NHS gives its blessing to Paganism

Scotland on Sunday/July 1, 2007
By Murdo Macleod

For some NHS hospital patients it would seem the help of one god is just not enough. Pagan chaplains are, for the first time, to offer counselling and prayers to the sick in Scottish wards.

NHS Tayside has agreed with Scotland's 30,000 Pagans a ground-breaking deal that will allow bedside healing rituals, meditation and special prayers. But some of the more exotic aspects of Paganism - not least the carrying of flaming torches - will have to stay outside.

Pagan patients will also receive advice on getting well soon, including keeping a "healing goddess" next to their bed.

But the move has outraged some Christians, who claim it represents an insult to the nation's religious heritage. One senior member of the Church of the Scotland claimed it proved "the devil had been busy" in Tayside.

Modern Paganism is characterised by the worship of gods and goddesses linked to nature and the seasons. Pagans flatly reject claims they are Satan worshippers and insist theirs is a religion of tolerance and harmony with nature.

Under the agreement reached between NHS Tayside, which runs Dundees Ninewells Hospital, and the Pagan Federation Scotland, newly trained Pagan chaplains will be officially allowed access to wards to minister to patients.

A Pagan hospital visit will involve meditation, prayers, private counselling and possibly a simple healing ritual, which might include the use of healing stones.

However, Pagans have decided to tone down what are seen as the more exotic and striking forms of Pagan worship and ritual, such as carrying flaming torches.

Under the agreement, the Pagan chaplains are not allowed to use their time in hospital to attempt to spread their own faith, and they may only minister to patients who have requested a Pagan visit.

Tina Stewart, the Hospital Visitor Coordinator for the Pagan Federation Scotland, said: "We have had a very successful meeting to discuss the needs of the Pagan patient. Things are moving forward. There's an understanding that patients of all faiths should be treated equally and that they all have the right to pastoral care while in hospital."

John McIntyre, spokesman for the Pagan Federation, added: "There is a lot more recognition of Paganism in Scotland nowadays. There are about 30,000 people in Scotland who would regard themselves as Pagan and many people are very sympathetic to elements of Pagan belief without necessarily calling themselves Pagans. The equality of men and women and caring for the environment are all parts of the Pagan outlook, and most people would agree with these things."

However, the move has angered church-goers. Moira Kerr, a Kirk elder who in 2005 campaigned against a move by Tayside to remove a communion table from a hospital chapel in case it offend non-Christians, said: "I'm very saddened to hear about this. Scotland needs to get back its Christian heritage which has done so much for us over the years. There's no doubt the devil is at work in this."

Gordon MacDonald, the parliamentary officer for the Christian values charity CARE, said: "I would question what the point is of all this. Very few people in Scotland identify themselves as being Pagan by faith and I would have thought a health board would have better things to do. This is a sign of how much confusion there is in society nowadays. People need to think through the values which we have received from our Christian heritage, such as respect, the value of the individual, and personal freedom."

But Osama Saeed, Scottish spokesman for the Muslim Association of Britain, said: "As a minority faith ourselves, I don't think Muslims would object to others receiving pastoral visits. Nothing illegal would be happening and people have the right to spiritual care."

Rev Chris Levisson, who advises the NHS in Scotland on provision of chaplaincy services, said: "The fact is that we treat patients of all religions and faiths - and even those of none - equally. If they ask for care and a visit from a particular religion then the duty is to facilitate it, as far as that is possible."

He added: "There has been research from elsewhere which suggests that patients who receive visits from chaplains can do better in hospital than those who don't. The very fact of having a person come in and talk and show that others care, can itself help the process and even get a better outcome. It is actually one of the most cost-effective elements of care."

A spokeswoman for NHS Tayside said: "If people ask for a chaplaincy visit, of whatever faith, we will facilitate it, without making any judgment."

• Pagan medicine, in its modern form, is based on trying to rediscover and develop ancient wisdom relating to herbs and natural remedies.

Ancient druids were the healers of their time and thought that mistletoe could cure all manner of ills and even make a person who wore mistletoe invisible. Some druids insisted on cutting mistletoe using a golden knife or sickle at special times, such as midsummer or during special phases of the moon.

Regardless of the merits of a golden sickle, some herbs the druids venerated have recently been found to have more to them than previously thought.

The herb meadowsweet, for instance, has been found to contain salicylates, which are aspirin-like substances that help reduce inflammation and relieve pain. It also contains tannins and other constituents that help protect the stomach and intestines from acidity and ulceration, which can be caused by too much aspirin.

In addition, St John's Wort was used in the past to treat emotional and nervous conditions, such as depression, anxiety and tension.

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