This article appears in the November 2002 edition of the Catholic Medical Quarterly
Faith Among the Doctors of Today
A talk to the Guild of Catholic Doctors
Bath, 20th April 2002
What role does faith have in our work as doctors?
We are living in a very complex age. Truth is now relative. The younger generation choose what they want to believe in. Church behaviour is seen by many to be either "high cringe" or irrelevant. We have seen in the last six months fanatical faith at work. This has highlighted the existence of "bad religion"; there is bad religion practised in all the great faiths. This is a very common reason given by people in the work place for non-attendance at church. Then there are the secular Gods: shopping, the lottery, people demanding their rights to happiness, all of which compete with God.
However, faith is also back on the agenda. After September 11th last year people are aware of the existence of faith, if not in themselves, certainly in others: this is good.
It seems to me that to explore the role of faith in doctors we need to ask two general questions. First, is faith central to life; or is it now marginalised, an option for some if they want? Well, anyone who has experienced God�s grace and understood their need for it will say strongly that faith becomes central to their peace of mind.
The second question is this. If it is central, a foundation stone of our life, then what part does it play in our work? I will seek to show why I believe it is very important.
I qualified as a doctor in 1980 and came back to the Christian faith in 1986. After a difficult time a few years later, when my faith had been a foundational support, I felt a call to mission work. I soon realised that this was to be in this country, and through medicine. I went to study at Trinity College, Bristol. That led me to apply for ordination into the Church of England. I was accepted and trained at Wesley College, Bristol. There I had a Roman Catholic tutor and spiritual director, as well as Methodist and Anglican tutors. This multi-denominational training was very important to me. I began to see and understand the presence of God in different styles of worship. I am now ordained (1998, Bath & Wells) and I work full-time as a "work place priest" (Minister in Secular Employment MSE) as a doctor in Accident and Emergency in Bristol. This is self supporting ordained ministry.
I believe passionately that there should be one church. We should seek the common ground between denominations that unites our faith rather than the differences that divide us. I also believe in the vital affirmation of God�s compassion as a way to understand and accept his love for us.
The work place
My work place - A&E at the BRI - is harsh. It is an inner-city department where we experience many of the rough and tough ends of life. People are so vulnerable. Within this work place it is important to say that Christian doctors have no monopoly on skill and compassion. The majority of my friends and colleagues do not profess an active Christian faith. Many of them have better clinical skills than I have. It is very important to recognise that God works through their hands too.
So I do not set out here to claim that faith makes me a better doctor. However, I do think it is an adjunct that contributes to the style of caring that we can give. It�s an extra dimension of empathy and judgement.
In the work place a priest is on a level playing field with everyone else. We work alongside them and experience the same pressures and tensions. People who come and talk to us, come on neutral territory (rather than having to "pluck up the courage" to go up to the vicarage door and knock!). On most working days we wear the same clothes. I do not see patients in a clerical collar. They might feel that their illness severity has been misjudged! We work under the same pressures as our colleagues: we are in the same positions of vulnerability. It is important to show that we are vulnerable. The position as priest in the work place is one of service. I encourage an "open door philosophy" so that people know that they can come in and chat. When I am not seeing patients I wear a clerical collar because there are times when this in itself is an icon that God is present in the midst of all the chaos and pain that is A&E medicine.
Patients in A&E are usually in for one visit. There is no continuity of care and therefore no real doctor/ patient relationship that is built up. So moments of ministry and prayer are one off. However, faith does inform and guide the way I speak to patients. It is very hard to remember that all patients, even the most obnoxious, are carrying the potential to be children of God, since they are made in the image of God. I do not succeed in doing this at all times.
Sometimes one hears remarkable stories. Often it is the story behind the story, like the girl who has been beaten up and comes in with injuries, but who in fact is in danger for her life because her family are drug couriers and trying to rope her in to help. You find her a safe house in another part of the country, and all is well.
Many patients come in with disease but, underlying this, "dis-ease" with their life. It is possible to point them towards faith and the services of the hospital chaplain.
Other patients suffer because within Christianity there is sometimes "bad religion". Some Christian communities make their ill patients who are not healed demoralised by saying they haven�t enough faith to get better. This expectation of healing can be damaging. I have on one occasion spoken out against somebody�s church because it has made them feel this way. The repair here involves affirming that everyone can be loved, accepted, and forgiven by God through Jesus Christ.
Friendships develop with the staff. We all work under considerable pressure and, therefore, learn to care for each other. There is, then, much more opportunity for discussion. It is usually the staff that knock on the door and come in with a spiritual need. Sometimes these needs are profound. Other occasions show that the strength of faith in other people is inspirational. We also get to know each other very well, including others getting to know our weaknesses, vulnerabilities and failings. One must accept this. I think it is important to recognise as a ministry that we make mistakes which we have to acknowledge and apologise. Apology is and should be an important part of Christian behaviour.
I would like to conclude this section on talking about the people I work with by stating two principles that I have grown to understand and believe deeply. The first is that when the chips are down there are very few atheists. Everyone has a "spiritual seeking" within themselves, especially at times of emergency. There are many in my work; it is very important to offer the services of a hospital chap lain. I am there in the role of doctor and rarely have a chance to do both. I don�t attempt to because it would confuse, but the bridge to enable a qualified chaplain to come and speak and comfort is vital.
The second principle is that salvation is God�s judgement and not ours. John 10, 14-16 tells us that Jesus knows his sheep and will call sheep of other sheep-pens too, and there will eventually be one flock and one shepherd. We don�t know these other sheep but God does. Therefore our task, as Paul tells Timothy (2 Timothy Ch 4), is to preach the word in season and out of season; i.e. speak about God to everyone. God will use it in his way.
There are many ways that faith has a direct impact on our work as doctors. The first is in the area of healing. I believe that God hears all prayers requesting healing. God also knows our spiritual needs. Sometimes God answers our prayer requesting healing by taking that person for whom we are praying to be with him in heaven. That is God�s business, not ours. I do believe that physical healings occur, probably more frequently than we realise. However, I am certain that spiritual healing is an important part of this process. A patient may bear their pain far better when they are at peace with God.
The second area where faith helps is to offer strength. I believe that God feels and therefore shares our pain. It is very important to affirm that. To say to somebody in pain that God is alongside them and feeling this too, God is alongside them and crying, is sometimes very powerful.
Faith also instils in people a whole-ness. There is great comfort in the words "wholeness", "salvation", "love" and "hope".
Faith also has a vital role in our own peace of mind. Work-place ministry is very harsh. It is "on-the-edge" stuff. We all need God�s forgiveness. There are times when we are strongly reminded that we cannot get by without the strength of God. Some times it is us, on our knees, receiving the blessing of God for us to do our work.
I believe underlying all this is faith in the presence of God. God is in the work place. How do we know? Because God calls us to be there as his hands, his feet, his words and his senses. That is why God is in the work place. Therefore the role of a Priest in that position is visibly to affirm that. That is sometimes the value of wearing the collar.
In addition, the value of prayer is the holding of that work place and its people up before God.
It is so important now to seek the common ground between different churches and denominations. That common ground, the rock to which we cling, is God through Jesus Christ. We must help others to cling to that rock too. They may cling in different ways (i.e. go to different churches) but let us at the very least introduce them to the rock. That is why faith is such an important part of our work as doctors. I believe that God uses all that we do, when it is done seeking to glorify him.
Rev. Doctor Nigel Rawlinson is Assistant Curate at All Saints Church, Weston, Bath and Consultant in A&E, Bristol Royal Infirmary