Guest Post: At Home Among the Dissenters – John McLuckie

The Rev John McLuckie is about to return to Scotland following several years working in England. In this guest post he reflects on his experience of the Church of England. Do feel free to respond to what John has written below in the comments and check out his blog at http://justluckie.typepad.com

On the weekend of the celebrations to mark the Queen’s diamond jubilee, I decided that I wasn’t in the mood for the kind of civic religion I knew I would find in my local Church of England parish so I went to our local Quaker meeting instead. I enjoyed it so much that I have been going there regularly ever since.  I enjoy the silence and the gently mystical instincts of Friends, but also their testimony to simplicity, equality and peacemaking.  As an Anglican priest, this seems like a slightly irresponsible thing to do, but I think that this choice says a lot about how I perceive the differences between the context and ethos of the church in which I was ordained – the Scottish Episcopal Church – and the one I currently belong to – the Church of England.

In fact, I don’t work for the Church of England but for the NHS as a chaplain in a specialist cancer hospital.  I recognise that this is a privileged position in at least two ways: firstly I feel privileged to work in a place where I can explore matters of the spirit with people who would not normally have anything to do with a church, including people of other world faiths; secondly, I am, in part, able to occupy this position by virtue of the privileged relationship with the state enjoyed by the Church of England.  I have no doubt that this relationship is changing, but am not skilled in the arts of predicting the future so would not dare to hazard a guess as to how it will look in a generation’s time.  What is clear to me is that the C of E takes its public role very seriously and I deeply respect the skill and intelligence with which so many of its members, lay and ordained, interact with society at all its levels, civic, cultural and communal.  However, it is also clear to me that the C of E is not alone in this commitment, even if it does sometimes imagine that it is.  The truth is that there is another story about the place of Christian faith in English life and culture and my sojourn with the Society of Friends gives a clue about it.

The ecology English Christianity is remarkable and unique in European terms.  Ever since the religious and intellectual battles of the17th century, England has been a place of unparalleled religious pluralism.  The Quakers, Baptists, Jews, Presbyterians and Unitarians I come across as I visit patients on the wards all owe their safe place in English society to the turbulent events of that century and, in the two that followed, Methodists, Salvationists, Hindus, Muslims and Jehovah’s Witnesses all added their distinctive voices to this peculiar ecosystem. And all of that is before we get to the multi-cultural diversity of the 20th and 21st centuries.  The expression of ‘dissent’ was, therefore, firmly planted in English society in the wake of the Civil War and that ‘dissent’ was largely forged over against the established Church of England.  To this day, some English Christians will describe themselves as belonging to a ‘’free’ or ‘’non-conformist’ church and I think their presence has made England one of the most successfully culturally diverse societies in Europe today.  I do not for a moment underestimate the strains on that diversity, but it is impossible to live in a city like London without being regularly caught up in its glorious and vibrant complexity.

Because I have a mischievous streak, I often remind people that I am a ‘’non-conformist Anglican’ in the sense that I was ordained in a church that deliberately removed itself from alignment with the ruling authorities.  Of course, I recognise that this is slightly disingenuous, because those early non-juring Episcopalians had every intention of recovering a position like that occupied by the Church of England.  But I am only being slightly disingenuous because the fact is that the Scottish Episcopal Church has been free of ties with the state for well over 300 years.

I feel very much at home among the dissenters.  I enjoy the freedom to be contradictory and find a kind of maturity in the necessity of making one’s own way in the world.  At the same time, I respect and value the C of E’s commitment to keeping faith in the public realm.  When it is busy with its all-consuming internal battles, it might be salutary for it to remind itself that it is strongest when it is looking outward and stronger still when it recognises the others who are doing just that.

When I return to Scotland next week, I will appreciate being home among non-conformist Anglicans.  I will take with me a new-found love for English diversity and dissent and a deeper appreciation of the very difficult, if profoundly anachronistic, place held in English society by its established church.  But I might leave behind a little card for my coreligionists.  It will be an invitation which reads: ‘Come and make your home among the dissenters.  You might find a new, freer voice with which to speak wisdom in the heart of this gloriously diverse society.’

Comments

  1. Are you really PAID by the NHS? Money that could pay for a nurse or a physiotherapist? You must be tremendously confident that your faith is meaningful if you are! I’m not sure if I envy that or not…

    • In most hospitals, there are hospital chapels and hospital chaplains. It isn’t a new or shocking thing. My experience has been that most of them do very good work, and are available for anyone from any religion who wishes to speak to them and don’t force themselves on the ones who prefer not to. The practice of medicine is about a lot more than just the physical, especially in a cancer hospital, and unless you want doctors to be the ones offering spiritual support (I don’t think I’d be that good at it, I don’t have enough hours in the day as it is, and, as my patients have to see me whether they subscribe to my religion or not, I think it can be inappropriate and intrusive), I’m quite happy for the NHS to pay someone who specialises in the area of spiritual support to fulfill that very real need.

      – Beth, who works for the NHS

      • Thank you Beth. I couldn’t have put it better.

        – Ruth, whose sister died in hospital not all that long ago

    • Rosemary Hannah says

      Agree with Beth, and …
      is this really a world where the big ideas about birth, death, love, hate, forgiveness, suffering should not be discussed? Where one can live and suffer and give birth and die without thinking about them? does not the very suggestion this should be so impoverish us every bit as much as as suffering and death can? And is certainty in any way necessary to enter such a discussion?

      • Interesting! My original question was about confidence… here’s one to test it a little more, today there’s a headline in the Guardian:
        ” NHS to axe cancer and heart experts. Charities and doctors warn that treatment of killer diseases will suffer as number of teams is cut”
        Yet according to the BBC the NHS is spending £40 million per annum on chaplains!
        Which means that chaplains must be VERY confident that this money is better spent on talk than treatment, or I’m sure they wouldn’t take it. Would they?
        By the way I was a nurse at Gartnavel Royal for many years. Never saw hide nor hair of the chaplain up there, although apparently, there was one!

  2. John MacBrayne says

    What an excellent blog John has. Most interesting. Thanks for the link.

  3. Rosemary Hannah says

    Um – as one with friends and family in the NHS I wonder how much of the money spent in the last weeks of a terminally-ill person’s life is well spent. Sometimes a great deal is spent on treatments which are hugely unpleasant and prolong life by weeks or months at best. I made a decision years ago that when (and given family history when is more likely than if) I find myself there I will ask very searching questions.

    I won’t answer for John, but for myself… I am ‘tremendously confident’ that examining the questions around my faith is ‘meaningful’ and indeed essential. That is not at all the same thing as being sure my beliefs are right.

    We have what is supposed to be a Health Service – something which promotes well-being. People are more complex than their conditions – and we all die one day. A great deal of money is spend on all kinds of things which make the lives of those in hospital better, because people cannot get through life-crises on medicine alone.

  4. I think that characterising cancer and heart disease treatment as terminal care is extremely depressing, and perhaps fifty years out of date. And the health service is there to promote well-being? I don’t think so, I think it’s to provide medical and para-medical care during illness..
    Not that I don’t love chatting to a minister of religion, anytime. I do! But not on the NHS budget please! UNLESS…
    Unless it’s been demonstrated in properly designed clinical trials that a visit from the chaplain is worth the cash. That’s the test for all the other expensive treatments we’re paying for!

  5. rosemary hannah says

    I did not describe cancer and heart conditions as terminal. However I do expect to die one day.

  6. I’m not sure that the benefits to a patient from a visit from the chaplain could be usefully or accurately measured by ‘properly designed clinical trials’…. from a personal viewpoint I know that the last twelve weeks of my sister’s life (a young 62 year old with cancer and desperate to live) were made more bearable by the chaplain’s ability to help her cope with the sullen, spitefulness of too many of her nurses.

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