained, in-post—reflected ‘I was encouraged to hear last week both the government’s Chief Nursing Officer and the head of the Royal College of Nursing telling us that nurses won’t let patients die alone…Touch is central to Jesus’ relationships…Touch brings reconciliation, reconciliation to a community and to God, it brings restoration of relationships and healing’[9].

In sum, then, the Church of England has now bequeathed the sacred duty of the visitation of the sick to health-workers; and meanwhile, it’s converted its priests into health-workers’ personal shoppers. The problem here isn’t the brave health-workers; it’s the church.

            Nevertheless, Dame Sarah—to return to her—is right about the importance of touch. Indeed, her words are borne out by the experience of Fr James Mackay, volunteer Catholic chaplain at the NHS Nightingale London, who has organized a rota of 9 Catholic priests, who provide a permanent presence in the hospital during working hours, and a 24-hour on-call service at other times. As he recently explained to the Catholic Universe[10]:

A priest called me at 10am – it wasn’t his day on – and said he got a call for a patient at 4am. It meant so much to the family member that a priest was there giving the last rites and was able to be there in that patient’s final moments. […]

I was walking down the concourse at the Nightingale last time I was in and I was stopped five times. Four out of those five times they started with: ‘I’m not religious, but…’ I think that engagement in conversation with someone who is a symbol of perhaps the transcendent, something outside of this pressurised environment, is proving so important for people spiritually and psychologically. I can’t move now without a conversation starting up. It is so important for us to be present in this way.

            Of course, many Anglican priests have offered to perform these services too. Some would express their desire to minister in biblical, Evangelical terms; others would share high, catholic ideals of priesthood. From the writer’s own, Catholic, point of view, such attitudes are but two sides of the same coin, and are highly laudable. But the Church of England’s bishops—who are, after all, appointed by the state—seem to have nothing to say to the NHS Religion except ‘we’re right behind you’.

            One is tempted to imagine a dystopic future, in which the ancient bishoprics and archbishoprics of England have become ex-officio appointments for senior NHS clinical directors, and in which the media follow King William and Queen Kate as they lead us in national worship on the 5th July, the foundation day of the NHS, at a blue-and-white-bedecked Canterbury Cathedral. More likely—if we continue on our current path—state ceremonies will continue to be nominally Christian, but our national spirituality will become more and more inward-looking, focused on the mere preservation of people’s mortal lives, especially our own. Truth, justice, and the sanctity of things—even of very young and very old lives—: these will mean little to us, when we have the religion of the NHS.

The question is: which moral leaders will have the foresight to denounce this idolatry, and to set us on a better path?  

[1] Boris Johnson on Twitter, 12th April 2020, available at https://twitter.com/BorisJohnson/status/1249336590482243585

[2] ‘’Clap for carers’: UK pays tribute to workers on frontline of coronavirus’, Sky News, available at https://news.sky.com/story/live-health-secretary-gives-daily-coronavirus-briefing-11977730 at 20:14

[3] ‘Mum’s FURY Doctors tried to get me to abort my baby at full-term because he had Down’s Syndrome’, The Sun, 14th December 2019, available at: https://www.thesun.co.uk/fabulous/10530353/abortion-pressure-nipt-downs-syndrome/

[4] ‘Miranda actress Sally Phillips accuses NHS of endorsing eugenics by ‘pressurising’ women to abort babies who – like her 14-year-old son – have Down’s syndrome’, Mail Online,19th June 2019, available at https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-7160281/Miranda-star-Sally-Phillips-accuses-NHS-pressurising-women-abort-babies-Downs-syndrome.html

[5] ‘Churches now closed to clergy as well’ Church Times, 24th March 2020, available at https://www.churchtimes.co.uk/articles/2020/27-march/news/uk/churches-now-closed-to-clergy-as-well

[6] ‘Church of England bishop bans hospital chaplains from the bedsides of sick and dying coronavirus patients amid fears they will spread infection’, Mail Online, 9th April 2020, available at https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-8203567/Church-England-bishop-bans-hospital-chaplains-bedsides-sick-patients.html

[7] ‘Church of England bishop bans hospital chaplains from the bedsides of sick and dying coronavirus patients amid fears they will spread infection’, Virtue Online, 9th April 2020, available at  https://virtueonline.org/church-england-bishop-bans-hospital-chaplains-bedsides-sick-and-dying-coronavirus-patients-amid

[8] ‘A letter regarding hospital chaplaincy’, Diocese of London, 9th April 2020, available at https://www.london.anglican.org/articles/a-letter-regarding-hospital-chaplaincy/

[9] ‘God has touched the world and we are not alone’, Dame Sarah Mullally, 18th April 2020, on her blog Contemplation in the shadow of a carpark, available at: https://sarahmullally.wordpress.com/2020/04/12/god-has-touched-the-world-and-we-are-not-alone/

[10] ‘Catholic priest who created 24/7 chaplaincy at Nightingale describes experiences on wards’, The Catholic Universe, 23rd April 2020, https://www.thecatholicuniverse.com/catholic-priest-who-created-24-7-chaplaincy-at-nightingale-describes-experiences-on-wards-52245