Sabbatical, Day 6

I haven’t really done any sabbatical work today. Friday is usually my day off, and I’ve kept it much like that. I think it’s good to keep the rhythm. So after taking the children to school, I stayed on, because on Friday mornings I do twenty minutes’ reading with a group of Year 1 children.

Late morning, Debbie and I headed into town. We needed some more bargain school uniform for the monkeys and struck gold at Marks and Spencer. Yes, really. Then we continued our recent habit of having a cheap lunch out together. Yates’s Wine Lodge (why do they put that extra ‘s’ after the apostrophe?) had a two-for-£7.95 deal, and it was good for the price. The downside was the company at the next table. Two young women with a pre-school boy. One was his mother, poor lad. All sorts of unsavoury conversation that youngsters shouldn’t hear. Debbie swears one of them got him to drink a mouthful of her shot. Some kids don’t have a chance.

Meanwhile, I have been following all week the case of Caroline Petrie, the Christian nurse who was suspended for offering to pray with a patient. She offered prayer, the patient declined, Mrs Petrie did not pray. The patient was not offended, but told someone else she thought it was strange. Next thing, Mrs Petrie is under investigation. She has previously been disciplined for offering prayer cards. The Daily Mail reported this on Monday,as did the Daily Telegraph. On Tuesday, the Mail reported support for her case from the Royal College of Nursing and the Christian Medical Fellowship. Today, the Mail reports her reinstatement, but – along with the Telegraph – also quotes a further potentially sinister development. The Department of Health published a document last month in which it warned that doctors or nurses who attempted to preach to patients or other staff would be treated as having committed harassment or intimidation under disciplinary procedures.

Furthermore, I have received a press release today from the Evangelical Alliance in which Hazel Blears, the Government’s Communities Secretary, told faith groups that if they accept money from the state, they must not use it to proselytise. They may speak about their faith if spoken to, she says, but clearly taking the initiative to mention it would be forbidden under a forthcoming ‘charter of excellence’. She then says she doesn’t want to strip away the very reason why faith groups show compassion! The Alliance’s Director of Public Policy, R David Muir, responded:

“The Government wants the social action and welfare that faith groups provide, but there is a danger that they also want faith groups to leave their beliefs at the door.

“Our faith is what equips us as Christians to provide support and compassion to those who are spiritually and emotionally damaged by debt.

“But we are glad that the Government recognises how integral our faith is to the services we provide, and is open to discussion on this critical issue. We look forward to working with them.”

All round, then, seem to be threats against Christians making the first move in sharing their faith and using it to offer comfort and hope to people. Here are a few random reflections:

1. None of this should surprise us. Whatever the faith of Blair first and now Brown, the Labour Party runs these days on a fundamentally secular humanist creed. Let’s here none of that ‘the Labour Party owes more to Methodism than Marxism’ mantra. It may have been true in the past. It isn’t today. Christians should expect such opposition.

2. Nevertheless, none of that should stop us crying ‘foul’. All these cases are about discrimination against the freedom of religion the Government supposedly signed up to when it ratified the European Convention on Human Rights. And while part of me is wary of the secular philosophies behind that document, the Government clearly doesn’t want to accept that sauce for the goose is a tasty accompaniment for the gander as well.

3. We also need to reflect upon ourselves. How much of this might we have brought upon ourselves through insensitive ‘witnessing’? Please note, I’m not saying Mrs Petrie was. I don’t know her, and the fact that she didn’t press on with a prayer for her elderly patient when the offer was declined suggests that while she is upfront with her faith, she is probably not the aggressive sort. Nevertheless, most of us know Christians whose demeanour in faith-sharing makes us cringe, let alone what the non-Christians feel.

4. However, an attempt to prevent us from taking the initiative is effectively a tactic to shut us up. I believe we have to earn the right to speak by loving, holy, just action, but that does not mean we cannot speak first or simultaneously as well.

5. The ‘public money’ argument is specious. It’s not Government money, it’s taxpayers’ money. And while we elect officials to use it, they are stewards, not owners. Do they think Christians should not pay their taxes? This kind of argument amounts to an attempt to strip us of our democratic voice.

6. There is a huge case of historical amnesia here. As today’s Mail article rightly points out, many of our hospitals were explicitly Christian foundations in their origin. In the church we would want to say more than that, in crediting the rise of the infirmaries and more recently the hospices to Christian vision. So to tell a nurse her faith must come second forgets the origin of much health care in this country.

7. Furthermore, no Christian can put her faith second. I am fond of telling the story of an elderly Local Preacher from my home circuit. He was interviewed for the post of Secretary to the local Co-Operative Society. “Where will you put the Co-Op in your loyalties?” the panel asked him. “Second,” he replied, “to the church of Jesus Christ.” I don’t think he meant that all his time would be spent at church, I think he meant that his faith would determine his life. He got the job, and did it well.

8. Nevertheless, putting our faith second puts us under suspicion in society. There is huge historical precedent for this. It’s what Daniel did, praying towards Jerusalem while serving faithfully in Babylon. It’s the centuries-long suspicion of Catholic loyalty to the Vatican. In the name of what is currently calle ‘community cohesion’, authorities call people together to a common loyalty that is effectively a secular creed. Hence other phenomena in our society today, such as the opposition to faith schools, or the legislation that has made it increasingly difficult to have organisations that are exclusively staffed by Christians. Do we cave in? The biblical answer seems to me to be ‘no’. However, that means accepting the consequences. We’re not remotely near the situation Christians found themselves in when communism ruled eastern Europe, but there it was well known that people of faith would not get on well with their careers and would suffer economically for their beliefs. Might we be seeing the thinnest end of that wedge here, or is that alarmist?

I think that’s enough from me. What are your thoughts?


  1. In respect of the meal out we had a similar experience yesterday evening in a ‘Sizzling’ pub while having a meal. There was one man two tables away who was what I would have to call a lout and did not seem to be able to speak without using the ‘F’ word between every other word. Unfortunately given his loutish appearance and the tone of his conversation I did not feel either brave enough or foolish enough to challenge him, but then I don’t suppose he would consider he was using foul language.

    In respect of the remainder of your post I am quite envious and wish I had written it. I agree with what you are saying and in fact I have this feeling that there is a very slightly hidden agenda to close us down completely – the increasing legislation on health and safety respect of our churches seems to me to be part of this process.


  2. Thanks, FP. When Debbie and I were whispering about the women on the next table, we were very aware that we could sound like ‘Pharisees’ and yet we were so distressed for the lad.

    With regard to Caroline Petrie, I must admit I hesitated to write what I wrote. I know some people will point to the fact that the stories I cited were from the Mail and the Telegraph, probably the two most ‘right wing’ newspapers we have, and might understandably be suspicious of them having an agenda. Maybe they do. We do. So do atheists. Etc. The issue comes with whether they are accurately reporting the facts, before the question of interpretation comes. My judgment is that they clearly were reporting the facts of the case. And if that is so, then some disturbing questions arise. I’m aware too that there are Christians in this country who have a persecution complex and who are wont to see the merest disagreement as a sign of it, but there do seem to be several signs of legislation and policy moving against us.


  3. Dave, you sound very negative about this, and towards our government, at a time when they seem to be reaching out towards Christians, to the extent that they have even been accused by secularists of preaching and “seeking to reposition the party as a Christian Socialist movement” – see Eddie. I saw the same story about Hazel Blears’ speech (see my comment on Eddie’s post) and saw it as something very positive, a government minister really trying to build bridges with the churches, while making in passing the very reasonable point that money given to faith groups for one purpose should not be spent on another.

    As for the Caroline Petrie case and the latest Department of Health advice, see what Ruth Gledhill has to say, which seems more balanced. Under the new guidelines the sister who reported Petrie is more likely to be considered guilty of harassment than Petrie is.


  4. After a long discussion on Ship of Fools with people involved in healthcare, I’ve changed my view on the advisability of Christian medical staff taking the first initiative in praying with people.

    A number of healthcare workers pointed out ways that people have ‘prayed’ with others in ways that did not offer comfort and hope: e.g. praying in a way that suggested their faith was deficient, praying for their conversion or change of theology, praying in a way that suggested that the person’s medical situation was very serious. They also pointed out that a simple offer to pray, for many non-churched people, doesn’t imply care and concern but rather ‘you are probably going to die’.

    Given that training in pastoral care is not part of a medical professional’s training, it seems simpler to me simply to say that such ‘treatment’ is not permitted.


  5. Peter,

    Thank you for bringing a different angle to this. I confess my reading was limited largely to links provided in the weekly Bible Society Newswatch email. I agree, the Ruth Gledhill piece does put a different light on it and I’m glad you mentioned it here. It is quite reassuring.


  6. Pam,

    Thanks for bringing this to the discussion, too. Without having seen the discussion to which you refer (see my reply to Peter above), every example sounds like a misuse of prayer. Banning prayer sounds like a simple solution. The question is whether simple solutions are always right.

    Please forgive me for not going into greater depth: I am typing a reply in between packing for driving to Cliff College tomorrow. The weather forecast for the Peak District tomorrow doesn’t sound as threatening as it did a couple of days ago.


  7. “Banning prayer sounds like a simple solution. The question is whether simple solutions are always right.”

    As I understood it, it’s not a question of ‘banning’ prayer. It’s about forbidding those whose primary professional obligation is healthcare from initiating conversations about a patient’s spirituality.

    What you say sounds thoughtful, but I don’t see how it gets regulated.

    There is also a power dynamic. What if I worry that Dr. A won’t continue to treat me if I don’t show interest in his efforts to witness to me about the Baha’i faith, for example?


  8. It’s a difficult issue of balance, isn’t it? And I’m sure you’re right to bring the power question into the discussion, too.


  9. Thanks, Jane. Sorry for the delay in approving the comment and replying, but it went to the email address I monitor at home, not the webmail address I could monitor while I was away this week. Anyway, surely since the name derives from Yates and not Yate, they should be Yates’, rather than Yate’s or Yates’s?


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