7th June 2005
The last time I looked, the Bible's sixty-six books did not contain the story of the Three Little Pigs and the Big Bad Wolf, but that children's story is exactly what I was reminded of last week when I read that plans were being discussed to remove the Christian holy book from patients' lockers in several hospitals in Leicester. We were told that this drastic measure was under consideration because the Bible might 'offend' people from other non-Christian faiths and, more apocalyptically still, help in the spread of the dreaded super-bug MRSA.
Just over two years ago, a primary school in Batley, West Yorkshire made national news after the head-teacher, sent a memo to her staff instructing them to not use books featuring pigs when teaching the under-seven classes in her school where two-thirds of the children came from a Muslim background. The reason the head-teacher gave for her action was that she believed the books "might have caused offence to religious sensitivities." Now it is true that Islam forbids the consumption of swine-flesh - except in the most extreme circumstances - however, there is no Qur'anic authority whatsoever to prohibit the portrayal of pigs.
As a child I recall being charmed by the tale of Charlotte's Web featuring the shy pig, Wilbur, and the little girl who tried to save him from the usual fate that awaited fat little pigs. As I grew older I read and then often re-read George Orwell's Animal Farm with its salutary lesson about the idealistic pigs who take over the farm and then begin to assume ever increasing dictatorial powers over the other farm animals. Preventing kids from reading about these pigs and discovering these characters seemed simply bizarre.
In the end, the Batley head-teacher's well-meaning but misguided initiative had the opposite effect from that intended. Her intentions had been quite noble. Yet she had inadvertently managed to stir up anger towards precisely the same minority groups that she had tried to show consideration for. The whole damaging episode might have been averted had some contact been made with the local Muslim community and their opinions sought. They would have quickly disabused the head-teacher of the mistaken notion that pigs are not halal/kosher story material.
The head-teacher's action seemed to fit into a worrying pattern where others would decide what was or was not offensive to minority groups. In Birmingham, five years ago, the local authority replaced the name Christmas with Winterval. As you might have guessed, the new name did not catch on. The following year Father Christmas was replaced by a woman in Telford, Shropshire, to help to 'recreate the figure in a more maternal image.'
Last week's news from the University Hospitals of Leicester NHS Trust about the Bible provoked understandable dismay among many Christians who evidently couldn't quite believe what they were hearing. Leicester has a good track record in achieving and maintaining harmonious race relations which makes this controversy all the more regrettable. 'There is a possibility that Bibles could give offence,' the NHS Trust had said in a statement.
'I have yet to receive a single letter, e-mail or phone call from any member of another faith to say they have been offended by a hospital Bible,' said an incredulous Ian Mair, of Gideons International, the Bible distribution group. Leicester has one of the biggest Asian populations of any city in Britain, but Christians are still a majority. Census figures from 2001 show the area's people to be 54 per cent Christian, 11 per cent Hindu, seven per cent Muslim and four per cent Sikh. Yet from Muslim, Hindu and Sikh leaders, the reaction was much the same as the chap from the Gideons.
'The only objection to having Bibles on hospital wards is if you are being forced to read them. But this is not the case. If it is in the bedside locker who can complain? Only a fanatic - and if they don't want it there, the nurse can take it away,' argued Professor Harminder Singh of the Sikh Fellowship.
Representatives of all the above non-Christian faiths agreed that a more sensible solution was for the hospitals concerned to be more inclusive and make available the holy scriptures of their various faiths rather than an enforced 'negative equality' which would prevent the Bible from being available in patients' lockers.
The world's great religions have provided spiritual comfort for their adherents over many centuries. In hospitals, where many patients and their families are dealing with often traumatic news, the help our holy books provide in trying to cope with pressure and stress should be welcomed and made more accessible to those who want it, not made more difficult.
Thankfully those in charge of running our hospitals have in recent years begun to recognise the vital role that faith can play and have begun to provide a prayer room for reflection and study, for the use of their staff as well as patients and their families. As shortage of space is often an issue, some hospitals have tried to workaround this by allocating a communal prayer room or quiet room where people of all faiths and none can visit. In localities with diverse multi-faith communities, the walls of the prayer room are sometimes kept free of religious imagery so that visitors from other faiths are not deterred from attending while religious artefacts such as crucifixes and prayer mats are all available and kept in drawers when not in use.
A leading pioneer in building this multi-faith environment within our hospitals was the NHS Trust in London borough of Newham - which is also home to over 30,000 British Muslims. After listening to the views of their patients and the local community the hospital chapel was rededicated as a multi faith quiet room. In July 2001 the room was re-opened by Eileen Carey, the wife of the former Archbishop of Canterbury.
Next month, in a conference entitled 'Sacred Space', the College of Healthcare Chaplains are to discuss this very issue of multi-faith rooms. I wish them the very best and may even save a prayer for them. It looks like they will need all the help they can get.
By Inayat Bunglawala
Secretary, Media Committee, The Muslim Council of Britain