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God of many faiths eludes some Hospital Chaplains

“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…

(L-R) Intensive Care Chaplain Di Roche, Catholic Chaplain Father Jaison Kuzhiyil, Uniting Chaplain Julie Telfer feature in Hospital Chaplains. ABC TV

“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.

(L-R) Muslim Chaplain Anwar Albarq, Anglican Chaplain Graham McKay and Buddhist Chaplain Hai Trieu Hanh. ABC TV

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.

Uniting Church Chaplain Julie Telfer with a patient. ABC TV

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.

Anglican Chaplain Graham McKay with patient. ABC TV

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.

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10 Comments sorted by

  1. Tim Paton

    Automotive Engineer

    When my wife and I were in hospital coming to terms with the fact that our newborn first child was not as perfect as we had imagined and assumed (she has a chromosomal abnormality, and will require attendant care for life), we asked for help.

    We figured that if any of our friends were in the same situation, we would hope they had access to counselling, so we pragmatically asked the same for ourselves.

    We were visited by the hospital chaplain, an elderly lady with a heavy crucifix around her…

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  2. Derek McKinnon


    Why are so many people in our society trying to ostracise christian beliefs? If I am in hospital and want to talk to a christian chaplin, why can't the hospital support this desire? Hospital chaplins are not paid and so to ban then from hospitals is simply a case of secularism trying to push other religious beliefs out of society. Religious freedom doesn't just mean the freedom to reject religion, it means the freedom to pursue religion as well.

    1. Tim Paton

      Automotive Engineer

      In reply to Derek McKinnon

      I am unaware of any rules banning hospital patients receiving outside visitors.

      If you want a visitor from a religious organisation, that's entirely up to you.

    2. André Brett

      PhD candidate, New Zealand history at University of Melbourne

      In reply to Derek McKinnon

      Why are so many people in our society trying to ostracise live music? If I am in hospital and want solace from live music, why can't the hospital support this desire? Live musicians in hospitals need not be paid and so to ban them from hospitals is simply a case of tasteless philistines trying to push the arts out of society. Artistic freedom doesn't just mean the freedom to reject the arts; it means the freedom to pursue the arts as well.

      Or in other words, hospitals are there to provide medical care rather than to cater to the whims of religious people or, in my case, people who are as devout about music as religious people are about their faith.

  3. Pip Archer


    Australia is often characterised as "primarily secular and non-believing" but I dispute this, though wish it to be true! There's a difference between the active practice of religion and having religious beliefs. Most Australians don't go to church and religion is largely kept out of public life but we don't live in a country full of non-believers - there are more self-identified Christians here than atheists. It seems that while Australia certainly has a secular public life, its people are still religious or "spiritual" as this show puts it. The patient, Neville, exemplifies Australian religiosity: brought up with a degree of religion in youth, which is largely disregarded in adulthood, resurfacing with trauma. That it is only disregarded and not fully abandoned is key, and this show only proves Australia's private piety.

  4. David Tacey

    Associate Professor at La Trobe University

    Thanks Pip, what a great post, very astute. You are preaching to the converted in this case. I have written three books on what you call the "private piety" of Australians, also referred to by some as personal spirituality. What I should have said in the article was that the outer face, or the official persona, of Australians is so often secular and disbelieving. But underneath the secular mask, many - indeed, most - Australians, seem to harbor spiritual impulses. I would say it could be as…

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  5. Roxane Paczensky

    Registered Nurse

    I spent about the first 45 years of my 55 year long life in Australia never having to worry about religion intruding. Over the last 10 years or so it has become more and more intrusive. What the hell is going on. Scientific knowledge, especially evolution, is constantly under attack and our children are increasingly being targeted for indoctrination before they have developed sufficient rationality to defend themselves - and don't get me started on the thousand of unregistered children being homeschooled so they can have their minds abused by fanatical fundamentalist parents - they should be arrested for child abuse.

  6. Kim Miller

    Prison Chaplain

    I came to this conversation after a colleague expressed concerns about David Tacey's criticism of one of the chaplains featured on the program. The colleague thought public criticism like this was not helpful for chaplaincy generally. After seeing the program I had similar concerns as Tacey.

    The great difference between the two chaplains featured was that Di Roche was comfortable and at ease throughout, while Graham seemed to me to be the opposite. Was he ill at ease with the camera, or with…

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  7. Sasha Shtargot


    Thanks for your comment piece, David. I think ultimately the skill of a hospital chaplain is about engaging with the process of the suffering individual and meeting them where they are at - be they atheist, Christian, Buddhist or whatever. I believe that meeting a person where they are at is a spiritual process of engagement and love. If I were a chaplain, I'd be just as happy to chat with them about Karl Marx, if that spoke deeply to them, as I would about Jesus or Buddha.