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Chaplaincy and pastoral support

In 2014, the National Offender Management Service recognised that humanists in prison have the legal right to a humanist pastoral support visitor, and in 2015 the NHS similarly obliged NHS bodies in England to provide pastoral support to non-religious people. Following on from earlier pilot projects we have been training pastoral support volunteers and in 2016 hired our first full time Head of Pastoral Support to increase the availability of such care. Through Humanist Care we aim to ensure that every person in such a setting and in the armed forces who wishes to have such support is able to have access to it.

In depth

Humanists UK receives two types of requests for support and advice in relation to chaplaincy or pastoral support. 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, or closed professional settings such as the armed services.

Mental health and wellbeing is an important part of general health and Humanists UK 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.

From the many requests that Humanists UK receives for it, Humanists UK recognises that there is a demand for humanist pastoral support, in particular in closed environments such as hospitals, the armed services, and prisons. 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
  • plain befriending or contact, as in prison visiting.

When referring to these services, Humanists UK does not use the word ‘chaplaincy’, which retains sufficient religious connotations to be inappropriate as a meaningful description – research we have undertaken demonstrates that the term acts as a barrier for the non-religious in accessing services.

Whatever it is called, pastoral care specifically for the non-religious 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 have long been 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, and humanist pastoral support is becoming increasingly common in this country too.

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, very few humanists attached to chaplaincy teams, and no state-funded posts.

This is because the demand is latent: the service does not exist and potential users do not realise that it could and should exist. It is also partly due to some hostility towards inclusion from some (but certainly not all) Christian chaplains. However, with recent moves towards inclusion from the NHS and National Offender Management Service (see below), since 2015 such provision has been becoming much more common.

What we’re doing

From 2008 Humanists UK maintained an informal network of humanists who were working to provide humanist pastoral and moral support and advice in hospitals and prisons. In 2010 Humanists UK established a working group to examine the whole area of chaplaincy and pastoral support, which was to make recommendations to the Chief Executive on what action if any Humanists UK should take. In 2011 this concluded that there is something distinctive in the pastoral care that could be provided by humanists in prisons, hospitals and the armed forces, that there is a need and demand for such services, and that Humanists UK should ensure the professionalism of such pastoral support by training and accrediting pastoral support volunteers.

Following on from this a number of pilot projects were launched, such as that run by Probation Officer Amy Walden in HMP Winchester. After the successful completion of these programmes, Humanists UK recruited a volunteer Head of Pastoral Support and began training and accrediting pastoral support volunteers. In 2016 the Head of Pastoral Support became a full-time paid role, supported by Humanists UK’s Director of Community Services.

Meanwhile, in 2014 the National Offender Management Service recognised that if you are a humanist in prison you have the legal right to a humanist pastoral support visitor in the same way that a religious prisoner has the legal right to see a chaplain of their religion. And in 2015, following significant input from Humanists UK, the NHS similarly obliged NHS bodies in England to provide pastoral support and care to non-religious people on the same basis as chaplaincy is provided to the religious. This change came through new NHS guidance, Promoting Excellence in Pastoral, Spiritual & Religious Care.

Following on from this, in early 2016 NHS Leicester Hospitals hired the first paid pastoral carer, with the role being charitably funded.

Following the recent changes in hospital and prison rules and the increased resources Humanists UK is putting towards pastoral support, we fully expect the number of humanist pastoral support volunteers to continue to increase over the next few years. Through Humanist Care we aim to ensure that every person in such a setting and in the armed forces who wishes to have such support is able to have access to it.

Get involved

We train and accredit humanist pastoral support volunteers to work in hospitals, prisons, and the armed forces. You can find more details about this on the Humanist Care website.

You can support Humanists UK 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 Humanists UK.

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