We do not recognize the picture painted by Revd Marcus Walker in his article in The Times “Clergy must be free to minister to the sick in this crisis” (9 April 2020).
Priests’ every instinct is to be alongside those who are sick and dying, to offer prayer, to accompany people through suffering and minister at the time of death. However, we who are priests and chaplains also have a duty to prevent infection and so save lives.
In this context Church of England bishops fully support the duty of NHS professional chaplains to minister face to face to the sick and the dying. We value the sacrifices they are potentially making to work on the front line. As our guidance made clear, how this is best done is a matter for each NHS Trust within their own local risk assessments. At present their practice varies across the country.
In the midst of the pressure and demands of our pandemic crisis many parish clergy are volunteering their services to offer chaplaincy at the recently opened NHS Nightingale Hospital at the ExCeL Centre in east London, and to serve alongside brave and overstretched doctors and nurses. In the battle against this vicious virus, their commitment is a real good news story.
Our letter as bishops offered clear guidelines in particular to these volunteer temporary chaplains who would come in to offer wholehearted support to both staff and relatives of patients, whilst observing our Government’s and medical advisers’ clear protocols with regard to physical distancing and avoidance of cross infection with Covid-19.
At Barts Health NHS Trust, which includes five hospitals, plus responsibility for the new Nightingale facility, there is a multi-faith team of chaplains. The Anglican lead chaplain had made us aware that additional chaplaincy provision is needed. We had agreed to facilitate this by seconding a small number of clergy from parish and other responsibilities to the hospital setting. The Dioceses of Chelmsford and London had already begun to identify such suitable volunteers and to put them in touch with the lead Anglican chaplain.
As things currently stand, these additional volunteers cannot assist in face to face patient contact as this would increase the risk of infection transmission within, into, and out of the hospital. They can, however, assist in pastoral support of patients via video call on phone or tablet, and in the vitally important task of providing pastoral care to NHS staff. This was what was discussed with the lead chaplain earlier this week and it is what we will continue to advise our volunteers, unless otherwise formally requested by the Trust.
The Chelmsford and London bishops continue to be in regular contact with and to support hospital chaplains in their areas. They are committed to helping them safely increase the capacity to respond pastorally in their health care settings, whilst doing everything they can to reduce infection transmission, to protect the NHS, and to save lives.
The Rt Revd & Rt Hon Sarah Mullally DBE, Bishop of London
The Rt Revd Stephen Cottrell, Bishop of Chelmsford
The Rt Revd Peter Hill, Bishop of Barking
The Rt Revd Dr Joanne Woolway Grenfell, Bishop of Stepney