Witches and Bishops and Lords…Oh My!
By Matthew O’Brien
The Archbishop of York, Dr. John Sentamu, wishes to amend the NHS Bill to include “spiritual” health[i] but rather than have it stated explicitly in the bill he wants it via the back door of a looser definition of “illness” that foregoes such nuanced and enlightened terms as “physical” and “mental” in favour of a more simplified term “illness.”
Whilst resisting the temptation to pluck and devour the low hanging fruit that would beg questions on his stance vis-à-vis so-called “spiritual healing,” his proposal is nonetheless ripe for examination as an exemplar of a pernicious trend to attempt to shoehorn antiquated conceptions of matters spiritual into a modern post-enlightenment discourse.
The Archbishop’s highlighting of the Bill’s apparent lack of concern for provision of “spiritual” health in favour of mere physical and mental health may on the one hand be suspicious of an obsession with a notional “Trinity” of human experience aligned with a Christian world view but on the other (whether intentionally or not) it also appears to obfuscate the hangover of the “mind-body problem” of Cartesian Dualism.
What is the Archbishop’s case for the existence of “spiritual illness?” In order to answer this one can, with modern technology courtesy of countless diligent scientists, view a video clip on the BBC news webpage of the Archbishop standing in the House of Lords regaling those present with the power to effect political and social change in the UK in the 21st century with a story that would not be out of place in the Iron-Age that spawned similar biblical tales. The story was that of a young girl who had been traumatised after witnessing an animal sacrifice by a witch’s coven and how the good Archbishop (then a mere vicar) had “…freed the spirit of a young girl, left petrified by seeing a goat sacrificed,” [ii] after neither general practitioner, nor psychiatrist nor psychologist could apparently help her.
Indeed there is something deeply troubling upon seeing a grown man festooned with three degrees from Cambridge and four honorary degrees[iii],[iv],[v],[vi] from other UK universities standing in the House of Lords in 2011 brazenly mentioning a witch’s coven to try and make a point. Even more troubling was the lack by the Archbishop of any mention of the involvement of social services or consideration of a place for the child on the Child Protection Register; only that where modern medicine had failed, he with his ‘spiritual healing’ had of course succeeded, but I digress.
Allow me if you will to return to the key point that the Archbishop wanted to make in his speech; that of “not [dividing] up the human person” into physical mental and spiritual entities. His sleight of tongue here is masterful; it is almost as if he is saying, ‘I preach non-division because I see one more division than you and in order for that extra division to be taken seriously I request a definition of illness so broad as to legitimise my own particular view of illness.’ This is reminiscent in part of the much celebrated ‘Rationalist vs. Intelligent Design’ Dover trial in the USA in 2004 that saw eleven parents of school-aged children take the Dover Area School District to court challenging the latter’s alteration of its Biology curriculum away from teaching Darwinian evolution and towards one that espoused the doctrine of Intelligent Design. During the course of the proceedings it became clear that some witnesses for the defence had so stretched their definition of “theory” in an attempt to allow “Intelligent Design” to be considered for discussion alongside genuine scientific theory that it also necessarily encompassed astrology.[vii] Returning to the case of the Archbishop, the arena may be different but the tactics are the same.
As a mature medical student with years of previous clinical experience I am no stranger to extolling the virtues of holistic care, it is indeed the pinnacle of health care that is sadly not always achieved yet this was not what the Archbishop was asking for. Not once does he request the word “holistic” to be included; rather he proposes a loosening of terms in the Bill that would allow the insidious leakage of more esoteric concepts to permeate powerful national legislation. Furthermore provision of ‘spiritual care’ in the NHS is already carried out by multi-faith hospital chaplains but their cost (£29m between 2009-2010) and their lack of significant association with better standards of health[viii] mean that if patients genuinely value them, they should be funded by their respective religious organisations and not by the taxpayer.
When considering such points of principle I hope that many readers will be reminded of the valiant and highly visible campaign by the BHA to use the 2011 census as an opportunity to start blowing the wind of change with regard to how population statistics may be used by Government to justify their actions. One goal of that campaign was that with evidence of significant numbers of non-religious citizens comprising the UK population we may one day see (amongst other things) the non-automatic inclusion of the three most senior Anglican bishops admitted ex officio to the Privy Council via the House of Lords. I can only hope that we have succeeded and that the BHA, its members and allies will continue to fight the good fight so that we shall never again have to bear witness to an ostensibly well-educated man speaking of witches and spiritual health in the heart of government and that law-making may be distilled and further refined by the exclusion of the unelected and the irrational from the process.
Original image by Dennis Burger