On 17th December 2018 Lord Balfe led a debate in the House of Lords on the question, “To ask Her Majesty’s Government what steps, if any, they will take to prevent workers being dismissed from their jobs following diagnosis of a terminal illness.” The Bishop of Chichester, Rt Revd Martin Warner, spoke in the debate that followed:
The Lord Bishop of Chichester: My Lords, I greatly welcome this debate, and thank the noble Lord, Lord Balfe, for bring this important matter to our attention. I also welcome the TUC’s support of the courageous work of Jacci Woodcock in highlighting the issue, on the basis of her own experience.
As a trustee of the diocese of Chichester, I share responsibility for employing nearly 100 staff but also for the care of some 400 clergy. These clergy are office-holders, not employees, and many live in accommodation they occupy by virtue of their office. A terminal illness for one of those clergy, as for anybody else, carries the prospect of multiple concerns, but especially for those dependent on them. The loss of income and a home are primary concerns, alongside the personal challenges of failing health and dependence on others—often difficult for those more familiar with caring for others. The potential loss of their home goes right to the heart of the fear of death and the implications for a family—particularly if there are issues such as schooling and the future of children—that a terminal illness brings. When a family is most challenged, networks of social relationships are immensely sensitive.
In the case of office-holders—our clergy—regulations attached to their appointment give a measure of protection, but the wider housing needs of a family are discretionary. Our policy in the diocese of Chichester is to treat each case individually, doing as much as we can to understand a family’s needs, such as schooling, and to support them in making their choices for the future.
In the one or two cases that have occurred while I have been Bishop of Chichester, we believe that the perception of a high level of care for the family, and for the person who has the terminal illness and is enabled to continue in ministry for as long as possible, has had a significant impact on trust and morale for other clergy in the diocese, who are living in a similar condition of dependency for their housing on their occupation of an office.
This is just one example of how the implications of terminal illness can relate to a person’s profession, work and beyond. The Dying to Work campaign invites us to consider another aspect of responding to terminal illness. It is increasingly the case that the death of someone close to us is not experienced until relatively late in our lives. We are not well prepared for the news of that death or how to respond to it emotionally. Our own mortality is given little attention in a culture that has benefited so much from medical science and unprecedented levels of healthcare. The noble Lord, Lord Balfe, gave the example of his daughter and daughter-in-law’s experience of being highly qualified HR consultants and practitioners and yet this taboo subject was not part of their training.
We find it easy to express our own grief in social ways—flowers, cards and candles at roadside shrines, for example—but, as clergy, we know from first-hand experience of being alongside the bereaved that grief will isolate you. It is so common to hear a bereaved person describe how many people came to a funeral but say that, a couple of days later, someone would cross the road to avoid a face-to-face encounter, because they did not know how to talk about death and grief.
Working alongside a person who is going to die is a privilege. It teaches us something about ourselves that our social processes today simply do not prepare us for. This is not a matter of Christian faith but simply a fact—the unflinching facing of our mortality. Working with somebody close to us who is going through that process can help break down the barrier of fear and embarrassment that prompts us to avoid not only the dying but, perhaps more significantly, the bereaved.
Finally, those who are handling a terminal illness are often capable of showing us the best of which a human being is able to demonstrate in challenging circumstances. Once again, this is enormously beneficial and inspirational for the atmosphere of a place of work.
Right now, in the diocese of Chichester we have a young priest who has a terminal illness. The institution in which he has been working has found accommodation that will meet his needs, while keeping him in touch with friends and colleagues. His mobility and energy levels had declined markedly when I saw him last, but his generosity of spirit and capacity to find the best in each day and each person he meets are remarkable, profoundly attractive and unforgettable. You cannot set a price on, or pay to, access this kind of inspirational example. It is a gift and a privilege, and it has rightly been drawn to our attention as something that we need to prize more greatly than we do.
Lord Balfe (Con):…I thank the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chichester for being here, because this is a problem that is often dealt with by people of faith in many different religions. The right reverend Prelate will acknowledge that all faiths have to deal with this matter. It is a great strain, and many people in work faced with a terminal illness need a huge amount of support, love and effort…
Lord Horam (Con): My Lords, I too am grateful for the opportunity to support my noble friend Lord Balfe in this important debate. I am also glad to hear the remarks of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chichester, which went much wider and were very moving in the context of bereavement, terminal illness and degenerative disease…