Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Babel, Tower of....and the PFI of Health

The image of a stained glass window (not, however, in a multi-faith room, but in the Oakwood Centre, Reading) is by Stoney Parsons Glass Design.

Yesterday I was inconspicuously present at a meeting held to determine the shape, fittings and furniture of a "Multifaith Room" to be installed in a new PFI (Private Finance Initiative) Hospital planned for Chelmsford, near my home. I was there to add something of a "multi-faith" dimension to the meeting made up of architects, design specialists, builders and other sparky young things, plus a couple of Christian clergy whose exclusive province the hospital chaplaincy, until now, has traditionally been. But I pay tribute to their collegiality and ecumenicism (hope that's the right word) in inviting me along to offer my ten-penny-worth of opinion, and half-penny-worth of experience.

As a lay Buddhist at the meeting, and decidedly non-representative of anything much, I felt the Hand of History on my Shoulder (I'm sure that phrase isn't original, but I'm darned if I can remember where I heard it). In my experience of Multi-Faith Environments - I'm something of a collector of MFEs from my long non-alcoholic waits in various airports here there and everywhere - they tend to be culturally as neutral as possible, with no symbols or artefacts to suggest any kind of religious or cultural identity, let alone one that has 'supremacy' over the rest.

For example, the presence of chairs in a 'sacred space' might cause dissonance amongst people who usually worship on the floor, or sit on the floor to commune or take food together. The same might be said of a table. TV suppers apart, we in the "West" are used to sitting on chairs at a table to eat. Many people in the East sit lower down, eating from dishes laid on a cloth on the floor, or a low table. Curiously, we see paintings of the "Last Supper" with the Lord Jesus sitting at a refectory-type table with his disciples and not on the floor as one might suppose would be the norm in that place and at that time. The presence of a waist-high table might signal Western cultural assumptions. Public perception ought to be the determinant in such matters, perhaps. Perceptions are easily challenged by minor discrepancies from what we all take-for-granted as the 'norm'. I only offered this as a perspective.

There was some discussion on an 'ablutions' facility that had been designed-in to cater for Muslims, who have an obligation to wash before prayers. A smallish washroom had been planned in, but it had only one door. I pointed out that this would mean that worshippers would enter through the door with shoes on, remove them, wash (including their feet) and then make their way out of the ablutions room (with newly washed feet) through the same door they had traversed with 'dirty' shoes. Not a lot of sense when you think about it, but an easy mistake for a non-Muslim to make.

So the designer pencilled in a new (second) door aperture in the wall of the ablutions room. A stitch in time saves nine! I don't know why there wasn't a Muslim present at the meeting (or a Jew, or a Jain, a Sikh, a Hindu, a Rastafarian, a Zoroastrian, a Pagan, a Wiccan or any other faith representative for that matter). It might have made a difference. On the other hand, too many cooks.....

The meeting lasted about 90 minutes, and there were ten people present. One can imagine how many meetings must take place to 'get it right' for a whole hospital, and at what cost. A proper Tower of Babel, or forest of Towers. I was impressed by the rigorously consultative nature of the process, but also by the 'youth' of the various experts involved in drawing up the plans and bringing them to fruition. It also gave me an interesting insight into the nature of the PFI process. This is taking place against the background of remarkable and 'exponential' change in the technology of medicine, but also of the shifting expectations and demands of 'you' and 'me', the paying public. It's easy to be an 'armchair critic' of PFI but, in an era of rapid change, I can now better understand why services need to be built (and financed) with the possibility of change and obsolescence built in, not as "one-off" projects or buildings. I guess PFI is some sort of response to that.

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