The Science and practice of linking Health and Faith: the Guild of Health and St Raphael

This article is reproduced by very kind permission of The Catholic Universe Newspaper, September 2017

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Earlier this year the Diocese of Westminster, led by Bishop Paul McAleenan, organised 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 privileged to be one of the speakers at, 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.”

This season was hugely important for me because Health and Faith has been, for some years now, increasingly central to my professional, church and volunteering life. 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. And you’ll know from other pieces in The Universe that Catholics have the explicit backing of the Church to be involved in health. The Vatican’s 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”.

In the next week I take up the role as first President of the Guild of Health and St Raphael. Formed in 1904 to bring together members of the clergy and medical professions together to study and promote the healing ministry of the Church, it claims to be the oldest organisation in the UK working in the field of Christian healing. Anglican in heritage it is now ecumenical in outlook. The two Anglican Archbishops of York and Canterbury are Patrons along with the Methodist Church’s President, and now the Guild has a Catholic President!

I have been lucky to experience the leaderships of three Bishops on health care. Bishop Tom Williams, Bishop Paul McAleenan and Bishop Paul Mason. That episcopal leadership has been powerful, and in the case of Bishop Tom Williams, has had an enduring influence on me that the Westminster Called to Serve the Sick season gave significant added impetus to.

And it was while pondering all this that the invitation from the Guild to become President arrived.

The Guild of Health and St Raphael is ecumenical, inclusive and prayerful. That much I have seen first hand. It takes both theology and science seriously, and it works with a range of partners. That much too I have seen. It’s also ambitious, hoping to be a key place where science, religion and health meet in both rigorous discourse and practical resources for individual and parish based healing ministry. The Raphael Institute, a developing academic research collaboration, has just been launched by the Guild as I write.

Add to that the fact that the Guild tries to practice what it preaches, and what’s not to like? The Director, Revd Dr Gillian Strange, is a PhD qualified Scientist, an ordained and theologically educated Priest, and, like me, a Cancer Survivor.

None of this I knew when the approach arrived. In fact, it arrived as something of a shock. I did the “why on earth would they want me, couldn’t they find anyone better? And why would they want a Catholic?” thing. I then thought of suggesting Justin Welby before realising he’s a patron already. And then I prayed long and hard and spoke to colleagues. I spoke to a colleague who reminds me of the great treasure we have in saints like Teresa of Avila – she has her sleeves permanently rolled up, is strong, sensitive and wise in equal measure, and is both prepared and skilled at occasionally giving one a bit of a well -judged kick.

She reminded me that she calls me “the health and faith babel fish”. By which she means I seem to be good at translating the field of health to the field of faith. She asked me “do you think the Guild did important things?” “Yes”, I answered. “Does it have a sound theology?” Again, “yes”. “Does it resonate with your desire to make clear the links between health and faith?” “Yes, vey much so.” “Well, then in your own words -get on with it.”

And it strikes me that as Catholics we have much to bring, and just as much to gain, from being involved in this. The first thing Catholics have to bring to this table is the richness of Catholic teaching. I’ve mentioned that above. Our conviction 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, has been witnessed to by the Church for centures.

The second thing Catholics have to bring to this table is that Christians have much to offer from “all our best traditions” to the world of healthcare, and to the whole issue of what health means. Our theology, countless saints, the witness of religious orders, the fact Catholics invented hospitals, the fact that we are still present in the worlds of health and social care in percentages of the workforce far greater than our proportion of the general population, and our understanding of health, are all significant riches we have to offer. 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.”

And there are specific Anglican, Presbyterian, (and many other) understandings and practices that link between faith and health, from theology to liturgy, spirituality, practical theology and practices we can learn from. In fact, we were here first. Before the NHS, before organised health care, we were there.

A further contribution is 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.

But there are also important reasons why we should work together as Christians in this field. 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. We have things to say.

I have said before that 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. As Catholic Christians we believe that 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.

I invite you to join us in this mission.

Want to know more about the guild?

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@guildofhealth (Twitter)

Jim McManus

Professor Jim McManus is the first Catholic President of the Guild of Health and St Raphael, Director of Public Health for Hertfordshire and adviser on health to the Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales.