The Guild of Health and St Raphael has been around since 1905 and incudes doctors, psychiatrists, scientists, counsellors, clergy and volunteers among its number.
The Guild’s patrons are the Archbishops of Canterbury and York and the President of the Methodist Council.
Earlier this year the Guild approached me to be its first President.
There are a number of reasons why I am delighted to take on this role. First, Health and Faith, and the links between it, seems to have become for me a mission. In fact, it’s the reason I do almost everything I do.
My paid professional role as a Director of Public Health seeks to improve and protect the health of a population, something to me which sit deeply with the call I believe all Christians have to collaborate with the purpose and mission of Christ. In fact, in its New Charter for Health Care Workers, published in February 2017, the Vatican states that
“The therapeutic ministry of health care workers is a sharing in the pastoral and evangelising work of the Church. Service to life becomes a ministry of salvation that is, a message that implements the redeeming love of Christ. Doctors, nurses, other health care workers, and voluntary assistants are called to be the living image of Christ and of his Church in loving the sick and the suffering”: witnesses to “the gospel of life”.
The text rewards close reading, even though as yet, it is available only in Italian, here. http://www.libreriaeditricevaticana.va/content/libreriaeditricevaticana/it/novita-editoriali/nuova-carta-degli-operatori-sanitari.html But a good English overview can be found here https://press.vatican.va/content/salastampa/en/bollettino/pubblico/2017/02/06/170206b.html
The second is that participation in the work of ensuring God’s people is as healthy as possible, in all dimensions, is a direct participation in the ministry and purpose of Christ – a service to the Gospel of life mentioned above.
The third is that because of this insight, Christians have much to offer from “all our best traditions” as the hymn goes to the world of healthcare, and to the whole issue of what health means. And there are specific Anglican, Presbyterian, Catholic (and many other) nuanced understandings and practices that link between faith and health, from theology to liturgy, spirituality, practical theology and practice. In fact, we were here first. Before the NHS, before organised health care, we were there. In the words of the New Charter The Church has always pointed to caring for the sick as an “integral part of her mission”, associating “the preaching of the Good News with the assistance and care of the sick.”
The New Charter explicitly links Catholic Social Teaching (sometimes called the Catholic Church’s best kept secret) to issues of health. People have a right to health and the means to health and this is part of doing justice to our world. Good quality healthcare is framed as an exercise in justice and love in this document. I can find that implicitly or explicitly in the witness of all Christian traditions I look at.
The fourth reason is that now, explicitly in the policy frameworks of all of the four devolved administrations of the UK, is the recognition that health has many social dimensions, and needs social actors. This is a Kairos moment – an auspicious time when we can speak into the agenda of what it means to be healthy, and what health and social care is about.
The fifth reason is that while each of us can offer things from our own tradition – Catholics founded religious orders dedicated to health and healing, for example – there is both advantage and imperative to work together to model how, despite being different, we can find common ground. In a broken and hurting world, with care systems that are often fractured and divided, Christians working together witness with rolled up sleeves to a common commitment to health across denominational divisions; hold out the hope that those divisions can be minimised and hold out the hope of unity, and that togetherness of purpose is real and life-giving. Another way of putting this is that in a culture where health is individualised and commodified, we need to gang up together to change that culture. We can’t do it alone.
The sixth reason I am keen to do this is because the scientific evidence supports our insights as much as it informs them. We are becoming increasingly aware that health includes the whole person, and especially for those who cannot be cured, health is about making a good response to the realities we face. Like our Director, Gillian, I am a cancer survivor, lucky to be alive after a Grade IVB lymphoma. Like Gillian, that experience has shaped how I am rediscovering the riches of the Christian tradition to speak to today’s world on health. For those with long term conditions or disabilities, those with long term mental health challenges, those who are dying, the World Health Organization’s definition of health as a complete state of psychological, physical, spiritual wellbeing is not just hopelessly optimistic, it becomes cruel. It implies they are less than fully human, and with that comes the risk they become devalued. That is not a Christian view. Suffering, limitations and disabilities are not valueless. The World Health Organisation’s vision is valuable, but its valuable because of where it points us. It is eschatological rather than present, a hope for the future. That means we have to revisit what health means here and now. And I would argue that the science and our theology are mutually affirming on this, and the Guild is ideally placed to do that work from the academic work at one end of the spectrum to the work of caring, praying and doing at the other.
There are more reasons why I am delighted to take on this role, but they are all because I want to talk up the links between health and faith within the Church, and talk up the work of the Guild and its potential to the Church too. And at the same time I want to talk up and talk out to the health world, sharing the fundamental insights we have that we need to bring into constructive – and sometimes critical – dialogue with our world.
The Guild has insights about health as being right relationship with God, self, neighbour, world and environment that we need to re-learn, but which are patchy in our world. People are becoming increasingly aware of the need to steward our environment while forgetting that we are called to be neighbours, and we must steward ourselves and each other.
Wholeness and holiness are two sides of the same coin, and they both are multidimensional and relational. The Guild has held those insights up to society. More than ever, the Guild can be a means of sharing this vision, celebrating the vocation to health, wholeness and holiness for everyone, and a voice to remind our society of the value of this.
Earlier this year, The RC Diocese of Westminster led a season of events entitled Called to Serve the Sick. It was intended to be a practical continuation of the Year of Mercy. A series of roadshows, which I was present to lead, discussed a Catholic Understanding of Health and Social Care, why Catholics should feel a particular vocation to health and social care, and what parishes can do about it. The Bishop who led this season, Bishop Paul McAleenan said that “It is fitting that this season comes as a continuation of the Year of Mercy, giving us the opportunity to practice that most important act of Christian love, care for our neighbour. Good health, poor health, disability and ultimately our death, are integral aspects of what it means to be humans precious to God, and so they are of huge importance to us as Catholics.”