SITTING IN A ROOMFUL of Episcopalians involved in health ministries, the Rev. Babs Marie Meairs described her work as a Veteran's Affairs chaplain in San Diego. She works with spinal-cord injuries and the extended-care unit and participates in a national leadership program on pain management and end-of-life care.
"I didn't know there were other Episcopalians involved in end-of-life issues that I could talk to," she said.
From the apostolic healings to the founding of hospitals to the institution of parish nurses, the church has been involved in health ministries throughout its history.
Within today's Episcopal Church, however, those efforts are fragmented. Chaplains such as Meairs operate in one sphere, Episcopal retirement homes in another, bioethicists in still another. The office of the bishop suffragan for armed services, health care and prison ministries recently identified 17 independent, unconnected health-care efforts within the church.
But that is changing. This month the office will ask Executive Council to allocate $30,000 for a new Episcopal Healthcare Coordinating Council.
This group will gather representatives from the wide array of Episcopalians involved with health care, from ethicists and advocates to physicians and consumers, said Suffragan Bishop George Packard. "Just to get us around the same table is important."
The council also will launch a church-wide listening process to refine the church's vision of health and health care, he said.
The council is an outgrowth of a "formative symposium" that Packard's office sponsored in July. About three dozen participants, including Meairs, outlined a strategy for articulating and implementing an Episcopal health-care vision that includes:
Fostering listening and dialogue inside and outside the church on issues of theology and health.
Establishing an office of health policy, education and bioethics, and an advisory council.
Developing theological and educational materials.
Aiding and encouraging networking; and
Advocating on health issues at all levels of government and within the church.
"I see from the symposium the potential for having more partnerships in bringing the church to a fuller understanding of ministry in health and healing," said the Rev. Jean Denton, director of National Episcopal Health Ministries and a vocational deacon at St. Paul's Episcopal Church, Indianapolis.
Already participants are building bridges. Meairs' husband Edward Busch, an Episcopal priest and retired surgeon, approached the bishop of San Diego about establishing a diocesan commission on health-care issues and is slated to address the diocesan clergy conference this fall.
Spreading the word about health care
An important part of the symposium's strategy is letting people know about existing programs and resources. One growing Episcopal ministry is parish nurses or health ministers.
In 1989, Denton became one of the Episcopal Church's first parish nurses. Today, hundreds exist.
"We would really love to have health ministries on some level in every congregation," Denton said. Many congregations already do something--visit the sick or deliver meals--but may not label it health ministry, she noted.
"This is definitely part of what the church or the local community of faith ought to be about," she said. "We have, I think, relinquished a lot of that. We developed hospitals and said, 'Well, you take care of the body over there, and the local congregation will take care of the spirit.' ... The church is a good place to talk about stewardship of the body."
Writer Thomas Cahill notes that Jesus said only a couple of times that he can be found in the Eucharist, said the Rev. Dr. Robert Cox. "But the Gospels have many, many more statements ... indicating that Jesus is to be found elsewhere in our daily life, in particular with the marginalized: with the poor, with those who are in prison, with those who are sick."
"There's something very important in our coming to know Christ in this kind of work" with the disenfranchised, he said.
Son of Baptist missionaries, Cox is an Episcopal priest with degrees in neurophysiology and pastoral psychology. He is doing post-doctoral work at Tewksbury State Hospital in Massachusetts, serves as a pain consultant and health psychologist, runs stress-reduction groups, a group for newly admitted forensic patients, and conducts individual therapy and psychological testing.
"It's the treatment place of last resort," he said. But this is where he chooses to work. "I feel that when I drive up to Tewksbury every morning, I am on holy ground and that I am privileged to be with people as they bear up in their suffering."
Following vocations in spirit and medicine
Cox is among 83 Episcopal physician clergy, according to a 1996 survey the Rev. Daniel Hall, M.D., conducted for his medical school thesis. A transitional deacon, Hall is a resident in general surgery at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center and canon missioner for young adults at Trinity Cathedral.
Hall's research revealed a diverse group of physician clergy, mostly isolated from each other. He discovered his subjects "struggled to articulate reasons for their pursuit of two vocations" and that "it was surprisingly difficult to distinguish these physician clergy from their secular colleagues." He hopes to increase connections among physician clergy.
"What I see myself doing to a certain extent is being a missionary to health care, the health-care industry," said Hall, who has also served as a missionary in Zimbabwe. Fluent in both medical and theological "languages," he hopes to translate the gospel in meaningful ways into a culture different from where the church traditionally is found, he said.
"I think that that is some of what chaplains are trying to do. They are attempting to take the church to places that the church doesn't see as its primary place, so to speak."
People have asked VA chaplain Meairs, "Well, when do you do your priestly thing?"
"Jesus went out into the world and ministered to the people on the fringes, and certainly in the VA hospital, what I'm dealing with is a lot of people who've felt very much on the fringes of society in America. I may not be increasing the numbers in Episcopal churches, but I feel very strongly about being nurtured myself by the Episcopal Church to go to be with people who are suffering and struggling and having a harder time connecting with the Lord."
Sharon Sheridan of Flanders, N.J., is a freelance writer and editor and a frequent contributor to Episcopal Life.