Bishop Sarah leads St Paul’s Service for 73rd Anniversary of the NHS

Bishop Sarah led a special service of commemoration and thanksgiving at St Paul’s Cathedral on Monday 5 July, the anniversary of the health service’s foundation. The service recognised the dedication and commitment of all those who have played their part in combating coronavirus across the NHS, care sector and beyond.

Read Bishop Sarah’s Sermon in full:

73rd Anniversary of the NHS 

5th July 2021 St Pauls Cathedral 

Sermon preached by The Rt Revd Dame Sarah Mullally Bishop of London  

Isaiah 61:1-4 and Luke 6:17-23a 

In the Dean’s aisle behind me is a memorial to John Donne, former Dean of St Paul’s Cathedral and poet. It was the only monument to survive the Great Fire without significant damage. Keenly aware of his own mortality, Donne wrapped himself in a burial shroud as a macabre model for the sculptor, Nicholas Stone.  

Some of Donne’s most famous words are – ‘No man is an island Entire of itself, Everyone is a piece of the continent, A part of the main’.  

In the last eighteen months we have felt the loss of connectivity to those we love. We have been forced to distance ourselves physically, unable to reach out to family and friends with whom hugs, a hand reached out in care, an arm around a shoulder, would in other times convey love, closeness, compassion and care.   

Followers of Jesus Christ believe that every human being is created in the image of God – The Imago Dei – and as such we are not made in isolation.  

We belong together in community, in relationship, which should be cherished. We are most human when we know ourselves to be dependent on others and maybe the best working out of that relationship is seen in the NHS.  

The NHS was born out of a vision of healthcare available to all, regardless of wealth or status. Born out of a belief in something called the common good. Born out of the devastation and the exhaustion of the Second World War. 

At the heart of the vision was the belief that all people should be treated as of equal value. It was a vision of love and compassion given freely to all. The NHS is a demonstration of community and of solidarity in society, between generations, between rich and poor – and between people of diverse cultures and ethnic heritage. It was founded in the same year that the Empire Windrush arrived at Tilbury Docks. Through the generations, healthcare professionals from more than 200 nationalities have contributed to its workforce. In the words of Ruth May (Chief Nursing Officer for England) ‘the sharpest talent from abroad and the best and brightest at home’ have combined to ensure the success that the NHS is today.  

This solidarity – of generations, of rich and poor and of people from all cultural and ethnic backgrounds, is needed not just for a well-functioning society but to enable all human beings to flourish. 

The NHS has lived out the 6 c’s the benchmarks of excellence: ‘competence, care, compassion, communication, courage and commitment.’  

Compassion – a call for love to be seen in actions, requiring a commitment to the common good – being with and belonging to – compassion for the individual but also compassion for society.  There is a risk in a society focused on the individual, that the common good is side-lined for our own interests.  The first people to suffer are those on the margins – the poor, young and old, the mentally ill or those in prison. The NHS is a key marker of our values as a society. 

Compassion is at the heart of the Christian faith – shown to our neighbour, the outcast, the stranger, the poor – even our enemy.  It reflects the compassion of Christ, the love of God, generous and reckless – shown to us through what God has done for us in Christ Jesus.   

Ask any nurse on any ward today who is their neighbour and they will say the person they are caring for, irrespective of race, gender, sexuality, disability or ability to pay.  NHS healthcare workers put tenderness, kindness, empathy and compassion into a £130 billion pound organisation.  They have done this, day after day, over the last 18 months, despite their own fears and extreme pressure of work. They have taken on new roles and stepped up to think of others before themselves – even in the face of death. We are profoundly thankful. 

However, this has come at a cost. I suspect we will not fully understand the impact of Covid 19 on our mental health for years to come.  In Charlie Mackey’s beautiful book ‘The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse’ a child explores his fears and vulnerabilities in wise and gentle company. He learns about the importance of kindness to self and others; he discovers that there are times when other people believe in us more than we believe in ourselves; he realises that ‘Sometimes just getting up and carrying on is brave and magnificent’. And when he asks ‘What is the bravest thing you’ve ever said?’ the horse replies simply, ‘Help’.  

Over the coming years maybe that’s one of the bravest things we will do. 

Donne’s poem goes on to say that any one’s death diminishes me. For those whose loved ones have died this year, of whatever cause, life has been profoundly diminished. 

How we cope or do not cope with grief varies but as one Christian writer has said, ‘Not to grieve, not to lament, is to slam the door on the same place in the innermost heart from which love itself comes’1

We need to name the loss, give voice to our grief, speak of the uncertainty and confusion of our times. Our suffering needs to be shared – this is the work of lament; this is part of healing.  

Today, as a community we lament the loss of those who have died, we say thank you to the NHS – and we pledge ourselves anew to make it the best we can. As TS Elliott reminds us in is poem The Rock: 

What life have you if you have not life together? 
There is no life that is not in community, 
And no community not lived in praise of God.