The BHA receives two types of requests for support and advice in relation to chaplaincy. The first type of enquiry is from those who have been inappropriately approached by religious chaplains in environments such as hospitals or colleges. The second is from those who are seeking a humanist equivalent to chaplaincy, often in hospitals and at the end of life, in prisons, universities, or closed professional settings such as the armed services.
Mental health and wellbeing is an important part of general health and wellbeing and the BHA supports the provision of inclusive and secular counselling services where appropriate as a part of the public health system, including in prisons, hospitals and closed settings such as the armed services. The BHA does not support the provision at public expense of religious chaplaincy and believes that where such chaplaincy is available in public contexts it should be requested before it is provided.
From the many requests that the BHA receives for it, the BHA recognises that there is a demand for humanist ‘chaplaincy’ equivalents, in particular in closed environments such as hospitals, the armed services, prisons and (to some extent) tertiary and further education. Such services need to be distinguished from
- psychotherapy (where a trained professional treats ‘disorders of the mind or personality by psychological or psychophysiological methods’ [OED])
- counselling (a form of psychotherapy where a trained ‘counsellor adopts a permissive and supportive role in enabling a client to solve his or her own problems’ [OED])
- and from plain befriending or contact, as in prison visiting.
When referring to these services, the BHA prefers not to use the word ‘chaplaincy’, which retains sufficient religious connotations to be inappropriate as a meaningful description. Whatever it is called, pastoral care specifically for the non-religious in this sense needs to give advice and reassurance on an existential level, helping with questions relating to beliefs and ethics and to a person’s worldview or lifestance. There are successful examples of humanist ‘moral counsellors’ performing this function for the non-religious in prisons, hospitals and the armed forces in Belgium, Norway, the Netherlands and elsewhere, alongside religious chaplains.
Such work requires people with the right personality who have been trained in the role and are knowledgeable about Humanism and the sort of questions that non-religious clients may ask. In the same way, Christian chaplains are knowledgeable about Christianity – Hindus about Hinduism and so on – but are also trained in their chaplaincy roles.
The demand for such services from religious persons is already to a large extent met, especially with the growth of multifaith chaplaincy teams in recent years. There are, however, virtually no humanists attached to chaplaincy teams.
This is partly because the demand is latent: the service does not exist and potential users do not realise that it could and should exist.
However, it is mainly because of the practical difficulties in introducing the service. Although there is an increasing acceptance among Christian and other chaplains of the case for humanists on chaplaincy teams, the BHA is unable to fund their recruitment, training or employment. However, since 2008 the BHA has maintained an informal network of humanists who are working to provide humanist pastoral and moral support and advice in hospitals, prisons or colleges of further education.
In June 2010 the BHA announced the establishment of a working group to examine the whole area of ‘chaplaincy’, which will make recommendations to the Chief Executive on what action if any the BHA should take. Three questions will structure the work and recommendations of the group: (i) is there anything distinctive in the pastoral care that is (eg in Belgium, Norway etc) or could be (in Britain) provided by humanists in these settings (ii) is there a need and demand for such services (iii) what ought the BHA’s role to be in the providing of such services. In addition to these questions, a consequent question for the BHA will be what order of priority to give such work.
The group reported in 2011 and its conclusions are now being considered. It is envisaged that pilot projects of pastoral support will shortly begin in selected locations.
What can you do?
You can support the BHA by becoming a member. That helps in itself, and you can help even more by supporting our campaigns in the ways suggested above. But campaigns also cost money – quite a lot of money – and we also need financial support. You can make a donation to the BHA.