Tuesday, December 14, 2010

An Episcopal Perspective: Distinctions That Episcopal Chaplains Bring to Health Care Ministries

I wrote this article for Chaplair, the newsletter of the Assembly of Episcopal Healthcare Chaplains (AEHC). The latest issue of Chaplair is now in print, and so I feel free to also share the article here.

When I first began writing a blog four years ago, I had one topic that I especially wanted to think about. That is whether there might be an Episcopal culture for health care, comparable to the distinctive cultures of, say, Roman Catholics or Seventh-day Adventists.

As I wrote about it (for me, a way of thinking out loud), I identified some characteristics that I thought an Episcopal culture might include. For example, the General Convention has never given specific directives on health care procedures. We have made some clear statements, but not statements that somehow separated us within the larger health care community.

I haven’t given up on the concept of an Episcopal culture for health care, even though I don’t think I’ve found it yet. However, I do think some of the characteristics I have discerned do give the Episcopal Church something important to offer in chaplaincy, and for us to offer as Episcopal chaplains.

We are remarkably well prepared to work in the multicultural, multifaith, polyglot environment of contemporary health care. Central to this is our commitment to the Baptismal Covenant. We have embraced as definitive of the Christian life, and certainly of our Christian ministry, that we will serve Christ by serving all persons, and loving neighbor as self. We have claimed for ourselves that we will “strive for justice and peace among all people, “ and not just our own; and that we will “respect the dignity of every human being,” and not just those who agree with us. Certainly, all professional chaplains commit to these things in codes of ethics and professional standards. We, however, have declared this as fundamental to our faith and practice as Episcopalians.

We are also, I think, well prepared to speak of the eternal in a variety of images. This is in part because we embrace all of Scripture as meaningful, while recognizing that in Scripture God is described in many ways, and addressed in many titles. We have made this formative for us in how many of these titles have been reflected in the Book of Common Prayer. Consider the variety of attributions of God in the many Collects of the church year, both in the Collects for Sundays and in those of feast days. Think of the many titles of God provided in the Psalms. I find this variety makes it very straightforward for me to pray in multifaith groups in ways that respect both my listeners and my own faith.

We have an appreciation of the power of liturgy, of structured and familiar responses, in the most significant moments of life. We certainly know the reality of that for folks like us from “liturgical churches.” However, I think many, if not most of us, have experienced how true this also is for those who claim other traditions. Once again, the Book of Common Prayer is a resource. Even when our words are not the appropriate words per se, we have experience structuring words and phrases to express the concerns and feelings of those in crisis. And, how many of us have discovered a chaplain colleague from another tradition making use of the Book of Common Prayer in her or his own professional practice?

As AEHC has gathered over the years I have advocated that we chaplains claim our place in the church. Many have heard me say, “As we are the Episcopalians among the health care chaplains, we are also the health care chaplains in the Episcopal Church.” It is also the case, however, that we are the Episcopalians among the health care chaplains. We have not defined our presence in our society to any extent by distinctive positions on medical practices. We do, however, bring tools and perspectives to health care chaplaincy that allow us to standout among our colleagues, and to serve patients, families, and staff from many traditions.

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