The British Humanist Association is committed to ensuring that all people with non-religious beliefs have access to pastoral support, just as religious people have access to such support. It does this through its pastoral arm, Humanist Care. We are also committed to ensuring that non-religious people should be able and capable of providing pastoral support to all those who want it, irrespective of their religion or belief.
We are building a network of BHA accredited non-religious pastoral carers to provide that support, and now have nearly 150 operating across a range of institutional settings throughout the UK.
Thirty years ago there was a significant gap in the provision of non-religious funerals and other ceremonies. The BHA pioneered the development of humanist ceremonies, developing quality standards, training and accrediting celebrants and increasing awareness. Today we conduct thousands of ceremonies and demand continues to increase. We provide a much needed service to non-religious people at significant times in their lives. We want to build on this success with our non-religious pastoral support programme.
There is a huge shortage in the provision of pastoral support for and by non-religious people in health care, prisons and other institutions. There are about 800 full time equivalent chaplains employed by prisons and NHS hospitals. All but one are religious. There are thousands of volunteers. We estimate that well over 99% of them are religious. Yet 32% of the prison population is non-religious. About 22% to 45% of hospital patients are non-religious. Of course religious chaplains can support non-religious people, just as non-religious pastoral carers may support religious people. However, data from a major hospital shows only 4% of patient visits by their Spiritual Care Department are to patients of ‘no faith’. Some patients actively reject approaches from religious chaplains. Yet many patients, staff and carers would really benefit from the provision of non-religious pastoral support. We believe that it is most important for people to have the option to receive care from someone of like-mind at a time of crisis.
Prisons, hospitals and hospices recognize the importance of holistic care, including meeting peoples’ pastoral and ‘spiritual’ needs. This provision needs to be appropriate to that person’s religion or belief. For example, a Hindu may wish to speak to someone who believes that they may return to this life, a Christian to someone who believes they may go to heaven, and a non-religious person to someone who believes this is the one life we have. Good pastoral support often depends upon establishing a rapport with a like-minded person.
Non-religious patients may face the same fears, hopes, anguish, questions of meaning and purpose, sense of loss and bereavement as religious patients. After all they are part of our common humanity. Non-religious patients may not identify these issues as ‘religious’ or ‘spiritual’. However, they may need and want appropriate care and support.
A pilot project was first conducted in 2011 at Winchester Prison. This included meeting inmates with ‘nil’ religion on admission, holding discussion groups and providing bereavement support. Our work was well received by inmates and the prison management alike. Since that time we have come an extraordinarily long way, by working with the National Offender Management Service to ensure similar support is made available in prisons all over England and Wales. Similarly, our impact on the NHS England Chaplaincy Guidelines 2015, ensured that for the first time a recommendation was made for the provision of appropriate like-minded care to the non-religious in all NHS hospitals.
The BHA increased its scope in 2016, by encouraging all non-religious people (not just those who identify as humanist), with the right motivation and competencies to become pastoral support volunteers . The ‘Non-Religious Pastoral Support Network‘ (NRPSN) is the British Humanist Association’s network of accredited non-religious volunteers who provide pastoral support. The NRPSN comes under the umbrella of Humanist Care but has its own governance structures, objectives, and quality assurance procedures. The NRPSN runs courses of induction, training, accreditation, and continued professional development for potential and existing non-religious pastoral carers. Our main accreditation programme consists of a rigorous pre-course selection, a two day residential module, which includes; an understanding of pastoral care practice, the non-religious perspective, role play, and where appropriate the final award of accreditation. This is followed up with monitoring and peer support. After accreditation volunteers apply to their local institutions as non-religious pastoral care volunteers, an unpaid role. Institutions would give further specific training relevant to the post e.g. in prison security, infection control.
Ultimately thousands of patients, prisoners, staff and carers will benefit from pastoral support appropriate to their needs, values and non-religious beliefs. In addition non-religious people will be more able to make a significant contribution volunteering for this important social activity.
What can you do?
If you would like to train as a non-religious pastoral carer please contact us on firstname.lastname@example.org.
Our ability to train volunteers is dependent on donations. Please support this most important initiative by making a donation.