Prescribing Jesus

Is it appropriate for a doctor to offer Christianity as part of the treatment?

There's something wearying about the seemingly endless procession of "religious discrimination" cases coming before courts and employment tribunals. But the case of Dr Richard Scott, currently being heard by the General Medical Council, is a remarkable one. The accusation against the Margate GP is that he inappropriately discussed religion with a patient, a "vulnerable" and depressed 24-year-old. To be more specific, having first gained the patient's consent to broach the topic, he explained that Christianity might be of greater benefit than the religion (unspecified) to which the patient currently adheres. Becoming a Christian, it was implied, might help him get better.

Paul Ozin, for the GMC, said that the patient -- said to have been suicidal and to have had "lifestyle issues" at the time of the consultation -- was left "very upset" and felt Scott "had belittled his own faith". Scott contends that he did nothing wrong. He was merely exercising his "professional judgement", as allowed by GMC guidelines.

These professional guidelines seem quite straightforward. Here are the two relevant paragraphs:

19. You should not normally discuss your personal beliefs with patients unless those beliefs are directly relevant to the patient's care. You must not impose your beliefs on patients, or cause distress by the inappropriate or insensitive expression of religious, political or other beliefs or views. Equally, you must not put pressure on patients to discuss or justify their beliefs (or the absence of them).

33. You must not express to your patients your personal beliefs, including political, religious or moral beliefs, in ways that exploit their vulnerability or that are likely to cause them distress.

Here's where things begin to get interesting. While the guidelines seem to envisage that any discussion of religion in a clinical setting should be a rare occurrence, Scott would appear to have been taking the opportunity to evangelise to his patients on an almost daily basis. In an interview earlier this year, he stated that he had raised the subject of Christianity with "literally thousands" of his patients. Not only that, he often encouraged them to attend evangelical Alpha Courses at his local church -- and that, out of every ten he asked, eight took up the offer and two "had their lives changed as a result".

Scott can at least not be accused of springing Christianity on his patients without due warning. He belongs to a Christian-oriented practice, the Bethesda Medical Centre in Margate. Until recently, the official NHS website carried a profile of the surgery, which stated:

The six partners are all practising Christians from a variety of Churches and their faith guides the way in which they view their work and responsibilities to the patients and employees. The partners feel that the offer of talking to you on spiritual matters is of great benefit. If you do not wish this, that is your right and will not affect your medical care. Please tell the doctor (or drop a note to the practice manager) if you do not wish to speak on matters of faith.

All this is, as I say, quite remarkable. This isn't the case of a doctor being persecuted by grim-faced secularists, because he once dared to mention his faith during a consultation. This is a doctor who, together with his colleagues, openly offers God as part of his normal treatment: a doctor who expects patients to opt out of being preached at whenever they go to the surgery with a sore throat or in need of a blood test.

The hearing is only taking place because Scott refused the GMC's decision to reprimand him over the incident. Backed by the Christian Legal Centre -- which is usually to be found at the heart of such cases -- he is insisting on his right to offer Jesus on the NHS.

I dug up an article written by Scott in 2002 for the magazine of the Medical Christian Fellowship, in which he was quite open about his motivation:

Evangelism is a job for all Christians, at all times and in all places, and Christian GPs are in a unique position to reach the lost in their local area. Sharing the gospel with patients is not an abuse of trust because God himself gives us the authority and salvation is their greatest need. We need to allow time for consultations in which the gospel might reasonably be introduced . . .

The article says nothing about the GMC guidelines but a great deal about the Bible. Scott writes that his "own particular focus is on depressed patients and anyone wearing a cross", the latter being "often lapsed Christians who carry much guilt and welcome the chance to discuss their faith". He mentions the "Christian notice board in the waiting room" and tells a story about a six-year-old boy who was encouraged by one of his posters to "profess his belief in Christ".

Scott is clear that Christian doctors have a special mission to save their patients from hell.

People are dying for the lack of the gospel message; eternal separation from God in hell is their future.

We are in a position second to none to reach the lost in our local area. We certainly have a greater access to non-Christians in a congenial environment than most full-time ministers . . . Our territory, our peculiar mission field, is our patients.

Far from Scott being the latest victim of a politically-correct secular tyranny, it would appear that, for many years now, the Bethesda Medical Centre has been able to function as part surgery, part evangelical outreach centre. This is an extraordinary state of affairs, even in a National Health Service that continues to fund homeopathy.

Belief, disbelief and beyond belief
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It's not WhatsApp that was at fault in the Westminster attacks. It's our prisons

Britain's criminal justice system neither deterred nor rehabilitated Khalid Masood, and may even have facilitated his radicalisation. 

The dust has settled, the evidence has been collected and the government has decided who is to blame for the attack on Westminster. That’s right, its WhatsApp and their end-to-end encryption of messages. Amber Rudd, the Home Secretary, wants tech companies to install a backdoor into messages like these that the government can then access.

There are a couple of problems here, not least that Adrian Russell aka Khalid Masood was known to the security services but considered to be low-risk. Even if the government had had the ability to gain entry to his WhatsApp, they wouldn’t have used it. Then there’s the fact that end-to-end encryption doesn’t just protect criminals and terrorists – it protects users from criminals and terrorists. Any backdoor will be vulnerable to attack, not only from our own government and foreign powers, but by non-state actors including fraudsters, and other terrorists.

(I’m parking, also, the question of whether these are powers that should be handed to any government in perpetuity, particularly one in a country like Britain’s, where near-unchecked power is handed to the executive as long as it has a parliamentary majority.)

But the biggest problem is that there is an obvious area where government policy failed in the case of Masood: Britain’s prisons system.

Masood acted alone though it’s not yet clear if he was merely inspired by international jihadism – that is, he read news reports, watched their videos on social media and came up with the plan himself – or he was “enabled” – that is, he sought out and received help on how to plan his attack from the self-styled Islamic State.

But what we know for certain is that he was, as is a recurring feature of the “radicalisation journey”, in possession of a string of minor convictions from 1982 to 2002 and that he served jail time. As the point of having prisons is surely to deter both would-be offenders and rehabilitate its current occupants so they don’t offend again, Masood’s act of terror is an open-and-shut case of failure in the prison system. Not only he did prison fail to prevent him committing further crimes, he went on to commit one very major crime.  That he appears to have been radicalised in prison only compounds the failure.

The sad thing is that not so very long ago a Secretary of State at the Ministry of Justice was thinking seriously about prison and re-offending. While there was room to critique some of Michael Gove’s solutions to that problem, they were all a hell of a lot better than “let’s ban WhatsApp”. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.