Apres Assembly

The theme of the recent Sunday Assembly was ‘Caring’ (so we are now all, officially, past Caring). Though the attendance was a little disappointing, everything else about the Assembly demonstrated why the whole movement is good for your soul, whether literal or metaphorical. There was an interesting talk from an outside speaker. There were some funny and heartfelt bits from Assembly members. There was some gloriously mediocre singing of pop songs played with skill and passion by the house band. Then there was food and banter and good cheer.

The talk was given by Mark Burleigh, the Head of Chaplaincy at the Leicester Royal Infirmary. He began with a brief history of chaplaincy, which has been part of the NHS since its inception in 1948. He described how the first time the headship was advertised he was unable to apply, since it stipulated that the employee must be of the Church of England. Then the next time it was advertised he could apply, since it stipulated only a Christian person. And since then, under his leadership, the chaplaincy has employed a variety of ‘chaplains’ from the panoply of different faiths that are present in Leicester. And today the elephant of progression has achieved an even longer trunk, since the LRI is poised to hire its very first non-religious chaplain, in reflection of the fact that many of its patients are not at all religious.

At this point you may wonder, as I did, what is the justification for having religious chaplains at all, if non-religious chaplains are able to perform the chaplainical requisites? Luckily we thrashed all this out over lunch, and the justification has two stages.

Firstly, the core work of chaplains isn’t religious, but pastoral and ‘spiritual’ (broadly defined). Chaplains are there to support patients on a personal level, rather than to address their specifically medical needs. I think that most people would accept the utility of such support.

But secondly, for persons of faith, pastoral and spiritual issues tend to present within the framework of their particular faith. So in order to reach such people, chaplains need to be from appropriate religious backgrounds.

Thus, the religiousness of chaplains is based upon a demographic argument, which is interesting, since it would suggest that the proportion of non-religious chaplains should increase in time. Mark tried to argue that the number of religious people goes up in extremis – the old ‘no atheists in the foxholes’ argument – and that patients tend to be older folk, who are more religious than the young. But the basic point holds even so.

Later in the Assembly, Allan remarked in his address upon the sea changes that have happened in society, of which the changing face of chaplaincy is just one. He agreed with Mark that this change is broadly one in which ‘person-centred’ approaches are coming to the fore.

In the ‘doing her best’ section Jennie argued that she is not a ‘fleshy miracle’ – a phrase that I feel I shouldn’t enjoy quite as much as I do – despite the efforts of past significant-others to see her as such. She gave a very entertaining account of the ancient truth that love cannot, in fact, conquer all; that caring for others must be tempered with caring for oneself if caring itself is to flourish. And she finished by presenting us with the logo that in an ideal world the Sunday Assembly would have adopted for itself: the Somewhat Overweight Unicorn of Caring.

The Assembly ended with the cutting of a cake to celebrate its first birthday, and also with a fond thank-you and au revoir to Shefali, who is having to give up her band-leading activities to concentrate on her studies.

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