“No one laughs at God in a hospital”, chants popular Russian-American songwriter Regina Spektor. Her words come to mind as I preview the first episode of Hospital Chaplains, a new ABC series broadcasting on Sunday evenings at 6.30pm, starting tonight.
Only, the “God” of this series is not some abstract theological concept in an academic setting. This is the God of those who suffer, those who are brought close to death in the intensive care units and public wards of hospitals.
Forty thousand people in Australia end up in hospitals every day of the year, says the narrator, Geraldine Doogue, and they have to be cared for in terms of both their bodies and souls. The chaplains are introduced as those who care for souls, and in a primarily secular and non-believing country like Australia, this must present huge obstacles to chaplains and churches alike.
The series is quick to try to make a dividing line between spirituality and religion, presumably in deference to Australia’s secular and multicultural character. A very eloquent doctor in charge of the intensive care unit at Royal North Shore Hospital explains that chaplaincy in his unit is “not about proselytising, not about ‘you must repent’; it’s mostly about listening and letting patients express their own emotional and spiritual side, and coming to grips with it in some way.”
Dr Ray Raper is talking about his non-denominational chaplain, Di Roche, who indeed espouses a very open, non-sectarian style of chaplaincy. She introduces herself to patients and their families with an immediate disclaimer – “I’m not a God-botherer”, and those in her care feel relaxed, and want to trust her.
Suspicion of religion is so great in Australia that the primary concern of culturally-sensitive, intelligent chaplains is to get on the same wave-length as patients. That means not coming across as strongly religious; as “spiritual” rather than dogmatically religious.
However, not all chaplains are as open and adventurous as Di Roche. We are introduced to a telling encounter between Graham McKay, Anglican chaplain of Liverpool Hospital, and Neville, a retired driver of earth-moving equipment dying of cancer.
“I know I’m dying,” says Neville, in a luminous and prayerful moment, “and there must be something I’m supposed to do.” With disarming simplicity he turns to the chaplain and says, “I’m wondering if you can help me.”
The chaplain seems obliging enough, but looks to me to be a God-botherer, and rather too pleased to help out with old-fashioned remedies.
Here is where the series shows its hackneyed and clichéd side, and the split between its claims and practices. McKay discovers that Neville hadn’t attended church since he was in Sunday school, and he speaks to him in a patronising way, as if he were still a child.
He is told to “put his faith in Jesus Christ – that’s how we get ready to die. Do you think that is something you’ve ever done?”
The chaplain is sincere but sanctimonious. Neville remains unconvinced, and seems to have a few surprises in store for his conventional chaplain.
He says, “My step-daughter married a Muslim guy and she’s gone over into the Muslim faith now – and I cannot knock anything they do. I can’t say he’s no good (because he’s not a Christian)”.
The chaplain nods, but with evident unease and a sense of embarrassment. Neville says his son-in-law wanted him to convert to Islam but he wouldn’t. He says he hadn’t been able to convert, that he didn’t feel motivated to make the change, but is adamant that his son-in-law is a good person.
“I’m not saying he is wrong,” he emphasises.
Again the chaplain looks uncomfortable, hoping for a rip-roaring and uncomplicated death-bed return to the absolutist Christianity of Neville’s childhood. And absolutist his faith is: “My way is God’s way,” asserts the chaplain.
Oh dear, this is not what we are meant to hear. Graham McKay has a monopoly on God’s way? What happened to the God of other traditions, the God of different faiths, the God beyond divisive religions? This is not good television for us, in our present spiritual difficulty and complexity.
McKay offers tepid consolation, “We can have great respect for people who have other beliefs, but in the end we have to work out what’s right.” But who does his royal “we” refer to? We Australians, we Christians, we moderns, we Buddhists? Ought not his ministry in multicultural western Sydney have taught him something about a larger God, a God of all people, a God of the suffering community of humankind?
Neville may be unsophisticated in what he says, but he has learnt important lessons about living in a multi-faith society, and is not going to say what the chaplain wants him to say – that only Jesus can save souls and lead to eternal life.
If only the chaplains would listen more to what their patients are saying, they might learn something about putting in practice the brave new rhetoric about caring for body, soul and spirit.