praying for your patients

The case of Caroline Petrie hit the news a few days ago, with Cranmer covering it in typically forthright fashion. Caroline Petrie is a nurse, who was suspended by the NHS after a patient complained about her offering to pray for them.

“Nurse Petrie cares for the sick and elderly, and does so with a vocational professional concern for the whole person – mind, body and spirit.
But one elderly woman patient in Winscombe, North Somerset, decided that the care is too much, too genuine, too heartfelt. When Nurse Petrie offered to pray for her, the patient politely declined. But afterwards she decided to be so offended as to feel the urge to telephone the nurse’s employer and make a complaint. It is not clear how this complaint was formalised, but it appears that Nurse Petrie’s superiors decided to be even more offended than the original offended party, who was not originally so offended as to tell Nurse Petrie what the offence was or wasn’t in the first place. And so Nurse Petrie was summoned to appear before an internal disciplinary panel to explain her conduct. And this panel doubtless believes itself to be God’s gift to discernment and justice – if the phrase ‘God’s gift’ does not cause it undue offence – and they are tasked with assessing whether an offer of prayer is illegal and sufficient grounds for dismissal.”

I can instantly think of at least half a dozen friends and relatives who work in the medical/nursing professions and who are bound (in a way that is almost superfluous to point out) to have been in the position of wanting to help their patients by praying for them.

In fact I got an email from one of them yesterday, expressing deep concern. “In the course of my work as a Christian GP in [a certain location in] Scotland, patients frequently ask me to pray for them and sometimes to pray with them. I have gladly done so and would be outraged if a bureaucrat objected to such actions. We must make a stand against these God-dishonouring bureaucratic posturings.”

The suggestion has also been made that anybody who wants to express support for Caroline Petrie could do so in various ways –
* write to Caroline Petrie, care of her church (Milton Baptist Church, Baytree Road, Weston-super-Mare, BS22 8HJ)
* write to her pastor, John S Smith, to encourage him for his unequivocal support for Mrs Petrie
* write to North Somerset Primary Care Trust, the employer who has suspended her – either Chris Born the Chief Executive or Vanessa Dando (the Patient Advice and Liason Service Officer), both at North Somerset PCT, Waverley House, Old Church Road, Clevedon, North Somerset, BS21 6NN


20 thoughts on “praying for your patients

  1. I felt that possible dismissal was a little on the extreme side too. If the trust has a policy that staff are not allowed to offer prayer for patients then fair enough if she broke that code she would need to be spoken to, but possible dismissal sounds like an overreaction. That, and the trust should work out what their policy is on offering prayer (of any faith) to patients to avoid future confusion.


  2. Now really! Where would it lead if we allowed medical personnel to pray for their patients? That’s a terrible infringement on a patient’s private sphere! Suppose they get healed and lose all the recompense for which they had sued the one who caused their illness, an accident or whatever? You cannot be too careful here. It’s happened before (cf. Acts 16:16-24), and see where it got Paul for driving out demons where he hadn’t been asked: into prison! In comparison, merely being suspended from work is a light punishment for such a crime.
    Those who have ears, let them hear! (Hear, hear!)


  3. I read this story a day or two, and it seems a bit harsh to suspend her. However the media love a good story and have spun it a little as far as I can see.

    I would suspect that her employers have a duty to investigate, no matter how frivolous the complaint, otherwise they could be sued I suspect.
    One report I read said that she was a bank nurse, ie a temp and so is not on any kind of contract, so she wasn’t suspended in the dramatic fashion that the press would have it. I doubt that a full time employee would be suspended without pay in the same way, they would probably be given a warning in the first instance.


  4. Well i think Oliver points out the core problem – why should it be problematic for a nurse to offer to pray for a patient? Why would a PCT ever want to develop a policy that disallowed it? Especially when everyone is otherwise so keen on holistic care which explicitly attends to the spiritual wellbeing of service users – moving beyond the biomedical model and blah blah. It’s not even as if the woman started to break into a prayer right there and then – she was only offering to pray /for/ the patient, not even /with/ her. Quite apart from the fact that it’s surely somewhat oversensitive to find the mere offer of a thing offensive in itself.

    The other intriguing little nugget on this story is that the patient apparently professed that she wasn’t offended herself, she was just worried in case any other patient might be. Which is slightly absurd.

    She is apparently a bank nurse, but the PCT have already made it clear (as far as i understand it) that they won’t be employing her as such again. Which is not so much a case of investigating the complaint (which you can accept they probably would have to do anyway) so much as prejudging it.


  5. Thanks for raising this issue on your blog, Cath.

    I work in the NHS and I believe that the Caroline Petrie case has serious implications for professing Christians in the health sector.

    The complaint was, not that the patient was offended, but the patient was concerned that others might be. The grounds for Nurse Petrie’s suspension were apparently ‘failing to demonstrate a personal and professional commitment to equality and diversity’.

    The PCT (North Somerset Primary Care Trust) attempted to deflect criticism of its action, but has put a “spin” on the situation which does not relate to what happened. The PCT website statement has changed as time has passed. At one stage it contained the question ‘Why was it wrong to pray for a patient?’ This is misleading. It should be noted that Nurse Petrie did not pray for this patient. She *offered* to pray. The offer fully respects the patient’s autonomy to choose in the same way that offering medical or surgical treatment does.

    The PCT statement concludes ‘There are grounds for wondering whether the nurse’s sincere faith convictions about the efficacy of intercessory prayer are more strongly held than her commitment to a pattern of practice consistent with her professional role’. (The supercilious statement looks as if they have reached a conclusion before the disciplinary hearing … no surprise there, then!)

    There are national guidelines for NHS trusts about “spiritual care”. The Glasgow and Clyde NHS spiritual care policy states: ‘the delivery of spiritual care to patients and their carers is a responsibility of NHS staff’. This is entirely appropriate since the training of both doctors and nurses emphasizes the importance of care of the whole person, including the care of their souls (though this gets obscured by the misuse of the word “spirit”, which is a nebulous word in pseudoreligious terminology).

    It appears that the policy of North Somerset PCT is out of step with the values both of healthcare professionals and with British society, which still largely believes in the existence of God (however, sadly, they do not believe in the God of the Bible).

    In addition, the PCT action has aroused widespread public criticism, no doubt as their actions appear discriminatory against Christian beliefs, as well as appearing bullying and persecutory in relation to Nurse Petrie. (Have they ever suspended people for offering mystical New Age therapies, I wonder? – I have certainly attended NHS meetings where these have been suggested as valuable for patients).

    As far as it has been reported, no patient has complained that they themselves have been harmed, offended or harassed by Nurse Petrie. The grounds for her suspension appear to be rooted in doctrinaire political correctness and are unrelated and unresponsive to the needs of patients and the duties of health care professionals.

    I wonder whether the PCT’s convictions about the inappropriateness of Nurse Petrie’s actions are more strongly rooted in the imperatives of secular humanism and the doctrines of political correctness then in a genuine desire to support the practice of ‘whole person’ medicine.

    On 5th Feb the PCT website changed yet again, announcing they had ‘contacted bank nurse Caroline Petrie with a view to her returning back to work as soon as she feels able. We have always been keen to bring this matter to a timely resolution. It has been a distressing and difficult time for Caroline and all staff involved.’

    So far, so good? Well, as anybody who works in the NHS knows, management-speak can mean different things to different people!

    From news websites it is clear that Nurse Petrie wants a number of things clarified first. Wise lady! Especially given the PCT’s sanctimonious statements later: “It is acceptable to offer spiritual support as part of care when the patient asks for it. But for nurses, whose principal role is giving nursing care, the initiative lies with the patient and not with the nurse. Nurses like Caroline do not have to set aside their faith, but personal beliefs and practices should be secondary to the needs and beliefs of the patient and the requirements of professional practice.”

    Christian NHS staff dealing on a holistic basis with patients should consider the spiritual wellbeing of their patients. I am sure that Nurse Petrie (and other Christian staff) pray daily for their patients. Is that prohibited in the Brave New World? The PCT surely cannot rule against that!

    So what was the grave offence that led to Nurse Petrie’s suspension? It was the fact that she asked the patient’s permission to pray – NB: an intercessory prayer in private, NOT there and then in the presence of the patient. And it was the open confession that she was a praying person that led to Nurse Petrie’s suspension.

    Thanks to public protest, the PCT has started to respond in a conciliatory fashion. I hope that is not spin for public consumption. Somehow I suspect they remain implacably opposed to nurses interceding for patients. I have worked in the NHS since the 1970s and have seen the increasingly anti-Christian attitudes, which have been formalised into policies, and are now used to suspend a Nurse. We should be concerned about this latest blatant attempt to excise Christianity from public life (and to humiliate a Christian in the process).

    I will continue to pray for my patients. When patients ask me to pray for them, I don’t intend to tell them that the NHS forbids me to do so because my ‘sincere faith convictions about the efficacy of intercessory prayer’ conflict with the secular NHS’s perceived ‘pattern of practice consistent with [my] professional role.’


  6. I think that Cranmer has presented a very distorted picture of the event (at least as reported in the Telegraph article he links to). I was preparing a comment to post here, and it got a little long, so I put it on my blog with a link back here.

    I hope you’ll agree (on reading the full Telegraph article) that your friend has nothing to worry about. The policy of the trust in question is quite clearly only against unsolicited promotion of one’s religion; nurses are free to respond to requests for prayer however they like.


  7. Well, the plot thickens.

    Here’s an excerpt from an article in yesterday’s Telegraph:

    “A little-noticed document published by the Department of Health last month gives warning that attempts by doctors or nurses to preach to other staff or patients will be treated as harassment or intimidation under disciplinary procedures.

    But it does not make clear the limits of acceptable discussion about religion.

    Faith groups said the guidelines were so vague that they could mean action could be taken against anyone who talks about their beliefs to fellow workers or patients.

    The document, called Religion or Belief: A Practical Guide for the NHS, states: “Members of some religions… are expected to preach and to try to convert other people. In a workplace environment this can cause many problems, as non-religious people and those from other religions or beliefs could feel harassed and intimidated by this behaviour.

    “To avoid misunderstandings and complaints on this issue, it should be made clear to everyone from the first day of training and/or employment, and regularly restated, that such behaviour, notwithstanding religious beliefs, could be construed as harassment under the disciplinary and grievance procedures.”

    Last night Dr Peter Saunders, the general secretary of the Christian Medical Fellowship, said: “Much of the ethos of the NHS arose in a Christian environment, and many of the great pioneers in medicine were people who were motivated by a very strong Christian faith. It is quite ironic that people seem to be seeing Christian belief as something unhelpful.””


  8. Of course if the worst came to the worst and the poor nurse was sacked then she would have an excellent case for unfair dismissal – there is no “right to be offended”. The medical profession has come to be among the worst in the country in terms of PCness, but I suspect that even they know they can’t sack her.


  9. Forbidden not only to “preach to patients” but also to staff?
    (Not that the first wouldn’t be outrageous enough. Not that construing the offer to pray for someone as “preaching” wasn’t ridiculous anyway.)
    I’d be chucked out of both of my jobs immediately if this rule applied there; all the more as my heated discussions with and ironic side-remarks to a Protestant-anthroposophic-relativist colleague of mine would qualify far more for the designation of “harrassment” ;-) than a prayer offered.


  10. Well, it gets worse.

    “Primary school receptionist ‘facing sack’ after daughter talks about Jesus to classmate”

    On January 22, Mrs Cain went to pick up her children from the 275-strong primary school.

    “My daughter burst into tears, her face was all red and she was clearly upset.

    “She said ‘my teacher told me I couldn’t talk about Jesus’ – I couldn’t believe what I was hearing.

    “She said she was taken aside in the classroom and told she couldn’t say that. I was so shocked, I didn’t know what to do.”

    Mrs Cain said she decided to wait until she wasn’t working to discuss the issue with the teacher Sharon Gottelier as a parent rather than an employee.

    But she was called into Mr Read’s office the next day over another matter before he started discussing Jasmine.

    “He started talking about my daughter about how he wasn’t happy about her making statements about her faith.

    “At that point I froze, I felt very small and I felt trapped as I was a junior member of staff.”

    That weekend, she emailed a prayer request from her personal computer at home to 10 trusted friends from her church.

    “I asked them to please pray for us, please pray for Jasmine, please pray for the school and pray for the church.”

    A few days later she was called back into Mr Read’s office.

    “I didn’t think at this point I could be more stunned. He had in his hand a copy of my private, personal email and it was highlighted all the way through.

    “He said that he was going to investigate me for professional misconduct because I had been making allegations about the school and staff to members of the public.”

    Mrs Cain, who was not suspended, said he refused to tell her where he had got the email but said two independent governors would be taking statements and calling witnesses.

    “He said the investigation could be followed by disciplinary action up to and including dismissal because of this private email.”

    Mrs Cain said she still did not know how Mr Read came into possession of the email but she said the school was sending mixed messages by allowing carols at Christmas and celebrating the Hindu festival of divali.

    “If my children can go to school and sing a song which mentions Jesus, how are they meant to know that they are then not allowed to talk about God?”


  11. Again, we are getting a biased picture of the event. An article in a local Exeter paper (here) says that the incident arose ‘over a youngster’s comment that her classmate would “go to hell” if she did not believe in God’.

    Now, I understand that the concept of hell is important to a great many people’s view of the world. But it is a concept that has the potential to traumatize people, and the Exeter article claims that the girl was told off for her insensitive portrayal of the idea; not for simply talking about her religion.

    On the basis of that, I am inclined to suspect that other details of the exchange have been distorted or omitted from the Telegraph article. It is certainly worth keeping an eye on this case (as with the Caroline Petrie case) – someone may have overreacted at some point. But it is certainly not a straightforward case of anti-Christian persecution, any more than Mrs. Petrie’s was.


  12. Ok, but it’s simply orthodox Christian belief that anyone who doesn’t believe in Jesus will go to hell. According to the Telegraph report, what was most salient for Mrs Cain’s child was that she was being forbidden to talk about Jesus. Clearly, thinking about hell without thinking about Jesus will be traumatising for anyone. But the possibility that people will only listen to half of the message and so end up traumatised, is not a reason to stop Christians from making either part of the argument. A straightforward case of anti-Christian persecution? I don’t know. But enforcing a secular silence instead of allowing the voicing of religious beliefs (which are perfectly orthodox, and until say a generation ago perfectly unremarkable) is becoming increasingly common and strident. As both these cases show.


  13. There’s so much here – rather than produce a tediously long comment, I’ve produced a tediously long new blog post, here.

    I have two main disagreements with your position. First, the crucial facts of the case seem to differ depending on who is asked, so it is not clear that Mrs. Cain’s claims can be taken at face value. Second, employment discipline over an act that happens to be motivated by Christian beliefs does not constitute discrimination. For it to be discrimination, the disciplinary action would have to be because the act was motivated by Christian beliefs. I don’t think that condition is met in either Mrs. Petrie’s or Mrs. Cain’s case.

    I do want to point out that I’m glad Caroline Petrie was reinstated. Although it wasn’t strictly discrimination, I feel her employer was somewhat heavy-handed with the whole avoiding-offence thing.

    In the case of Jennie Cain, I’m afraid that the information available suggest the possibility that she and her daughter are (perhaps unconsciously) distorting the facts to suit their feelings of persecution.

    I give reasons for my position in my blog post, but I will watch here for comments as well as on my own blog.

    What we can agree on is that, if the basic facts as you (Cath) originally reported them (in both cases) were true, then they would have been instances of blatant and unacceptable censorship of ideas – an especially apalling thing in a school, where sharing new ideas is the whole point.


  14. Pingback: Discrimination or hysteria? « Friendly Humanist

  15. Pingback: Sacked for being Christian? « Friendly Humanist

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