A disingenuous response: another lesson in integrity and doublethink from our bishops

cottrell

Following on from my previous post about clergy being banned from the bedsides of patients in the current crisis, things continue to develop. Various clergy around the country have been expressing their frustration with the ongoing ban on them entering their own churches; news of the bedside-ban on voluntary chaplains seems to have heaped even more opprobrium on the heads of those responsible. But do they care?

Just to recap….Father Marcus Walker, the rector at Great St Bartholomew’s, London, wrote a piece in The Times (London) on Thursday 9 April. In it, he complained that volunteer clergy were being prevented from acting as chaplains at the bedside of patients in London hospitals:

‘Almost 900 years ago my predecessor Rahere, sometime courtier (and maybe jester) in the court of Henry I, founded two institutions which have survived to this day: the church of St Bartholomew the Great and St Bartholomew’s Hospital. Through Black Death, plague, and cholera they have stood together and served the people of London. But not today. Because today the Church of England has forbidden its parish clergy from assisting — beyond the most basic functional tasks — the hospital chaplains in their job. 

…… To serve … five hospitals, all of which are dealing with Covid-19 patients, the [hospital] trust has two Anglican chaplains able to serve at this time. Two. They estimate that they need 11 to cover this crisis. Last week they put out a plea to the clergy living in London to come and support them in their essential ministry. But can they use us? No. The Church of England has suddenly changed its policy: priests volunteering as chaplains “will not themselves minister to sick or dying patients at close hand”. 

This is not the opinion of other religions and denominations, who have found ways of safely recruiting and dispatching people to minister to their own faithful …. It is only the Established Church which has decided not to allow the upscaling of its presence. ….. being comforted while in pain and finding someone to talk through the enormous issues related to death is hugely important to the spirit and psychology of those who are in hospital, as are having the rituals by which your faith prepares you for death. 

When we are ordained, every single priest is told by the bishop ordaining them that “Priests are called to be servants and shepherds among the people to whom they are sent . . . They are to minister to the sick and prepare the dying for their death”. Today we are banned from doing this, not by a hostile government or a suspicious health service but by our own Church.

I beg the bishops to reverse this decision before we forfeit for ever the right to call ourselves again the national church.’

 The bishops involved in this frankly incredible situation have now hit back at the growing number of complaints – or at least they have started by failing to accept the truth of what Father Marcus Walker said in The Times last week. But what does their response actually say about the situation or about them?

If you would like to see a perfect lesson in obfuscation, disingenuousness and the use of fluffy words to blind unthinking readers, take a look at their ‘hit back’ letter in The Times (10 April)…

‘Sir, We do not recognise the picture painted by the Rev Marcus Walker in his Thunderer (“Clergy must be free to minister to the sick in this crisis”, Apr 9). Priests’ every instinct is to be alongside those who are sick and dying, to offer prayer, accompany people through suffering and minister at the time of death. We support the NHS professional chaplains who, within the protocols set by their own trusts, are ministering in these circumstances. Our letter as bishops offered clear guidelines to volunteer temporary chaplains who are offering support to staff and relatives of patients at the recently opened NHS Nightingale Hospital at the Excel Centre and across the Barts Health NHS Trust. As agreed with the lead chaplain earlier this week they will offer vital staff support as well as pastoral care of patients through remote means such as video calls on phone or tablet. They need to work within our government’s and medical advisers’ clear protocols regarding physical distancing and avoidance of cross-infection with Covid-19.


The Right Rev Sarah Mullally
, Bishop of London; the Right Rev Stephen Cottrell, Bishop of Chelmsford; the Right Rev Peter Hill, Bishop of Barking; the Right Rev Dr Joanne Woolway Grenfell, Bishop of Stepney’

Let’s just break down this letter and see what it is really saying – and not saying.

‘Sir, We do not recognise the picture painted by the Rev Marcus Walker in his Thunderer (“Clergy must be free to minister to the sick in this crisis”, Apr 9)’.

 Anytime you hear or read about someone saying ‘I don’t recognise what you are saying/that scenario/what you are describing’, be alert. VERY alert. It is a classic signal that what follows is in fact, based on Orwellian Newspeak. This means that what follows appears to say one thing, but actually says another. Or, more cunningly, says nothing at all, but looks as if it does. Typically, it means that the speaker or writer knows that he or she is engaged in a bit of nifty footwork, because if there were an uncontroversial answer to the problem, they could simply give it. But in the case in question, they know they can’t do that, so they engage in ‘fluffy words’ to disguise the fact that they are not going to give the answer the critics want to hear. In other words, this often means that they know they can’t defend their position with any integrity.

‘Priests’ every instinct is to be alongside those who are sick and dying, to offer prayer, accompany people through suffering and minister at the time of death’.

 Yes, but that sentence is irrelevant here as it is simply stating the obvious. It in no way answers any of Marcus Walker’s points. The concept mentioned is, in fact, the basis for the complaints. But here it has been presented as if it were a recognition of how wonderful the clergy are, rather than addressing it as the basis for the problem the bishops have caused. This is presented here as if it is a good foundation for the bishops’ decision, whereas it is in fact the opposite. But is it inserted into the letter to confuse and mislead? Arguably, it shows some intention to deceive. This is also referred to as equivocation – saying one thing but meaning another. So this sentence is simply virtue-signalling padding.

‘We support the NHS professional chaplains who, within the protocols set by their own trusts, are ministering in these circumstances’.

 Again, irrelevant. Nobody is saying that professional chaplains are being unsupported. Another straw man. The complaints are about volunteer chaplains being refused access to patients, not professional ones.

‘Our letter as bishops offered clear guidelines to volunteer temporary chaplains who are offering support to staff and relatives of patients at the recently opened NHS Nightingale Hospital at the Excel Centre and across the Barts Health NHS Trust’.

 

Yes. But it is those guidelines that are the problem. Simply stating that they have been made does not answer the complaints. It simply states what was done – without comment. A circular argument. It also carries an element of the appeal to authority – ‘our letter as bishops’ – which also has an arguable element of disciplinary threat in it.

‘As agreed with the lead chaplain earlier this week they [volunteer chaplains] will offer vital staff support as well as pastoral care of patients through remote means such as video calls on phone or tablet’.

 

This is a very clever bit of gobbeldy-gook. ‘As agreed with’ does not mean that there was no argument or any problems discussed – it simply states what was the end result of the discussion or meeting. Given what is said further and in more detail on the Chelmsford Diocese website in a longer version of the letter, the bishops seem to have been already of the mind to ban volunteer clergy from bedsides. So this sentence is meant to make it look as if the lead chaplain at the Trust agreed with the bishops without any argument. A classic example of disingenuousness through more equivocation.How do we know there was argument? Because the deputy head of chaplaincy at St Barts Hospital said this to the media:

‘…..deputy head of chaplaincy at St Barts Hospital, Tasha Critchlow, said the hospital would welcome those who could provide end-of-life care and solace to those dying.

She told The Times: ‘The hospital would welcome qualified professional volunteers who can give end-of-life care and provide solace. ‘We would train them and given them personal protective equipment (PPE).’

This suggests that the bishops over-ruled at least some dissenting voice(s) at whatever meeting or communications took place during the decision-making.

‘They need to work within our government’s and medical advisers’ clear protocols regarding physical distancing and avoidance of cross-infection with Covid-19’.

 

Yes, they do. But again, this is simply a statement of the obvious and does not address the problem or how the decision to ban clergy from bedsides was reached. It is clear from Tasha Critchlow’s comments above that PPE and other training can be given – as it usually is. So what was the basis for the bishops’ decision? Who knows? We’re none the wiser from this disingenuous letter.

The entire communication is a lovely example of what is known as the ‘slippery slope fallacy’. Such an argument starts by making a series of benign statements of circumstance and by ‘upping the ante’ moves towards a flawed assumption of an improbable extreme end position. In this case, the bishops have chosen to make a series of statements that imply, or could convey the meaning that somehow, volunteer chaplains will be a high infection risk – for which there is no evidence. More, the contents go against what was clearly said by Tasha Critchlow.

The bishops have failed to answer their critics. Instead, they have made a series of statements which, standing alone individually, make sense. But they have been presented in their entirety as ‘evidence’ or a justification for banning volunteer chaplains from bedsides. At no point have they addressed the reasons for their decision to do so. They have not presented any evidence in support of their decision.

Therefore this letter is nothing more than smoke and mirrors to hide that fact.

What does this say for Christianity? The fact that some of our bishops – including the soon-to-be-Archbishop of York, think it is acceptable to act like this says a lot about their integrity. Would you trust these folks with your life?

I will end with this, from a ‘Newspeak’ glossary – a guide to the meanings behind George Orwell’s 1984 ‘language’:

Doublethink – reality control. The power to hold two completely contradictory beliefs in one’s mind simultaneously, and accept both of them. Here is how Winston Smith described doublethink in the novel: 

‘To know and not to know, to be conscious of complete truthfulness while telling carefully constructed lies, to hold simultaneously two opinions which cancelled out, knowing them to be contradictory and believing in both of them, to use logic against logic, to repudiate morality while laying claim to it, to believe that democracy was impossible and that the Party was the guardian of democracy, to forget whatever it was necessary to forget, then to draw it back into memory again at the moment when it was needed, and then promptly to forget it again: and above all, to apply the same process to the process itself. That was the ultimate subtlety: consciously to induce unconsciousness, and then, once again, to become unconscious of the act of hypnosis you had just performed. Even to understand the word ‘doublethink’ involved the use of doublethink.’

Ring any bells with that letter to The Times?

 

 

 

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