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NHS Trust agrees to Christian Sunday services after legal pressure

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A Christian patient's requests to have Sunday worship services at a medium secure mental health unit in East London have finally been granted after a year-long legal battle with the NHS on the grounds of religious discrimination.

The patient, Freddie O'Neil, 57, based in the secure unit at the John Howard Centre in Homerton, is a convicted rapist who became a Christian in prison. He initially raised his complaint that there were no Sunday services for Christians at the Centre after he was transferred there in January 2018. His weekly requests, however, fell on deaf ears and he was laughed at and ignored, leaving him with no option but to turn to the Christian Legal Centre (CLC) for support.
 

A Catholic priest turned spiritualist

A pre-action letter was sent to the East London Foundation Trust (ELFT) in October 2018 stating that, as a Christian, the patient needed to attend Sunday Christian services each week and receive Holy Communion. CLC had been informed that no such service was available, which was in contrast to the Friday prayers being organised for Muslim inpatients each week.

As part of the Centre's response to Mr O'Neil's spiritual needs, a former Catholic priest turned spiritualist, Mr Raphael Zernoff, was provided to support Christian patients' spiritual needs and to provide Holy Communion. On paper, Mr Zernoff, was described as a ‘Spiritual Care and Catholic Coordinator’, but on one of his YouTube videos, which was coincidentally removed when the Centre was confronted with the prospect of legal proceedings, he describes himself as a "writer, spiritual guide, channeler, psychic, life-guide and a lot of other identities." In the video, Mr Zernoff discusses his spiritual awakening while meditating on the constellation Orion, and describes himself as a "specialist in reading people’s energy" and able to "detect people’s belief systems and therefore able to guide them through healing, self-awareness and into their preferred direction." Clearly Mr Zernoff could not be considered as representing orthodox Christianity.

The Christian patient’s 'preferred spiritual direction' at the John Howard Centre, however, was not adhered to by Mr. Zernoff, who would reportedly administer Holy Communion by saying "here you go" when passing the wafer and would make no attempt to say an appropriate liturgy.
 

NHS England chaplaincy guidelines breached

In denying the patient proper Christian services, the John Howard Centre was said to be not only discriminating against Christian patients on the grounds of religion, but also to be breaching a number of its legal obligations. This included Article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which includes the right of an individual to freely exercise their religious faith through worship and observance.

The Centre was also breaching NHS chaplaincy guidelines, especially in the context of a Centre supporting patients with serious mental health issues, which state: "Recognising a person’s spiritual dimension is one of the most vital aspects of care and recovery in mental health. People who use services increasingly wish to have services view them as whole persons in the context of their whole lives; and spirituality and faith is a vital element in that." (1)

Months of back and forth correspondence ensued. CLC said there must be weekly Sunday services for Christian patients, offered to find a Minister or partner church to help, and suggested a meeting with the Spiritual, Religious and Cultural Care team at the Centre to try to find a way forward.

No progress was made, however, as the Centre continued to delay, deflect and deny Christian patients their rights and freedoms.

It took a further threat of legal action for the Centre to finally offer weekly Sunday Christian services, which began on Sunday 7 July 2019. There are now reportedly 6-8 people attending these services.
 

Grew up in care and abused by the system

Mr O'Neil said: "I grew up in care and was abused by the system as a child and came into the adult world not knowing what God, family and love are. I am a damaged person, a convicted criminal, but the only true redemption I have found in my life is hope in Jesus Christ. I rely on that input for my physical, emotional and spiritual well-being. So when it was denied to me and instead I was provided with a psychic to administer Holy Communion, I knew I had to take a stand, not just for me, but for all the patients at the Centre.

"I am pleased that Christian Sunday services have now started but I am concerned that they have still not been written into the curriculum in the same way as Friday Islamic prayers have.

"I could not have got this far without the Christian Legal Centre who supported me and my legal rights when no one else would."
 

"Wholly inappropriate and disturbing"

Andrea Williams, chief executive of the Christian Legal Centre, said: "We are encouraged that the John Howard Centre has finally agreed to hold Sunday Christian services for its patients.

"All that the Christian patients at the Centre wanted was to have a service and Holy Communion on a Sunday, which recognised the hope they have in Jesus Christ, and to exercise their faith in Him. This was not being taken seriously and what the Centre was providing was wholly inappropriate and disturbing to already vulnerable patients.

"We have seen from a number of our cases that access to Christian input is under threat, not only in our prisons where the hope of the Gospel is needed most, but also in the NHS. As Christians, we believe that Jesus forgives everyone who has faith in Him and who asks to be forgiven. We all have the freedom, no matter what we have done in our past, present or future, to know and worship the Lord Jesus Christ.

"We call on the John Howard Centre to be consistent in its approach to providing Christian services going forward." 

 

Notes for editors

(1) Gilbert, P. “Guidelines on Spirituality for Staff in Acute Care Service: Recognising a person’s spiritual dimension is one of the most vital aspects of care and recovery in mental health”. (2008) Staffordshire University. Cited in NHS Chaplaincy Guidelines 2015: Promoting Excellence in Pastoral, Spiritual & Religious Care. (2015) NHS England.

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