Terence Blacker: Why is support for the sick a religious issue?

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At this time of the year, when part-time Christians all over the country will be making a rare visit to their local church in order to keep their membership up to date for another nine months, it has been salutary to be reminded of the role religion plays in everyday life – whether we like it or not.

The taxpayer is required to pay £40m a year to cover the costs of having chaplains on call in hospitals, according to the National Secular Society (NSS). That money could, it claims, be more usefully spent on, say, 1300 nurses or 2,645 cleaners. The NSS makes clear that it does not oppose the idea of chaplaincy but that it sees no reason why the National Health should pay for what is a religious service. An obvious alternative, it says, would be for patients to be visited by their own local vicar, rabbi or imam.

Behind the specifics of this argument, there lurk some ticklish larger questions. Are we, at those moments in life when it really matters, essentially a religious society? Should the cash-strapped NHS be in the business of paying for spiritual care? And why is providing emotional and psychological support for the sick, the dying and the bereaved still seen as an exclusively spiritual matter?

The weakest part of the secularist case is that it should be the responsibility of faith leaders to visit hospitals and attend to members of their flock. This assumption – that, for example, Church of England vicars are sensitive and assiduous when it comes to desperate and sad personal situations – is hardly borne out by the evidence.

Some vicars are good at their jobs; others are lazy or, worse, rather too concerned about their position in local society to provide much comfort to those in extremis.

The fact that professional chaplains are never far from hospital wards and corridors may not be a comfort to all – one person's angel of mercy is another's crow-like harbinger of death – but at least they have experience and expertise when it comes to suffering.

Far from easing pressure on NHS resources, it would complicate the lives of nurses and doctors and support staff should that NHS-controlled service be replaced by a variety of individual priests acting, with differing competence, on a freelance basis.

As the union Unite has pointed out, the chaplaincy service often saves the NHS money in straightforward, practical ways. A hospital priest can conduct so-called "contract funerals" – occasions when the dead person has no family, or one which is unable to afford to pay for a funeral.

So, unless one believes that the National Health should only concern itself with the physical business of medicine, the main thrust of the secularist argument is a nonsense. Any decent health service should see the emotional health of patients as a vital part of its duty of care.

The great mystery is why, in a secular age, providing psychological comfort is still seen to be an exclusively religious matter. In a population of over 6o million, a little over 1.1 million regularly attend Church of England services. In hospital, even allowing for a few thousand panicky, injury-time conversions to faith, the non-believers are in a majority.

It is bizarre, and occasionally downright sadistic, that the grievously sick, the dying and the bereaved are forced into the arms of a priest, whether or not they happen to be believers. The £40 million of public money spent in our hospitals on spiritual comfort is money well spent, but only if it caters for all faiths, including those who have no faith at all.

Let's be honest, Peta are slightly bonkers

Sometimes it seems inevitable that those who campaign for the welfare of animals, however laudably, will eventually go slightly bonkers. Those who belong to animal rights groups, like the celebrity-friendly "People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals" (or Peta), appear to be particularly vulnerable. It has just put out a press release suggesting that, when Guantanamo Bay is closed down, an "Empathy Exhibition" should be presented on the site, comparing human and animal suffering. For example, images of someone clubbing a seal and policeman hitting a protester might be displayed together.

Meanwhile in Europe, Peta has approached veteran musical duo the Pet Shop Boys with the suggestion that they might change the name of their group to the "Rescue Shelter Boys" in order to point up the cruelty of pet shops.

Bad timing. It has just emerged that Peta's own rescue shelter is weirdly trigger-happy. Of 2,216 animals taken in last year, 2,124 were put down. A total of seven were found new homes. "We are doing the dirty work that others won't," a Peta spokesman has said.

It's not art, but it is imitating life

Just in case people were beginning to think that bankers and MPs are uniquely cynical, the reality TV group Endemol has come up with a bright new way of exploiting the recession. Someone's Gotta Go, a project for the Fox network in America, is to be a real-life, downturn-friendly version The Apprentice – instead of contestants competing for a job, they will be fighting to keep the one they have.

Employees in a small firm will have the chance to decide which of them is to be fired, with minimal severance pay. The pay and personal details of each will be revealed to the other contestants – or, rather, employees – and viewers will get the chance to watch them tearing each other apart.

This is simply an extension of real-life experience, those caring people from Endemol have said.

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