Chaplaincy services are costing the NHS more than £32m, according to research by the National Secular Society (NSS), which says religious organisations should fund their own presence in hospitals to pay for roughly 1,300 nurses or more than 2,500 cleaning staff.
The NSS sent the report to the Health Minister, Alan Johnson, calling on him to review chaplaincy services with a view to ending taxpayer funding for them.
Terry Sanderson, president of the NSS, said: "We are not asking for an end to chaplaincy services, but we are asking that the taxpayer not be made responsible for them. Hospital chaplains are not on most people's list of essential services in a healthcare setting."
"The headline figure only takes into account the salaries of the chaplains, it doesn't take account of National Insurance contributions, pension payments, administration costs, office accommodation, training, the upkeep of chapels and prayer rooms. We can conservatively add another 20% to the headline figure, taking it up to £40m."
He added: "For some people – we suspect a very few – chaplains serve a useful purpose. But most people would prefer the tens of millions spent on clerics to be spent instead on nurses, doctors, cleaners and equipment."
Mr Sanderson said that if the churches and religious bodies considered these services so vital, they should be prepared to fund them themselves.
The NSS report claims that not only are clerics employed, but in some cases organists are on the payroll to play in chapels. In some instances, Catholic priests are called to deliver "last rites" and they charge the hospital a call-out for it.
"Surely it is not the hospital's responsibility to fund such activities," said Mr Sanderson. "The provision of last rites and other such rituals is surely a fundamental responsibility of the Church itself."
However, union Unite described the NSS's attack on the NHS chaplaincy service as "erroneous and simplistic", and said that chaplains "add value" to the NHS.
Unite pointed out that having chaplains in hospitals means fully-stretched nurses don't have to balance the needs of bereaved families, when other patients need urgent care.
It also said that if a patient dies and has no relatives, the NHS conducts the funeral (contract) services, and having an NHS chaplain doing this means that the £100 legal fee for the service is not paid to an outside cleric – thus saving the NHS money.
Revd Dr Chris Swift, a former president of Unite/The College of Health Care Chaplains, said: "The NSS report is based on erroneous and simplistic assumptions that do not delve into the real work that chaplains from all faiths carry out in the NHS on daily basis in often emotionally fraught situations.
"Over and over again, our members receive feedback from relatives and friends on how useful and comforting it was to have a NHS chaplain onhand.
He added: "I would like to see more independent research and objective study into the value of NHS chaplaincy. This research would demonstrate that chaplains are worth more than the notional £40m quoted by the NSS."
Should the NHS fund chaplaincy services? Your comments (terms and conditions apply):
"We need our hospital chaplains, don't drag them down to the level of our MPs. They do so much more, many students owe them their lives, whatever it costs pay them" – Carl Curtis, Southwark
"This is a shocking piece of information for the British public to stomach. It is disgraceful behaviour by the Church to take much-needed funds from the NHS, and has disgusted the majority in the UK, including those who would class themselves as Christians. The Church has been 'caught out' through freedom of information – priests making 'call out charges' to hospitals to come and give last rights and PCTs and foundation trusts paying hundreds of thousands of pounds to clergy. The NHS should only pay salaries to qualified clinical and medical staff, its administrators and maintenance employees. The public funding of religious groups within the NHS should be withdrawn immediately" – J Potts, Somerset
"Undoubtedly! Having worked with chaplains on the fallout after the retained organs issues at Alder Hey and Bristol, I can only imagine how badly the relatives and carers would have managed without the support and fantastic organisational abilities of those with whom I worked. Chaplains are also doing a wonderful, often unrecognised role in helping families deal with bereavement, miscarriage and, on a much happier note, births. Staff also benefit from having someone in whom they can confide who is involved yet detached from the clinical side of their work. In fact I attended a staff marriage at one hospital chapel. My experience is that chaplains are generally overworked and overlooked but provide an exceptional service" – Name and address withheld
"The NSS misses the point, not just of chaplains in the NHS but of life itself. The spiritual component of the human psyche is part of every person and needs nourishing most at times of serious emotional stress. It is surprising how many people, who find they can manage without faith during everyday living, find they need help when things go badly wrong. The chaplains provide this essential service, which is recognised by all who work in the NHS and the views of the NSS should be strongly refuted. On a personal note, I am fed up with people who live and prosper under the umbrella of a culture formed by the teachings of Christianity attempt to pretend that a retreat to godless barbarism is the way forward" – Alasdair Wilson, Practice Manager, Suffolk