Cicely Saunders and her Christian faith

  • Testimony

In 1967 Dame Cicely Saunders founded St Christopher’s Hospice in south west London. Although there were several homes in existence for the dying, most of which were run by religious orders, St Christopher’s was the first modern hospice. It is now one of many throughout the world.

Her biography, ‘A Life and Legacy’, by David Clark, contains references to her journey to, and practice of, her Christian faith. Cicely had wanted others to know that this faith was not only important to her but at the heart of her life’s work. These references have been summarised.

Cicely was born in 1918 at Barnet in Hertfordshire. This was at the end of the First World War (1914-18) which left 300,000 children without a father and 160,000 women who had received the telegram ‘killed in action’. There was no mention of her parents being people of faith. After schooling at Roedean she went to what is now St Anne’s College Oxford to study Philosophy, Politics and Economics. Amongst her reading there in 1938-9 were books by John Hadham: ‘Good God’ and ‘God in a world at war’.

Her initial stay in Oxford was only just over a year. The outbreak of the Second World War prompted her to leave to become a nurse at St Thomas' Hospital in London.

In 1944 a slipped disc, with resulting back pain, caused her to leave nursing and return to Oxford. There she met CS Lewis, English tutor and convinced Christian, author of the Narnia Books. He and Stella Aldwinkle, chaplain at Somerville College, established The Socratic Club for all those interested in a philosophical approach to religion. Cicely joined the group.

There were other encounters with Christians and in 1949 she was convinced enough to pray. God answered; Cicely recorded: “a change to feeling you mattered”

Back in London she trained as a social worker and volunteered at hospices for the dying before further training to be a doctor. During the 1950's she attended All Souls Church Langham Place. All this time she was planning for a special kind of hospice which would care for the dying but also pioneer and research the drugs for pain relief.

In her talks and presentations, she was ‘up-front’ about her Christian faith. This prompted a Lancet reviewer of one of her many writings about pain relief and care of the dying, to write: “Anyone who quits (reading) because of this will lose a very great deal of practical instruction for relief of pain and distress and the skilful use of drugs.”

One of her quotes is: “Caring and involvement is a religious commitment for many of us”

The hospices and homes for the dying she had experienced were all faith based. Exploring the need of a faith community for her own hospice (St Christopher’s opened in 1967) she asked whether a secular group could do so well.

What should be he religious character of her hospice? What about interfaith issues?

She asked for, and took, a lot of advice. The conclusion was that:

Medical need would come first

There would be no particular faith community

The backing would be interdenominational – i.e. not just Anglican

However, the legal memorandum stipulated that there would be a chapel available for Christian worship.

The Aims and Basis of St Christophers:

  1. A person serving in the hospice should serve in their own way
  2. Dying people must find peace and be found by God without being subject to special pressures.
  3. Love is the way through, given in care, thoughtfulness, prayer and silence.
  4. Such service is group work, led by the Holy Spirit, perhaps in unexpected ways.
  5. The foundation must give patients a sense of security and support which will come through faith radiating out from the chapel into every aspect of corporate life.

Cicely Saunders committed herself to God as a young woman and retained her belief, doing serious daily Bible reading all her life. For her, the centre of St Christopher’s was the chapel where she prayed daily and took a weekly service.

She loved all her patients whatever religion or creed, never proselytised but, given the opportunity, encouraged others in and toward belief.

She saw the spiritual side of palliative care as being open to “finding the key to the personhood of the dying”.

Ref: Cicely Saunders: a Life and Legacy - David Clark. Oxford University Press 2018.