Wednesday 8 April 2009

Are hospital chaplains a waste of money?

My initial reaction is to be unconvinced by the National Secular Society's call for the NHS to phase out chaplaincy services and to save at least £32 million across the UK. You can read the details on their website.

The argument is that the costs should be borne by religious institutions and not by the taxpayer. But that might depend not just on the consumerist issue of how many patients use these services, but also on the effect the availabilty of such services can have on well-being, serenity and health. I am not sure whether any robust evidence is yet being presented on either side of the debate about that.

Jonathan Wynne-Jones of the Telegraph suggests NHS Trusts might be cutting back anyway.

While this is being framed as a health resources issue, it is hard to think that it is not primarily a symbolic one.

And it seems a strange one to pick.


Newmania said...

Quite lets spend months on Fox Hunting and no debate since last November on putting us all £30,000 in debt . Lets lose over a trillion on rubbish then whine about £30,000,000 . There is no evidenec btw that any of the religion of therapy has ever done any good at all.

Can I not pay for that and while I `m at it .......contd. Page 94

Sunder Katwala said...


Thanks. Indeed, we may have a small breakthrough here. It sounds as though you are happy to support these chaplain services from the tax-funded NHS budget? (I appreciate you wish to cut back other parts of it).

Matt Wardman said...

There's something funny here.

The NSS report says "Salary cost of NHS chaplaincy services: £32,014,475. This figure is for staff salary and associated on-costs only. It does not include the provision and maintenance of chapels, churches, prayer rooms/centres etc.
The cost is equivalent to the cost of around 1,500 nurses or over 2,600 cleaners."

By this morning on the BBC that had changed to 1300 nurses.

The first set of figures gives an average cost of a nurse of £21k, in a comparison with a number which includes overhead costs.

The figure without on costs was around £25k in 2007. See:

It could all be typos, so I've asked them for some clarification, but the NSS is a campaigning organisation that gets a lot wrong evidentially, and I'm withholding judgement.

>And it seems a strange one to pick.
My take is that the NSS agenda has always been "religion out of public life" so that their version of secularism can own the public square. In that context, this may be logical - but I'm not sure that they have picked the right issue even to campaign on.

Stuart White said...

I think it important that people of faith have easy access to 'chaplains' or the equivalent in their religion. Many people in hospital will be making hard decisions about treatment where they might feel the need for guidance. And, of course, they and their relatives will feel the need for someone to talk to about the emotional and spiritual challenges they are facing. So I certainly think that hospitals should be, as it were, faith-friendly zones.

However, that still leaves open the question of whether, or how far, the state ought to pay for this.

If the state is paying something, then the 'chaplaincy' service must of course be inclusive and offer facilities for all faiths. A good model for this is the interfaith chapel at MIT, where I used to teach. The chapel was a small, beautiful building which people of different faiths could occupy at different times of the day or week, each group taking its religious 'equipment' in for worship and then taking it out. No one religion had any of its distinctive 'equipment' (e.g., the Christian cross) built into the fabric of the room.

I think it appropriate for the NHS to provide such interfaith chapels. I wouldn't expect the NHS to pay the salary of clergy and the like who were linked to the chapel - to remain interfaith, this would imply paying quite a lot of salaries! But perhaps the NHS might pay a small retainer fee to religious groups who were willing to supply a 'chaplain'.

Calix said...

I want a humanist chaplain, or is that a contradiction in terms?..

Matt Wardman said...


No - they exist. The sguff about "OMG we are all paying for religious people to support their own flock" is wrong.

There's one account from 2006 here:

I don't have data about how extensively specifically Humanist Chaplains are available, though. Suspect that the speed these things develop at most will be part time or volunteer, but I'd expect all Chaplaincies to be able to refer you.

Matt W

Gordon said...

Nobody is saying you shouldn't have a chaplain, just that the NHS shouldn't pay for them.

How is that even controversial? The NHS has a limited fund to draw on. It should be spent on medical services. The churches should be free to provide chaplains at their own expense.