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NHS/Salisbury District Hospital Celebration Sermon, June 2018

by Gerry Lynch last modified 11 Jun, 2018 04:58 PM

Bishop Nicholas preached at a special Choral Evensong celebrating the work of Salisbury District Hospital and the 70th Anniversary of the National Health Service at Salisbury Cathedral on 9 June 2018 at 5.30 pm.

Texts: Numbers 21.4-9; Mark 2.1-12.

If you wanted to tell a story about Britain since the Second World War, or if you were going to give an account of British values, the National Health Service would be at the centre. As a country post-War, we wanted to build a society in which education, housing and health care were foundations good for all. In 2012, the Opening Ceremony of the London Olympics was ‘For Everyone’ and gave an account of the United Kingdom to the world of which we were proud. We probably all remember the NHS being centre stage with 800 health care professionals dancing.  

We are proud of the NHS because its people and the quality of its care are excellent and because its principles and values reflect the best of how we want to live.

The health service is to

  • meet the needs of everyone;
  • be free at the point of delivery;

and

  • be based on clinical need, not ability to pay.

It does this through the six C’s of Care, Compassion, Competence, Communication, Courage and Commitment. Hospitals are places of care, care of individuals but organised care for the whole community. Everyone is treated without discrimination simply because of their needs.

In Salisbury we have particular reasons to give thanks for the NHS because of the ways our local hospital serves the community and has its regional and national specialisms. We all have our own stories to tell but the way in which the hospital dealt with the recent reckless attack using the nerve agent novichok was seen internationally to be impressive and to break new ground medically.

So here in Salisbury’s cathedral we give thanks for the National Health Service and for its local manifestation in our District Hospital as well as in all the other ways in which the health of people is cared for in this community.

The Bible readings today take a bit of interpreting.  The first was one explanation as to why the serpent is the symbol of medicine. In the wilderness on the journey of the exodus from slavery to freedom in the promised land  the people lost heart, became impatient and spoke against God and Moses.  As a punishment God sent poisonous snakes among them and many people died. In order to turn their hearts and heal them Moses raised a bronze serpent on a pole, the sight of which cured the people of their sickness. It was a way of turning people back to God, healing their hearts and minds by facing them in the right direction.  In the New Testament this became a way of understanding Christ raised on the cross turning people away from violence and hate towards love and healing for all people.

The Gospel reading is one of my favourite stories set in Capernaum, a small town on the north shore of the Sea of Galilee. I was there a few years ago with a group of pilgrims from Salisbury. We read the story of the paralysed man being carried before Jesus by his friends. It seemed to us be a beautiful image of people lovingly bringing their friend, unable to act or move for himself, and finding a creative and innovative way through the crowds by lowering him on a stretcher through the roof so that he was placed in front of Jesus. I once heard a Professor of Theology who had served during the War in the Friends Ambulance Service, suggest that carrying people on a stretcher through a battle field is an image of intercessory prayer, as in this Gospel story carrying people before God, bringing them to Jesus.  It is what we do when we pray for people by name, remembering each individual and asking for their healing.

What happened next in this story was a debate about healing and forgiveness of sins. There is a connection between physical health and our inner wellbeing, exactly what we find it hard to describe, but most of us know the intimate connection between healing and wholeness. It is the specialism of hospital chaplains and their presence reminds us about the spirituality of health. There is more to life than meets the eye and a good spirit aids healing.

The Christian Gospel began at an empty tomb and from earliest times Christians had a reputation for caring for life. This is rooted in the healing stories of the Bible and particularly the Gospels. In the early Church the ministry of healing was reflected in the care of all people, not just of Christians.

Many hospitals have Christian foundations. You can see it in the names of some of our great teaching hospitals: St Bartholomew’s, St Thomas’s. Guy’s Hospital was founded in 1721 by Thomas Guy, a publisher of unlicensed Bibles who had made his money in the South Sea Bubble and established a hospital for incurables discharged from St Thomas’s. Hospitals of Christian foundation developed the science of medicine which cured the sick and restored life. 

A wisdom grew with this loving care of people, giving an ability to be with people even when you can’t do anything to make them better. We hear a lot about the need to grow compassion in the NHS – compassion is made up from the Latin com – with - and passio - suffer – to suffer with. Being with people who face incurable suffering is a particular gift when being really present to them can transform their experience and pain.

Looking back at the NHS over 70 years we know there is much to give thanks for but a thanksgiving service is not just a retrospective. The life of this cathedral is built around an act of remembrance in such a way that gives Christian presence, new life and a future hope. In the act of remembering there is a continuing truth of God in Christ present among us and of God’s Holy Spirit breathing renewed energy and the power of creative love among us.

So what of remembering the Health Service in this place, and what of the future? We expect more of our health care than out parents did. We live longer and know medicine promises almost endless possibilities. Our scientists continue to make rapid progress which is having a massive impact on medical outcomes. There are problems of cost and of whether the availability of care is universal and limitless.

Some of the biggest opportunities are now in public health, in making a good environment, healthy food and exercise. There are major gains to be made in the way we live.

For our politicians and health service managers there are difficult choices about priorities, particularly in an age of such prolonged austerity. Like the people in the wilderness there is murmuring against God and Moses, the Prime Minister and Hospital Trust and management for not taking us straight to the promised land. It helps enormously when it is clear there is a real understanding and a willingness to take responsibility for political decisions about health care and be judged by the same values as the people who deliver such an extraordinary service on the front line.

So today we give thanks to God for the NHS and in our prayers we bring it lovingly before God asking for the continued healing and wellbeing which represents the best of what it is to be human and to care for all our good.

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