The case against staying silent about religion

By Trevor Willmott

“DO NOT be afraid, but go on speaking and do not be silent” (Acts 18.9).

A number of recent judgments that question the right or appropriateness of Christians’ giving public voice to their faith brings Jesus’s words to Paul into sharp focus. The ruling last week of the General Medical Council (GMC) against Richard Scott, a Christian GP, might lead us to conclude that Christians should be afraid, and must indeed be silent about their faith.

Dr Scott, a doctor for 28 years and a GP in Margate, Kent, was last week served with an official warning from the GMC for inappropriately discussing his Christian faith during a consultation with a patient. The GP, who is a former medical missionary, has practised in Margate for nearly ten years.  He has an unblemished record, and was praised by the GMC for the great esteem in which he is held for the “dedicated care” he offers to patients.

Dr Scott is one of six partners at the Bethesda Medical Centre, an “expressly” Christian practice, which clearly advises patients on its official NHS website that all the partners are practising Christians who feel that the offer of talking to patients about faith “is of great benefit”.  The centre’s website explains that patients can choose not to discuss matters of faith, and that this will in no way affect the quality of their medical care.

EVIDENCE given at the four‐day hearing suggests that Dr Scott spent about 20 minutes with Patient A, a suicidal 24‐year‐old man, in August 2010. It was only at the end of the consultation, Dr Scott says, that he asked the patient whether he could discuss his Christian faith, as he felt “it had something to offer him which would cure him”. After the patient agreed, Dr Scott maintains that he sensitively discussed faith, and ceased when the patient asked him to stop.

The quality of the care provided by Dr Scott is not in question. Orthodox medical treatment was not withheld; the GMC notes that Dr Scott had previously referred Patient A to the local psychiatric service, “and therefore a further referral was not required”.

The GMC committee does, however, find that there was “a direct conflict in recollection” between doctor and patient about “any medical help or tests or advice” that might have been offered. It observes that “there is no mention in the notes” of medical treatment, and “considers that Patient A’s account is more probable”.

Dr Scott did not spend the entire 20‐minute consultation proselytising. Rather than regarding the patient as a   biological specimen, he treated the patient as a whole person who has spiritual and emotional as well as physical needs. The GP shared his heart‐felt conviction that faith in Jesus could contribute to the patient’s recovery.

Interestingly, there is no blanket ban in GMC rules on doctors’ expressing personal beliefs, as long as it is done sensitively and appropriately. It is noted in the GMC statement on Dr Scott that matters of faith can be relevant to clinical care: “There are circumstances in which spiritual assistance is valuable,” it reads.

The GMC notes two witnesses who spoke of the help received after discussions about faith; they were people who found their lives transformed when they committed themselves to Christ.

The question in this case, therefore, was whether or not Dr Scott’s offer of spiritual insight to this troubled young man was appropriate, and in his best interests. Although recollections of the content of the conversation between Patient A and Dr Scott differ substantially, the GMC finds that Dr Scott’s actions were “inappropriate and clinically not in Patient A’s best interest”.

It ruled that Dr Scott “went beyond the limit of such spiritual guidance as would have been appropriate . . . which caused distress to Patient A.”

Existing GMC ‘Fitness to Practice Rules’ do allow for an expression of religious beliefs but I believe the GMC has acted with disproportionate force in applying these rules to Dr Scott. With the absence of any specific criteria about the appropriateness or otherwise of matters of faith and its relevance to clinical care, the GMC now appears to be saying that all but the meekest faith discussions must be banned from the consulting room.   This restriction of religious expression is surely a concern to both society and for individuals who have spiritual needs as well as physical needs.

In an age when society is increasingly seeking  answers  to difficult questions, it is disappointing that a highly regarded Christian doctor is being punished for offering spiritual and pastoral insight that could help a patient.  If we treat people as biological organisms without spiritual   needs, society and individuals will be the poorer.

I am anxious about the expectations in some parts of our society that Christians should seek to compartmentalise their faith. It seems that we are somehow expected to turn off our faith when we step through the door of our workplace. Will it soon be the case that society actively disqualifies Christians from the caring and educational professions? These are professions that, over several centuries, have grown from Christian communities in this country.

This denial of the Christian expression of faith, in a country where our Christian heritage is central to our history and values, is worrying. It is, of course, distressing for us as Christians who feel called to live out our discipleship 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Yet it is even more disturbing for society: restricting the expression of Christian faith could foster a society that was even more fragmented – one where the common good was relinquished in favour of individuals’ rights. Where the fear of upsetting individuals and the fear of disciplinary action in the workplace, means Christians will cease to challenge society to change and improve.

While this is a risk, I shall not be silent, and I shall not be afraid to go on speaking.

The Rt Revd Trevor Willmott is the Bishop of Dover.