The Mail on Sunday
Why I had to fight for the crucifix I have worn for 38 years
Full interview with ‘persecuted’ nurse
SHIRLEY CHAPLIN has worn a crucifix since the age of 16. And except for the time it was removed for a few hours when she had an operation, she has never taken it off in 38 years.
It is the core symbol of her faith and a treasured constant. It has helped comfort others and has frequently given succour to the 54-year-old nurse in her own moments of need.
There was the time when, petrified of flying, she gripped it while visibly shaking in her seat during her first trip on an aircraft. She clung to it again when she gave birth, praying that ‘if I had a handicapped child God would help me handle it’. And she drew solace from it when her mother was rushed to hospital after a car accident.
In an age of dwindling congregations, when women increasingly wear religious symbols as fashion accessories, Mrs Chaplin’s inch-long crucifix and chain is an essential part of her very being. So the notion of taking it off, much less losing it, is unthinkable and leaves her feeling horribly dislocated. Worse still, being forced to take it off, ‘would violate my faith’.
That, though, is precisely what did happen to Mrs Chaplin, a ward sister who has devoted her life to her patients. Or at least that is what the bosses at the Royal Devon and Exeter Hospital tried to do. They told her to hide or remove it because they classed it as jewellery, rather than an essential manifestation of her beliefs. She refused.
Last week, her claim that she has faced discrimination made headlines when it reached an employment tribunal in Exeter. The tribunal’s judgment is expected on Tuesday.
Although the crucifix appears benign enough, the hospital Trust insisted it breached health and safety rules because it could, theoretically, scratch patients.
Mrs Chaplin finds this frankly preposterous and instead sees herself as the victim of a politically correct persecution, her sense of injustice height-
‘I don’t go around quoting passages from the Bible’
ened by the knowledge that other hospital staff have been allowed to carry on wearing the Muslim hijab or headscarf.
‘I feel personally discriminated against, and I am very angry,’ she said in the first full interview she has given since her ordeal began.
‘I have worn my cross for 38 years and it has never harmed anybody. If I am forced to hide it, I feel I am denying my Christian convictions. I feel torn between my two vocations – my faith and my job.
‘I have respect for Islam as a faith and I admire Muslims for sticking to their views, but they do not seem to face the same rigorous application of NHS rules. Not only are they allowed to wear headscarves in the wards but other, non-religious staff wear jewellery and have not been challenged.
‘I believe much of the discrimination against me has been handed down from on high, from central government. They have brought in all these diversity policies so as not to offend anyone. But they don’t mind offending me.’
It is easy to sympathise with Mrs Chaplin, to feel angry on her behalf – as many have. But might it also be natural that some will view her as an uncompromising religious zealot, someone who quietly relishes the commotion her case has caused – at the very least, someone who is perhaps just a little bit odd?
She assumes that some people will indeed think such things. But none of them resemble the truth.
Brought up in the Church of England, she speaks about her religion only if she is asked about it.
‘I don’t push my faith in people’s faces. I don’t go round quoting passages from the Bible,’ she says. ‘I am a very private person.’
Her cross and chain was a present from her family to mark her confirmation service at St Mary’s, her parents’ parish church in Bishops Lydeard, near Taunton, Somerset.
Beyond the crucifix in question, her neat bungalow, set in scrupulously-tended gardens overlooking rolling Devon countryside, is devoid of any religious symbols and icons. Instead it is adorned with photographs of her two grown-up sons and three young grandchildren, as well as books on antiques and coins, her husband Paul’s hobby.
He is a retired ambulance driver, who first met Shirley at a hospital party in 1980, and without whom she would have collapsed in an emotional heap. He was struck then, as countless future patients would be too, by her calm and thoughtful manner and brilliant smile.
At 5ft 2in, her slight figure and neat, auburn hair make it easy to imagine her as a nun, though it’s a calling she has never considered.
Over mugs of strong tea, she tells of the Christian values that have shaped her life: helping others, honesty, love for her family.
After leaving school in Taunton, she dabbled in jobs as an accounts clerk and selling TVs before enrolling as a nursing assistant at a special needs school. From the first day there, she knew she wanted to care for people.
In 1976, she became au pair to a family in Copenhagen and spent 15 months there before returning to begin nursing training in Exeter and a love affair with Paul.
Their family life was singularly normal: school runs, weekend walks, gardening, dinner with friends. Summer holidays were often spent on the unspoiled beaches of the Gower Peninsula in South Wales – Mrs Chaplin’s fear of flying ruled out foreign trips. Until that first flight.
‘I can remember sitting, waiting for take-off, physically shaking and I gripped on to that cross,’ she says. ‘It was so frightening but it helped me to find a way through.’
Several times during the interview she apologises for not being able to articulate the depth of what her crucifix means to her.
‘I can never find the right words to describe it,’ she says. ‘It’s like it’s always there, for big and small problems alike.
‘I know that I do often hold it and fiddle with it. When I was preparing my case, I had to show that the cross wasn’t some kind of whim – that I’d always worn it on the wards.
‘I’d ask colleagues and they’d say, “Gosh, Shirl, it’s a long time ago.” But they did remember. The image they had of me was, typically, during a break on night duty, holding the cross up to my lips.’
That it is a source of tangible strength to her is beyond doubt; both the miniature Christ figure’s face and loincloth are worn smooth from nearly four decades of touching.
Some of the ‘evidence’ used to undermine her case clearly still rankles. The claim by senior staff
‘Patients are reassured by my crucifix’
that they saw her on the wards without her cross she finds upsetting and baffling.
‘Do they really think I would lie about that?’ she says. ‘The whole point about my cross is that it’s visible. Of course, it may slip below my neckline if I’m busy with patients. I’m not always going to be checking. I never realised certain people on the wards were observing me so closely. I have no doubt that the Trust has taken an anti-Christian position and wants to defend it, come what may.
‘Managers, I believe, take their lead from government through a maze of policy directives and then impose their own interpretation on top. It’s so hard to fight this.’
Mrs Chaplin is adamant that most patients are reassured by the sight of her crucifix. ‘People are not sure who to trust and a Christian nurse prepared to publicly show her faith says a lot,’ she says.
Her relationship with senior matron Julie Vale, her NHS nemesis, has been defined by their battle over the cross. But there were never any shouting matches, nor table-thumping, despite the ‘emotional pressure’ she felt to remove it.
Mrs Vale, who joined the Trust in 2008, first confronted Mrs Chaplin about her cross in June last year.
‘I was completely taken aback,’ she says. ‘I looked at other members of staff wearing jewellery – they hadn’t been challenged.’ After three further