It’s an immense privilege to be preaching at the annual View Day service. I offer my sincere thanks to the Reverend Dr. Martin Dudley, Rector of this great church, for inviting me to do so. I hope that after I’ve finished neither he nor you will echo the comment of Samuel Pepys, who, after attending the “Spital” service in 1669, recorded in his diary, “heard a dull sermon”.
View Day is an opportunity to celebrate present achievements, to reflect on the past and to look to the future.
If we begin with present achievements, then immediately our view must span wider than just St. Bartholomew’s Hospital. For today the Barts Health NHS Trust, just over a year old and the largest in the country, embraces six hospitals (Mile End, Newham University, The London Chest, Whipps Cross, The Royal London and, of course, Barts). The Trust now oversees a £1.25 billion turnover. But the more precious assets are the 15,000 staff dedicated to offering compassionate care to approximately 2.5 million people. Some of these dwell in the most deprived communities where a high percentage of children live in poverty and life expectancy can be low. Clearly the Trust faces huge challenges. Nevertheless, it’s a leader in treating and preventing infectious diseases, diabetes and coronary illnesses; so too are its cancer, trauma and emergency services renowned. Last year, I’m told, the Trust treated 1.4 million outpatients, cared for 420,000 emergency patients, delivered 15,000 babies and performed over 53,000 operations.
The Trust is wonderfully supported in this good work by the independent Barts and The London Charity, which provides resources for innovative projects not funded by the NHS. During the last decade it has raised £150 million to ensure that top-rate research continues and the finest equipment made available. We have very good reason, then, to give thanks to the Lord and to sing his praises at today’s View Day service.
Reflecting on the past likewise raises our hearts in thanksgiving. St. Bartholomew’s, and the other hospitals now part of the Trust, enjoy an inspiring reputation as pioneers in health care. They are associated with impressive names in medical history: William Harvey; Percivall Pott; John Abernethy; James Parkinson; John Langdon-Down; Thomas Barnado. We remember, too, Elizabeth Blackwell (pioneer of medicine as a profession for women), Florence Nightingale, a former governor, and Ethel Manson, one time matron of Barts and Britain’s first state registered nurse.
This is a truly splendid tradition since the re-foundation of St. Bartholomew’s Hospital in 1546 by King Henry VIII as a response to Londoners’ concern for the sick and the poor. Henry, as you know, granted the Hospital to the City of London; so it is most fitting that both Sherriffs, Masters of livery companies and Common Councilmen join officers of the Trust and Charity, along with hospital staff and supporters in this act of worship. All of you are equally concerned that the sick and the poor of London continue to have access to excellent health care in future years. However, in this year when we celebrate the 890th anniversary of its foundation, I would like to invite you to travel with me even further back in time, from Henry VIII to Henry I, in order to see how looking at the roots of the Trust may help us to view its future flourishing. As well as travel back in time, let us also journey from London to Rome.
Imagine an English pilgrim to the Eternal City, around the year 1120. His name is Rahere. Often described as a minstrel, or jester, and favourite of Henry I, Rahere was also a clergyman, a Canon of St. Paul’s Cathedral according to certain authorities. While on his pilgrimage he contracted malaria. Some say that the Augustinian Canons who had care of the St. Church dedicated to St Bartholomew on Tiber Island, where they also ran a hospice for pilgrims, nursed Rahere back to health. Whether they did or not, Rahere, returned to London full of gratitude. He remained faithful to a vow he had made to God should he recover, and founded our hospital at Smithfield in 1123 dedicated to St. Bartholomew, a saint whose intercession many sought, and still do, in times of sickness. Throughout the medieval period the Hospital afforded the chronically sick both physical and spiritual comfort.
Rahere also experienced a vision of St. Bartholomew on his journey home to England. Obedient to that vision he also established the priory Church in which we are now gathered, likewise dedicated to St. Bartholomew, and became the first Prior of the Augustinian community. Rahere’s mortal remains rest in this church. There’s a lovely picture of his tomb in the Order of Service. Today we rightly continue the tradition of offering a continual service of praise to God, of which Rahere was so much a part … and the tradition of seeing God at the heart of healthcare. That St. Bartholomew’s Hospital is a parish in its own right gives powerful testimony to this divine presence in the care of those in need of healing.
Please forgive me if I have told you what you already know well. But I believe we need to hold dear the Trust’s religious roots if we’re not to forget something very valuable as we look to its future, and indeed of healthcare in general. For “God” is not a problem to be removed if the most up to date medical services are to be provided. Rather, God’s presence as one who heals should be welcomed. So chaplaincy services ought never to be seen as a luxury to be discarded when budgets are tight; or chapels as spaces to be sacrificed to other purposes when needs arise. People need spaces where they can come to pray for their sick relatives and friends. Those who are sick need places to pray, to receive the consoling touch of the divine. Healthcare professionals need somewhere to pray as part of their care for their sick brothers and sisters, as well as to receive strength for their ministry.
In all religions there is much that witnesses to the importance of God’s presence in healthcare. However, I am sure you will understand if my focus is from a specifically Christian perspective. But before I say more, let me be clear: I am not claiming that only believers in God know how to care for the sick; still less, that a hospital cannot provide authentic care unless it is faith-based. Every human being, religious or not, possesses the capacity to recognise and bestow genuine care. That said, it seems to me that Christianity, rooted in and working through what is truly human, has a vision of healthcare which has much to offer every hospital, whether or not its roots are Christian.
Christian faith holds that God took on our human condition, our human flesh, in the person of Christ. Central to Christ’s earthly ministry was healing the sick. He healed, heals, the whole person. Not just the body, not just the soul, but the whole person – a wonderful, inseparable union of body and soul. He heals not just bodily ailments, but one’s dignity. Christ heals wounded relationships with oneself, with the community and with God. Christianity’s belief in the incarnation, its understanding of who we are as humans, has much to contribute to a holistic approach to healthcare. I think it can shed light on the truth that it’s not enough simply to treat physical symptoms with advanced technologies and procedures, whereby the patient risks being regarded as an object upon which interventions are made. Rather forming good inter-personal, human relationships are key to the healing process. Christian faith reminds us that healthcare is holistic not only by virtue of its approach to individuals, but because its cares for the whole of the human community – including those who are unborn, those who are severely disabled, those who are pushed to the edges and denied access to healthcare, those who are elderly, and those who are near to death because of their illness or age. It is especially when there is no cure that the Christian gospel offers profound healing.
The context out of which the View Day Service emerged - medieval Easter celebrations held in Spitalfields (Spital Services) - helps us to grasp why this is so. Easter presents us with the God who “sheds the garment of divinity” (to quote Pope Benedict) and mounts the Cross to be with us in our suffering; the God who descends into the abyss of human suffering, even into hell, to “pour out the oil of consolation and the wine of hope”, so to bring light into our darkest moments: Light which bursts forth gloriously at the resurrection of Christ, granting the certainty of God’s closeness to us and his saving power; a redeeming presence enabling us, when sick, “to live the experience of illness in a more human way, not denying it, but giving it meaning” (Pope Benedict).
This truth is clearly expressed in the words and deeds of Pope Francis. At the Mass for his inauguration he spoke of the need to protect the sick. Since then he has put this beautifully into action. You may have seen the photo of him coming down from his pope-mobile to embrace a severely disabled young man. Recently he kept all the bishops of England and Wales waiting before coming to meet them because he had instead been with all the sick people gathered at the General Audience in St. Peter’s Square. And quite right too!
Just how close God is to those who are sick was also a clear teaching of Pope John Paul II. He called on us to recognise in the features of our suffering brothers and sisters the Holy Face of Christ, who by dying and rising brought about our salvation (cf. Letter for the Institution of the World Day of the Sick, 13 May 1992). And in his final sickness did we not see Christ’s face?
However, seeing the face of Christ in suffering and sickness is not easy. We’re like Nathanael (the apostle in St. John’s Gospel usually identified with Bartholomew in the gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke). When St Philip told Nathanael he had found the one of whom Moses and the prophets wrote, Jesus of Nazareth, Nathanael retorted: “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Nathanael had to learn that God is not bound by our expectations, but chooses to be found where we least expect. So Philip invites Nathanael, “Come and see!” And Nathanael does see. He professes before Jesus: “You are the Son of God.”
On this View Day we too are invited to “Come and see”. Although the sick are no longer walked through the streets, as once they were at Spital services, they remain our focus today. But we come to see them not with an attitude that views them as purely patients. No, we come to see them as offering us healing! For our sick brothers and sisters show to us the presence of God, even in depths of human suffering. In looking to the future of Barts, let’s not lose sight of this. And that we may not, we ask: St. Bartholomew…pray for us.
Archbishop of Westminster