17 April 2020

Tablets of many kinds

By Clive Marsh


It is not every day that you get asked to send a sample of your own pooh through the post. But on turning 60 during this Vice-Presidential year it is something I have been asked to do, and I am grateful to the NHS for their kind invitation. You’ll perhaps be relieved to hear that at no point did the sample I supplied find its way into the Vice-Presidential Cupboard.

Medications of varying kinds did, though, find their way in there. I don’t use a tablet. I have a netbook for my portable IT needs. But other tablets of a more traditional kind have been stocked up at various points in the VP year. I needed anti-malarials for my Zimbabwe visits. I needed to have Imodium and rehydration sachets available too, just in case. Thankfully, these were not needed so they are back in the cupboard for the moment.

All of these experiences and medical supplies, though, evoke lots of emotions, sensations and questions: about bodily and mental well-being, about politics and funding, about privilege, and about spirituality, religion, faith and health. For all such considerations are bundled together in this thing we call ‘life’ – especially life in all its fullness.

Medical know-how really does advance in leaps and bounds. The sheer skill of those who practice medicine, and the dogged persistence and ingenuity of those who research matters of health is a source of constant amazement to me. Of course, to be able to say ‘we’re trying to find a cure for cancers of all kinds’ perhaps makes it understandable why the drive to research is there.

But the work is often laborious and painstaking. Whatever the religious backgrounds (or not) of those doing the research, let’s thank God for them anyway…as well as for the NHS.

Religions have not, though, always been very friendly towards medicine. Yes, they’ve been entangled with concerns about health and well-being for their entire existence. First century understandings of health would have been broader than they often are now – seeing mental, emotional and physical health as much more bound together – though things have been changing here in the West.

But the rise of Western forms of medicine, and the impact of the rationalisation and professionalisation upon healthcare, in the recent past often separated out physical from other aspects of well-being. Hospital and healthcare chaplains have been prominent in challenging this and in helping with the rediscovery of the inter-relatedness of all forms of health.

Still, though, religious traditions sometimes carry with them deep suspicions of medicine. Christians in various parts of the world have at times looked with puzzlement at how secular Western medicine had become, whilst also sometimes not fully recognising the scientific achievements of Western medicine.

But how are we to get a better balance between the science and respect for people in all their mysteriousness? In his challenging book from some years ago, God is Not Great, the late Christopher Hitchens offered a telling challenge to any religious group which would oppose welcoming the potential benefits of medicine’s advance across the world. He had many uncomfortable examples of where religions had proved obstructive.

As I glance at the tablets and sachets in my cupboard, though, other thoughts come to mind too. I hadn’t appreciated at first that even to get hold of this medication I, in effect, had to ‘go private’, something that is anathema to my ethics and politics.

It was only through having to agree to having a private prescription; but I still found it awkward. Then there is the thought that it is such a privilege – to travel, to have this medication bought for me, to have easy access to it in the first place – when healthcare access globally is patchy to say the least. The coronavirus and the World Health Organisation are reminders of the inter-connectedness of us all across the world.

It’s commonplace to note that in church life there is much talk about health, particularly as health fails. That’s partly because of our ‘demographic’ – we have many older members amongst us, and though people of any age can have health difficulties, and older people can be astonishingly fit, we also have to be realistic in recognising that bodies do age and work less well in later life.

Churches are, though, places where we can be honest and open about all of this, as well as encouraging people to think about good health, and sensible strategies for well-being, at every stage of life.

But here’s a challenge to people of any age: when you ask someone ‘how are you?’, are you really ready for the honest (and perhaps lengthy) answer that they might give? Are you willing to listen? Or when you know you’re not feeling good, or have an ongoing condition yourself that you might appreciate talking about, is there sometimes room to hold back and not talk about it?

There’s a time to talk, a time to refrain from talking, a time to listen, and a time to talk about other things – including giving thanks (including for the NHS, and for health-workers of all kinds, everywhere, globally) whatever the circumstances.



This article first appeared in the Methodist Recorder on 6 March

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