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Clapping for the NHS, our new religion

Clapping for the NHS, our new religion

Nick Spencer reflects on the ‘Clap for Carers’ tribute last night which celebrated the NHS and care workers responding to coronavirus. 27/03/2020

I have spent much of the last two months in hospital (though not, I should say, on account of coronavirus or indeed any ill health on my own part). It’s why I’ve written so little for Theos since January. I know you’ve missed me.

At times, I have near been reduced to tears by the care, kindness and generous professionalism I have witnessed there. In spite of the evident strains and tensions I could detect beneath the surface in the ward, we were treated with nothing other than tenderness, sympathy and expertise. The only word I can find to capture the experience is love.

Which was why I stood on my doorstep last night and applauded NHS staff, along with millions across the country. Not a great one for public demonstrations of emotion, or indeed for demonstrations of emotion, I could not help myself.

The short, percussive, socially–awkward ceremony got me thinking. The former Conservative chancellor, Nigel Lawson, once remarked that the NHS is the closest the English have to a religion. He was, at the time, (half) joking, but many a true word and all that. I suspect he is right.

You believe in what you wear. Christians often place a little cross or a fish on their lapels to show their existential allegiance. American politicians more or less have to wear the stars and stripes for the same reason. They believe in America. I have noticed how British politicians increasingly wear the little NHS badge. This is who we are. This is what we stand for.

We applaud (literally) NHS staff and workers. As a population, we think of them with enormous and instinctive respect, of the kind that was once reserved for men of the cloth. The coronavirus crisis is being fought in the name of the NHS. We are being called to protect the NHS. It is seemingly an easier sell than merely saving lives.

We mobilise the kind of social capital that was once the province of the churches in the name of the NHS; half a million NHS volunteers, to deliver food and medicine to those in need. A Charities Commission report published in 1895 remarked that “the latter half of the 19th century will stand second in respect of the greatness and variety of Charities created within its duration, to no other half–century since the Reformation.” The vast majority of that was church–based. Perhaps historians of the 21st century will say the same thing about NHS volunteers. There is already a project at Warwick University exploring “How the NHS became almost a national ‘religion’”.

We used – as recently as the 1940s – to have national days of prayer, fasting or thanksgiving. It was the way we were brought together as one. Now, to persuade the public, to get anything done, to win over the electorate’s trust, politicians rally behind NHS – protect our NHS; NHS volunteers; NHS as grounding of social capital. Now we come out en masse to express our praise and gratitude. The closest thing we have to a religion… almost a national ‘religion’. I think we might drop the qualifiers.

This might be the cue for a pious warning about idolatry. Perhaps, but not here and not now. Rather, I hope for the opposite: not that we worship the institution or its staff but that after this crisis we treat it properly.

There were times in hospital when I thought I would like to sign my entire will over to the people who worked there. That was (one of) the way(s) monasteries got rich in Europe, as grateful families gave over their estates to the institutions that had looked after relatives, physically and spiritually, in their final years. (NB: one of the ways: I’m under no illusions about the others. I’ve read Chaucer.) It was also how the Salvation Army shifted from nothing to one of the world’s best–loved and wealthiest Christian charities in the 20th century.

I hope that, in the light of this crisis, we treat the NHS with the same material responsibility as our forebears did monasteries and Christian charities like the Sally Army. In short, that we collectively express a national willingness to pay for it.

In particular, I hope that we choose to pay its staff better. I can’t imagine that Victoria, the cleaner who diligently, politely and smilingly kept the ward spotless day after day, thereby preventing as many infections as the doctors and nurses did, is on anything more than the living wage. I know that some of the nurses that I spoke to could hardly afford to live where they worked.

I hope that we stop taking with one hand (through health–limiting behaviours) what we are giving (through tax and volunteering) with the other. I wish I had the courage to tell people I see smoking outside the Marsden to stop it.

And I hope that we come down very hard on those who threaten or abuse the staff. Boiling fury doesn’t come close.

It’s not a ridiculous wish list, really.

Oh, and one other thing: a foolhardy prediction, rather than a hope. We have long talked, as a nation, about the distribution of our public holidays. I predict that when this is over, or at least at some point over the next few years, we will choose to make the 5th July, the day on which the institution was formally founded, a national holiday: NHS day. I would celebrate it.

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 Image: John Gomez/

Nick Spencer

Nick Spencer

Nick is Senior Fellow at Theos. He is the author of a number of books and reports, including Magisteria: the entangled histories of science and religion (Oneworld, 2023), The Political Samaritan: how power hijacked a parable (Bloomsbury, 2017), The Evolution of the West (SPCK, 2016) and Atheists: The Origin of the Species (Bloomsbury, 2014). He is host of the podcast Reading Our Times.

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Posted 27 March 2020

Coronavirus, Health, Religion


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