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National Secular Society

Challenging Religious Privilege

Spirituality and exorcism on the NHS

During a debate about an amendment to the Health and Social Care Bill, tabled by psychiatrist and crossbench peer Baroness Hollins, the Archbishop of York called for the words ‘spiritual health’ to be inserted into a clause about the duty of the secretary of state, the NHS Commissioning Board and clinical commissioning groups to improve the quality of services.

Dr John Sentamu told peers: “I am one of those who believe that human beings are psychosomatic spiritual entities.”

Tessa Kendall, NSS Senior Campaigns Officer, said: “Spirituality is already covered in healthcare provisions even though its use is so broad as to be almost meaningless – for example, going to football matches is considered a spiritual act by some healthcare providers, including the Royal College of Psychiatrists. Guidelines often assume that everyone is spiritual and has spiritual needs that the NHS must cater to. NHS Scotland’s past guidelines stated: ‘We are not human beings seeking spiritual experience. We are spiritual beings seeking what it means to be human’.

“When spirituality is considered as part of healthcare, the non-religious often lose out, even when the term is made very broad. At a time when the NHS is facing severe cuts, surely the most important thing is to treat patients and keep them alive long enough to worry about the state of their souls?”

The Archbishop of York’s idea of treating the spirit goes beyond what most people would consider the domain of doctors and nurses. During a debate on the amendment, Dr John Sentamu told peers: “I am one of those who believe that human beings are psychosomatic spiritual entities.”

He then explained how he freed the spirit of a girl who was terrified after seeing a goat sacrificed. Visits from a GP, psychiatrist and psychologist did little to help, he said, but then he said a prayer, anointed the girl and lit a candle on his visit. Shortly after, he received a phone call saying the girl was no longer terrified and was talking again. “That was not mental or physical illness; there was something in her spirit that needed to be set free,” he told his peers.

This is a very particular interpretation of the word ‘spiritual’. Although Dr Sentamu did not directly describe his actions as exorcism, they were very close to standard exorcist practice.

The NHS has already been quietly working with exorcists to treat psychiatric patients for at least 40 years.

Dr Rob Waller, a consultant psychiatrist and an honorary clinical lecturer at theUniversityofEdinburgh, was formerly part of a medical support group for the local Catholic exorcist at Bradford District Care Trust. It met monthly to discuss cases and whether they should be dealt with by church or doctor. He said: “There was a similar set-up with local imams, and the Church of Scotland has links with psychiatrists and considers exorcism.” He also said that every consultant psychiatrist will see a “handful of patients” in their career requiring “some kind of deliverance ministry”.

Professor Robin M. Murray, head of Psychiatric Research at Kings College’s Institute of Psychiatry, who this year was awarded a knighthood for his services to medicine, said: “Not all psychiatric problems respond to conventional treatments. So while I don’t know of any scientific evidence that exorcism works, I would have thought it reasonable for a [hospital] chaplain to carry this out.”

However, Dr James Woolley, consultant psychiatrist at theSpringfieldHospitalin southwestLondon, rejects the idea of demonic possession or exorcism. There are many psychiatric syndromes characterised by a patient believing they are possessed and, for that reason alone, Woolley says, it would be “reckless and unprofessional” to recommend exorcism as an avenue of treatment. “The psychosis could get worse, and being in a highly paranoid state is associated with the risk of harm primarily to yourself and potentially to other people.”

NSS President Terry Sanderson commented: “It is outrageous that any NHS professional would consider bringing in a supposed exorcist to treat a psychiatric patient. Would such a psychiatrist be happy to reinforce other bizarre delusions because it made the patient feel better to be encouraged in their fantasy? From what I’ve heard of professional exorcists, if they find themselves in a psychiatric hospital, they should be encouraged to check in for treatment themselves.”

In the mid-1970s, Archbishop of Canterbury Dr Donald Coggan laid down strict guidelines on exorcisms or “deliverance” which were to be carried out only by an appointed diocesan exorcist after consultation with a doctor. The Church of England has 44 exorcists, one for every diocese, appointed by the Archbishop of Canterbury.


See also:

Study shows that spending on hospital chaplains provides no clinical benefit (Feb 2011)

Costing the heavens: Chaplaincy services in English NHS provider Trusts 2009/10 (pdf)

Published Fri, 04 Nov 2011