Spiritual Support on the Front Line

Pic: Rebecca Carpenter Photography

By Lianne Kolirin

Hospital chaplains are reporting that the number of staff who are seeking support has mushroomed in the coronavirus pandemic. Their help is spiritual, beyond a religious divide, with chaplains listening and offering wisdom and advice.

Most of their work is both frontline and invisible, behind the scenes. And though chaplains are not accustomed to making national headlines, one found herself front page news when she was pictured marrying a doctor and nurse in the chapel of St Thomas’s hospital in London.

The Rev Mia Hilborn conducted the intimate ceremony between Jann Tipping, a 34-year-old ambulatory emergency nurse, and Annalan Navaratnam, 30, an acute medical registrar, in the hospital’s Grade II listed chapel.

The wedding took place on April 24, less than two weeks after prime minister Boris Johnson was discharged from the hospital, having been treated in intensive care for Covid-19.

The couple had been due to wed in August, but decided to cancel over fears their families would not be able to fly in from Sri Lanka and Northern Ireland. And so they approached the hospital’s chaplaincy team regarding the possibility of a private ceremony.

Once agreed, the medics had just two weeks to put all the arrangements in place for the service which their loved ones would tune in to from around the world.

They were joined only by two witnesses and the chaplain, who said: “I was delighted to be able to get special permission to marry Jann and Annalan in the beautiful chapel at St Thomas’s. It was a lovely service and I was thrilled to be part of it.”

She added: “At such a challenging time for staff, as chaplains we strive to offer as much support as we can. We know how upsetting it is to need to delay big celebratory events such as weddings so we are happy to talk to any staff who need to postpone their wedding to see how we can help.”

This was not Mia Hilborn’s first brush with the media. Last month, while the prime minister was recovering at the hospital opposite the Houses of Parliament, the chaplain did an interview with the BBC.

She compared the pandemic to major incidents such as 7/7, the terror attack on Westminster Bridge and the fire at Grenfell Tower. However, she added: “This one is very different because every day is relentless and it’s going on and on and on.”

While there have been some signs of a downturn since then, restrictions remain largely in place to prevent the spread of the virus and a second spike.

Places of worship remain closed with no update on when they might reopen, yet chapels like the one at St Thomas’s have remained largely accessible.  They are run by healthcare chaplains, who are employed by the National Health Service (NHS) and primary care trusts to offer pastoral and spiritual care to all patients and their carers, friends and family as well as the staff of the NHS.

Congregational prayer is off limits, but hospital chapels have been largely open for “private prayer and meditation” as long as social distancing is in place, according to the Rev Mark Burleigh, head of chaplaincy and bereavement services at Leicester’s Hospitals.

“It’s important for some people to find a place of quiet and peace,” he told the Religion Media Centre. “Certainly in Leicester they are opening but no organised activities are taking place. It’s a place for people to come and sit, pray and think.”

Prayer rooms and chapels are, however, quite a small part of a chaplain’s role, Mark Burleigh explained. The service normally relies quite heavily on volunteers, who are now prevented from visiting hospitals.

As a result, chaplains are busy focussing on either visiting patients or contacting them in other ways – be it face to face in full PPE, via technology or by simply passing a prayer in to the patient’s room.

“There has been quite a variety but throughout the whole period chaplains have remained available to dying patients, even if you can’t go to them physically. “On some occasions we have been the only visitors they have had outside of their medical team because all other visiting has been suspended.”

Another aspect of the job has come into sharp focus at this time, he says.  “Something the chaplaincy has always done is support staff but in recent weeks the amount of staff supported has mushroomed.”

That support is not necessarily religious, as chaplains offer to listen, advise and even guide mindfulness practice.

“Most of what we do is not religious but comes under the broad heading of spiritual,” he said. “It’s about providing pastoral support and offering a listening ear. It gives them the opportunity to perhaps offload about things that are worrying them.

“There is a huge amount of anxiousness among staff right now,”he said, as he recalled conversations with staff members worried about the risk of taking the virus home to children or elderly relatives. “We can’t solve that, but we can hopefully get them to open up and talk about it and support one another.”