In the UK, a Chilling Message for Christian Social Workers

Is Sheffield University saying that people people of faith are unfit to work as social workers?

Information Commons at the University of Sheffield
Information Commons at the University of Sheffield (photo: Credit: ‘Byb3’, public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

Since my early twenties I have been a qualified and registered social worker in England. Before ordination I worked in a variety of mental health settings, employed by local councils and Britain’s National Health Service. Social Work has always been something that has animated me and has been such a significant part of my life.

Today, I am a priest, but I still work as a social worker for several days each month. I belong to the British Association of Social Workers and am registered to practice with the Health and Care Professions Council, who regulate social work in England. When I was first ordained I continued to work in a Community Assessment and Treatment Team for 50 percent of my time and so I became a sort of worker priest, running a parish and supporting those with enduring mental health issues. I actually like the contrast and complementarity that this duality brings.

I was saddened to hear this week that a student social worker at Sheffield University has been considered ‘unfit to practice’ because of his traditional views on marriage. Felix Ngole expressed his views on Facebook in 2015 in support of the Kentucky registrar who refused to celebrate gay marriages. Mr. Ngole appealed against what he saw as a restriction of his own rights to freedom of speech, but sadly this hearing ruled in favor of the university.

This is sets a worrying precedent and sends out the message that there is no place in the social work profession for those who hold traditional views. Is the profession really saying those, such as me and many other professionals, who follows traditional Catholic teaching are “unfit to practice” as social workers? What about all those practitioners of other faiths who also uphold religious views which are different from the prevailing secular values? It seems that we are facing the possibility of discrimination.

 When I was training as a social worker in the late 1990s, there was always a sense of bias against religion and specifically western Christianity. I remember having to hold my tongue as lecturers made claims against white middle class Christian oppression whilst no references were ever made to the oppression found in other faiths and cultures. I never once heard anyone teach about the role that the Church had in the very foundation of caring services or the ongoing role that faith communities have in welfare provision. Nowadays I would be less timid and would be more likely to challenge such sweeping generalizations but then I just kept my head down as I focused upon graduation and qualification.

I practice as a social worker who is also a priest and I have always upheld that, for the baptized, marriage is a sacrament lived out by a man and a woman for life. I am pro-life and believe all that the Catholic Church teaches in matters of morality to be true and authoritative. In my 16 years of social work practice, I have worked with some of the most deprived and vulnerable groups in our society and supported numerous individuals whose lifestyles I personally may not have agreed with. As a social worker it is my role to help people because they have a particular need that has to be met, not to moralize about their social or domestic situation, especially as I often encounter people at times of mental health crisis.

 I have always worked within the boundaries and professional values of social work. My faith and my personal views have never prevented me from being a good social worker. It would be a sad day for me if I were to be excluded from this work and profession as Mr. Ngole has been.

My sense of vocation as a priest developed, in part, through my work as a social worker. Caring for God’s people and having a bias toward the poor are Gospel principles which are rooted at the heart of all social welfare professions. The international definition of social work could also be a statement for Christian social action:

“Social work is a practice-based profession and an academic discipline that promotes social change and development, social cohesion, and the empowerment and liberation of people. Principles of social justice, human rights, collective responsibility and respect for diversities are central to social work. Underpinned by theories of social work, social sciences, humanities and indigenous knowledges, social work engages people and structures to address life challenges and enhance well-being” (Definition approved by the IFSW General Meeting and the IASSW General Assembly  in July 2014)

Engagement in this work led me to reflect much more deeply on the love of God and my role in caring for his people as a priest. Part of my journey to priesthood developed as I grew in the understanding that the true liberation that Social Work seeks to achieve can only be fully realized when people engage with Jesus and the reality of God’s transforming grace. As St. Irenaeus so boldly articulated, “God is glorified when humans are fully free.” Social Work has been part of my formational journey and continues to be an important component of my living out of the Gospel.

So is Sheffield University saying that people like me are unfit to work as social workers? Are they also excluding others of faith who uphold the teaching of their own communities? At the heart of social work values is the need to be non-judgmental and anti-discriminatory. It seems that this holds true unless you are a person of faith.