On Wednesday, much to my delight, the House of Commons voted against the government’s plan to liberalise Sunday trading laws. And, as I reflected on why it felt like such a meaningful victory, I realised that the theological significance of strict Sunday trading laws lies in its offer of grace to the public: here is a time to rest. It’s yours, a gift that won’t be taken away, whether your boss feels like you’ve earned it or not. It will be kept safe, regardless of your income or social status: the extension of grace is a wonderful equaliser.
It occurs to me that a similar principle is at work in the deep distress I feel at the slow degradation – read privatisation of the National Health Service. It’s not just politically or socially important to protect the NHS and its staff from further disservice and cuts at the hands of our government – it has great theological significance, because the existence of the NHS is an extension of public grace. Your previous medical history, bad choices you’ve made, irresponsible things you’ve done, your income – none of this is taken into account when you come into hospital to receive care. It is, by NHS principle, open to everyone and free at the point of use. Just as strict laws for Sunday trading equalise the working people, the NHS is genuinely ‘fair’ in its distribution of gracious health care.
This moment of grace in the public sphere is precious. It’s a concrete demonstration of unearned compassion being extended to the bodies of the sick and suffering that must be protected. If we have any notion of the importance of our public space being shaped by Christian values at all, the survival of the NHS may be the most important battle we face – because it’s there that grace is most clearly manifested in the secular lives of the British people. It’s not without significance that so many Christian missions agencies in the UK and abroad have conducted their work in the context of free health services and physical care; if healing the sick without questions concerning their deservedness or bank balance was good enough for the incarnation of God’s grace, it’s good enough for me.
I’m aware, of course, that this isn’t an economic argument. To some of you, it may not even appear to be a particularly good social argument. But I’m convinced that theological reflection in the public arena matters, and should have influence on our politics. While it is true that hiring private contractors to run parts of the NHS does not prevent its gracious distribution, it may inhibit our ability to protect such public grace in the future. This is a threat with great theological significance. Our culture is, on the whole, one of blame and responsibility: if you make a mistake, or society perceives your existence as burdensome, you bear the punishment, whether you are able to bear it or not. But the National Health Service – for all its flaws – bucks this trend. And that is worth protecting.
Do you agree with Hannah? We’d love to hear your views on changes to the NHS in the comment section below.