New RAH chapel causes consternation

By Catherine Hoffman
New Times Editor

Posted in News

Usually the announcement that a chapel will be included in a public building is one that causes members of the Uniting Church SA to rejoice. However, Health Minister Jack Snelling’s recent announcement that a chapel would be included in the new Royal Adelaide Hospital caused consternation for many Christian chaplains close to the project and reversed months of careful consultation.

The establishment of the new RAH site provided chaplains with an opportunity to purposefully consider what kind of religious space would best serve those in need at the hospital. An ecumenical team, in consultation with people from other faith traditions, designed an inclusive sacred space to fit with the ethos of contemporary chaplaincy. The plans also include a separate prayer room, which will feature facilities for washing to align with the practices of some faith traditions. These rooms form part of a new Spiritual Care Centre to be located at the heart of the new RAH building. Amongst those working on this space was Rev Judy Knowling, a Uniting Church chaplain and deacon who provides services to the RAH through Chaplaincy Services SA.

Australian Conservatives senator Cory Bernardi was one of the first to respond to the lack of the word ‘chapel’ in the designs for the new hospital. He expressed his outrage in interviews with the Australian and FIVEaa, labelling the prayer room a “mini mosque” and criticising the removal of the term ‘chapel’, “which has Christian connotations, and which has always been in hospitals”.

In the wake of these comments, Minister Snelling told the Australian:

“There’s a chapel at the new RAH. It’ll be called a chapel, as my office indicated to you yesterday. The hospital isn’t finished yet and not all signs are up but they will be when the hospital opens.”

He said that this name is not a result of Senator Bernardi’s complaints.

Members of Chaplaincy Services SA and the Uniting Church SA who have been working on the inclusive sacred space at the new RAH site were disappointed by this announcement.

Speaking to the Australian and New Times about the announcement, Uniting Church SA Moderator Rev Sue Ellis has expressed her belief that Senator Bernardi was unaware of the work that chaplains had put into carefully designing the new space according the practices of a contemporary hospital.

“I’m dis­appointed that the work of faithful chaplains has become politicised when people who are in the RAH need loving support,’’ she says.

“Our chaplains are guests in the space held by patients at any hospital. They believe the best way to minister the Gospel of hope and healing in the social hospital context is by focussing on the patient and their needs. They follow the example of Jesus, who noticed the need of the vulnerable and asked about them, before he offered healing.”

According to Sue, who has worked in hospital chaplaincy, the majority of pastoral care takes place by the bedside or in the halls of the hospital. In her experience, the chapel space is most often used by staff and visitors, rather than patients.

“The Christian church has a long history of supporting and establishing hospitals. They provide a space for us to show God’s mercy, grace and kindness to all people in need, including people from other – or no – spiritual traditions. In focussing on what helps give life and hope to the one in need, the church has always respected the rituals of other faiths,” Sue explains.

“The prayer space with washing facilities provided in the new RAH serves an essential purpose for people of Muslim faith. If practicing our faith required such elements they would be also be provided. This is because the focus is on the need of the patient, not on the institutional religion.”

Hospital chaplaincy is an important part of the Uniting Church’s work – something that was emphasised in a recent New Times article by Rev Leanne Jenski.

In the article, Leanne spoke about being a “God-person” for people who don’t have faith or a faith community. “It is a privilege to walk alongside people and offer a listening ear, especially if the patient is journeying towards dying,” she wrote.

Sue recalls Leanne’s statement and shares her own belief that prioritising the needs of the patient should be of utmost importance – something which she believes may help others be brought to faith.

“I heard a story of a hospital chaplain who journeyed alongside a person of no faith. This chaplain was instrumental in leading the person to Christ and finding them a local congregation in which to nurture their faith,” she shares. “That former patient is now a leader and lay preacher in the Uniting Church.”

Sue expects experiences like this to happen through chaplaincy at the RAH with continued priority given to the needs of each patient.

“The new RAH space was created by an ecumenical group of chaplains who have witnessed and heard what patients need. I encourage Uniting Church people to investigate how the Gospel is shared in chaplaincy and to have confidence in the vision of Chaplaincy Services SA personnel, of the sacred space and prayer room in the new RAH,” she says.

“Current debates that politicise a place of healing on religious grounds demonstrate a lack of understanding of how chaplains do their work, in bringing the love and grace of God that offers peace and hope in times of great pain and stress.”


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Comments (3)

  1. Sylvia Carter 12 april 2017, 19:17 Link
    My life was changed by a hospital chaplain infact God and me met in a chapel.
    I cannot stress enough how very important chaplains are in their patient's lives. infact I have no doubt that I would have kept on with a life of utter hopelessness if the Chaplian had not taken an interest in my life & sat by my bedside listening to my fears and life story.
    I give thanks to God and the Uniting Church for my journey thus far as I have no doubt one day I will become a chaplain listening to those who need help when their lives are hanging in the balance.
    chaplaincy is of utmost importance to lives and I can't wait to visit the new one at the RAH! Thanks be to God. Sylvia Carter West Lakes Church
    1. Sylvia Carter 12 april 2017, 19:33 Link
      Thanks for this article and to our chaplains who planned the new chapel area for the new RAH. I cannot express enough the importance of chaplains in people's lives.
      My own faith story began in a hospital at a time when my life was in a complete mess and I was desperate for someone to just hold my hand and listen to my needs.
      I never knew God I was not a Christian.
      By the end of several hospital stays i went to the nearest church and was baptised for it was God who told me to drop everything and go and live your journey with me by your side.
      It was amazing and life is still wonderful thanks to the chaplain and very good mentors along the way and the Uniting Church & college. I look forward to visiting our new hospital and the chapel. I've no doubt one day I will be a chaplain holding patient's hands and listening to their stories and surrounding them with God's love. Sylvia Carter West Lakes Uniting Church.
      1. Wendy Newman 13 april 2017, 15:22 Link
        The work of hospital Chaplains is a valuable and important ministry. This does not need to be questioned in the discussion of the 'multi-faith space.'
        In the 2011 Census, over 60% of South Australians identified as Christians. During Easter week it is perhaps an appropriate time to reflect on whether sometimes our distinctiveness gets a little 'washed out' in a search to be inclusive.
        Consultation occurred with the hospital Chaplains and we do not need to be defensive about their contribution. However we need to include other Christians, who may hold a different view and who possibly (unlike the patients) may use a chapel with Christian imagery (that is currently in place at the RAH) — these groups include students, staff, patients families and other visitors particularly those who may hold a more Orthodox faith. Some of these peoples names are in the visitors book at the RAH chapel.
        Hon Jack Snelling's response regarding a chapel probably reflects the wider population of SA and is quite reasonable.
        1. Nicole Hall 08 may 2017, 14:46 Link
          What a pity that this wasn't explained to people. It makes good sense. Unfortunately, the announcement of no chapel was presented in a way that made it look like further efforts being made to take the Christian out of our society! Guaranteeing it to upset people. I have never had this side of the story presented before -very interesting.