By David Jolley
This week has seen The Reverend Michaela Youngson and Bala Gnanapragasam, President and Vice-President of the Methodist Conference, visiting the Manchester and Stockport District. In the world of Methodism these roles are equivalent to being the Archbishop of Canterbury, but only for a year. This rapid turnaround goes with the Methodist tradition of an itinerant ministry – the standard arrangement being that ministers are attached to one place for only five years in the first instance, though this can be extended in small multiples of four. It has the advantage of bringing fresh ideas and enthusiasm to the leadership roles, but perhaps leaves considerable power in the continuity provided by the executive.
The three days of the visit covered a range of topics and locations: creative writing, public health and faith, local government, migration, a walk in the Peak District, MHA Sunday, Methodist Women hope and a Pentecostal celebration. I was pleased and fascinated to be invited with my colleague The Reverend Ros Watson, to be part of the discussion of health and faith – a consequence of our Dementia Conversations at Bowdon Vale.
It was an assembly to savour and to learn from: Bala himself has been Chairman of a major Acute Hospital Trust for eight years and has contributed to improved knowledge and services for people with HIV.https://www.christianaid.org.uk/contact-us/people/bala-gnanapragasam.
A is a retired nurse who worked up from cadetship to be a lead nurse. In retirement she is involved in a number of projects reaching out to ill and disadvantaged people, including people with dementia.
B1 is a minister whose adult son lives now in supervised care with his autism – the experience of trying to live with this as a family has been more than a learning curve.
Our hosts were C and F: handsome and gracious members of the Black Church where we were meeting – A building which looked to have been a two-storey workshop – with the upper floor now used as a church and centre for foodbank and other community activities. They emphasised the potential for churches to become involved in research and to contribute to discovering more about health and how to improve people’s health. They shared the surprising information that 80 percent members of the Black Community are associated with a church, so that researchers looking for subjects to investigate ethnic linked disorders find work with Black Churches extremely rewarding. Faye has been working on aspects of cardiovascular disease which is high amongst the black communities. Their great advantage in working with and through churches, is that the people trust the church and church workers, whilst they often have reserve or suspicion about mainstream health authorities and their advice.
Interesting – for my understanding is that a much smaller proportion of the white UK population are involved with a church, so that investigations amongst church goers are likely to be skewed by their atypical characteristics. In addition, my understanding would have it that many people today are suspicious and reserved about churches and religion – much more likely to have faith and trust in mainstream health care – and mainstream healthcare as a whole maintains a distance from religion. A recent review we looked at, at one of our Friday seminars declared itself to be about whole person medicine, but mentions only physical and mental dimensions: no room for a social context let alone spirituality or faith https://www.rcpsych.ac.uk/improving-care/campaigning-for-better-mental-health-policy/college-reports/2019-college-reports/cr222 (we must come back to this).
B2 has worked as a chaplain in a general hospital which went through years of criticism but is now managing better. Despite the setting and reputation of the Trust he has found people grateful for the care they receive and particularly pleased with the opportunity to share thoughts and feelings which the chaplaincy offers. His work extends to the local hospice which enjoys the highest regard and confidence within the town.
C is a GP who practices in the Peak District but makes time every week to travel to Salford to contribute to training which will produce a qualification for immigrant/asylum doctors to practice medicine in this country: a massive gift to these individuals and a boost to our services.
Ian is the minister at Manchester Methodist Central Hall which hosts a range of initiatives which reach out and provide home for the inner city peoples – older people left behind, homeless people, people whose first language is not English and who want to worship together www.methodistcentralbuildings.org.uk/ . Julie is a fabulous trainee minister, now in middle age but radiating raw warmth which has already reignited communities. Her current placement means she is Ian’s apprentice.
Dr Andrew Lunn is the Chair of the Manchester and Stockport District www.mandsmethodists.org.uk/ – pleased to be part of this celebratory three days (now there is something: 3 days to change the world) – and thoughtfully enthused by this health and faith mini-forum.
Ros and I spoke briefly about Dementia Conversations and I added a bit about Christians on Ageing – 35 years in action but unknown to all but three of this group. The conference which will be held in Sheffield on September 25th is an opportunity to reach more people and realise the potential https://christiansonageing.org.uk/.
Looking at themes we found consensus that churches can do a lot in health care – physical health, mental health, social life and spiritual life. Helping people to trust the mainstream and helping the mainstream to trust us and other communities of faith. For some the need is for education and health promotion, for others it is rescue from dreadful circumstances, for many – help with illnesses when they come and go – readjusting to life with less strengths and abilities sometimes, living with chronic or progressive disorders which may last until death which may come early. Dementia is perhaps the most prevalent of these latter – a model for caring and working toward adjustments. Communities of faith must be accepting of people who are different – by illness or by other attributes. ‘Dementia Friendly’ is one level toward progress. Conversations aim to go further.
This was a most encouraging and inspiring, frank meeting of thinking and active Christians. It will be good if the group stays together for a while to see what can be achieved.