May I speak in the name of the living God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
We are here today to remember, celebrate and give thanks for 75 years since the founding of our NHS – nothing can take those years away.
First though, I want to take you to the west coast of the Island of Barra in the Outer Hebrides on a hot summer’s afternoon several years ago. Driving down a narrow coastal road, the peace and quiet were shattered by a blaring car horn and a Mini overtook us at speed. My thoughts were not entirely charitable! But further on this car was parked by the side of the road and a team of people were down on the beach huddled round a person obviously needing and receiving health care – miles from anywhere, on a Sunday afternoon, at no cost. How Christ-like! I have never forgotten it. For me, it encapsulates the essence of the NHS for which I was privileged to work for 35 years.
However, before I go further – one caveat. The NHS is not perfect; no human organisation is. I am only too aware that many of you here may be waiting in pain for health care and that some of you may well have been hurt by failings of the NHS, in relation to yourself or those for whom you care. That is a cause for lament and for sadness and I pray for God’s healing of those wounds.
Yet in remembering and giving thanks for the past 75 years it is right also to honour and celebrate those good things that surely have been and are signs of the Kingdom of God working among us: the vision of our forebears, the commitment and selfless service of so many, the witness to the Judaeo-Christian values of compassion, kindness, mercy, justice, humility.
First of all: vision. Following the example of Jesus in the story of the Good Samaritan and His healing miracles both physical, mental, emotional and spiritual, Christians, from the days of the early religious orders, have sought to care for others, wherever there was need. In 1929, a Local Government Act required local authorities to provide health care for everyone – but at a cost. And people with vision, not just Christians, realised the injustice of that. It still amazes me that in the dark and often difficult days of the 1930’s and the early 1940’s the seeds of the National Health Service were patiently sown, culminating in the establishment on 5th July 1948 of the NHS, health care for all, free at the time of need. Much has changed since then but that is still the basis of the NHS – funded out of taxes, not National Insurance. Perhaps we should stop and remember what we are paying for before we grumble about higher taxes! The values at the heart of the NHS are Christ-like – justice and care for all, regardless of race, gender or wealth. Thank God for that vision.
Secondly, commitment and selfless service. That word “service” is embodied in its name – the National Health Service. Jesus came not to be served but to serve – a concept at the heart of the NHS. Within my first few days of working in the NHS the whole ethos of “Patients First” was emphasised – remember it is not about you, put yourself in the shoes of others, what sort of service would you want for your loved one. I know that, for so many, working in the NHS is a vocation – people have worked and do work in the NHS because they wanted, and still want, to serve others, often at great cost to themselves and their families. In what I think can be an increasingly individualistic “me first” society that is much for which to give thanks. I thank God for the courage of those who strive to achieve Kingdom of God values in today’s society. Jesus was often counter-cultural and unpopular with the authorities. He took off His robe and washed the feet of His disciples, telling them to do as He had done. He healed on the Sabbath day because he saw a need and met it. He didn’t reject the person with mental health problems or those with disabilities. He spoke kindly and gently and with compassion to those in trouble, saving His anger for those intent on just keeping the rules and not acting out of love. For Jesus, people and their individual needs came first. It was never about Him – but it was about serving God.
Finally, witness to Christian values. The NHS is one of the largest organisations in the world, certainly in this country. Its remit is to provide a service, when it is needed, for all, no matter how much money you have, no matter the colour of your skin or your gender. Just as Christ met need where it manifested itself, so is the aim of the NHS – and of course it struggles. I never met anyone in the NHS who thought that all that needed to be done was being done!
The NHS is first and foremost a “people” organisation. I challenge anyone to name an organisation in which so many people, from so many varied backgrounds with so many different skills and abilities work together. It is not just about doctors and nurses and hospitals, important though they are. Most health care is delivered at home or in the community – GPs, community midwives, opticians, pharmacists, to name but a few. Hospitals could not function without boiler staff keeping the building warm, engineers and technicians keeping systems and equipment running, switchboard staff at the heart of a vast communication system, catering staff, cleaners, porters, health care assistants, radiographers, physios and occupational therapists, path lab technicians, receptionists, secretaries etc. etc. It is also too easy to forget those working away in laboratories doing research, always looking for improvements to health care, asking questions. I frequently thought there was a job for everyone in the NHS. Managing this large organisation is a challenging task and a friend of mine once said “the challenge to hold all this together in harmony, within a budget, is a miracle.” In itself, that management task can require all the gifts of the Spirit!
Over the years there have been so many improvements in health care– less time spent in hospital, improved drugs, more care at home, the emphasis on prevention – all to promote healing and wholeness, to enable each one of us, as far as possible, to live life in all its fullness until the day we die – hopefully surrounded by care and compassion. The aim of the NHS is to heal, to restore – to hold the hand of our neighbour and to recognise that each person is an individual loved by God, someone who matters to Him. The Christian values of compassion, mercy, kindness, humility, love and justice are never far away. I find that humbling.
However, as we remember, celebrate and give thanks today for 75 years of the NHS, what might be the challenges for the future? Health is not just an absence of disease. I believe the challenge for the future is to integrate social care into a true “health and care” service, recognising the contribution of housing, education and employment, of tackling poverty, loneliness and isolation. Perhaps today should be a wake-up call to meet and talk and act and begin to shape the future as we look forward as well as back. Our health is a precious gift from God. Let us nurture and cherish it, not only for ourselves but for others, so that we can all say with Dag Hammarskjold
“For all that has been – Thanks!
To all that shall be – Yes!
Ruth Stables (Revd)
Sermon preached at St. Mary’s Church, Barnard Castle, on 2nd July 2023
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