Is the NHS our new national religion?

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By Tim Maby, 14 April 2020

In this current pandemic crisis “the churches have faded into the background, they’ve shut up shop literally and deferred to the NHS”, claims Professor Linda Woodhead of Lancaster University.

In a briefing organised by the Religion Media Centre, she describes how the NHS, when formed in 1947, incorporated many of the principles of the Christian church. It was seen “as an extension of the kind of Christian project that we had in this country, which was about caring for people from the cradle to the grave”.

The Church of England’s decision to close all churches for services or any communal gatherings during the coronavirus crisis has, she thinks, completed the change.

Professor Matt Thomson, of Warwick University, has been studying the cultural history of the NHS. He reports how Nigel Lawson, Margaret Thatcher’s Chancellor of the Exchequer, was frustrated by public reaction to plans to replace the NHS with some sort of commercial or insurance-based alternative.

In his memoirs, Lord Lawson complains that the NHS is the closest the English have to a religion and that they treat the medical profession as a priesthood. However, research that Professor Thomson carried out with Mass Observation in 2018 showed that many people were “quite shocked” at that idea. They saw it as an insult: they supported the NHS as “a good thing”, not because it was a religion.

But Dr Mehrunisha Suleman, a researcher at Cambridge University, reports that her research with Muslim patients in the Midlands, and other minority groups, found NHS services inadequate. In these communities, older women especially suffered higher levels of ill health according to the 2018 GP patient survey. They tended to rely on their own social network, such as imams, in dealing with suffering.

Commentator Catherine Pepinster, a former editor of The Tablet, considers the London 2012 Olympics opening ceremony, which devoted a large part to admiring the NHS, to be a watershed in public attitudes. She suggests the now-regular clapping in the street for the NHS workers on Thursday nights seems almost to be a religious service. In fact, Professor Woodhead explains, the sociologist Emile Durkheim would have described such an event as “collective effervescence”. To have shared values, people need to get together to have a shared emotional experience. And the clapping in the street is, she says, a significant and moving event.

Professor Woodhead believes that the NHS is “religion that gets under the radar”, because religion is regarded as toxic by many.  Chaplains in hospital are more successful than everday clergy because they are seen as caring for everybody and so can talk about being spiritual.

However, the theologian Professor Stephen Pattison, a former chaplain and NHS manager, argues that the NHS is like the Church of England, in that people like it when they need it, when they are ill, but forget about it otherwise. They go to church for baptisms, weddings and funerals, but the rest of the time lose interest. Similarly they are not so keen on the NHS when it comes to paying taxes.

The “national Church of England has almost voluntarily accelerated” its decline in the way it has faced the pandemic, says Professor Woodhead. The Queen, as supreme governor of the Church, has played her role in her address to the nation and has given what was effectively an Easter sermon. But, says the professor, the Archbishop of Canterbury the Rt Rev Justin Welby has gone beyond government guidelines in closing all the churches and cathedrals – sacred places that “people thought belonged to them and now they realise they can be locked out”.

On the other hand, Professor Pattison points out that the health service is not able to tell you what fullness of life is all about: it can deal only with illness and death. Religion is all about learning from illness and mortality and the worship of God, whereas the health service is pretty much all about endless life with no purpose.

He adds that if, after the event, we forget about the service of people in the NHS, this would be a tragic act of betrayal. His hope is that we become better citizens and we remember this and do something about it.


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