Sheela-na-Gig aka Jeanne Rathbone

Humanist Hospital Pastoral Care/Chaplaincy

Posted in Humanist Hospital Chaplains by sheelanagigcomedienne on May 15, 2012

Here is a letter I sent to various Hospital Pastoral Care/Chaplaincies. Most of the responses missed the point. They did NOT  understand the meaning of the word appropriate or No dog collar please or ‘someone with a similar outlook’.

In the UK, those who describe themselves as non-religious have risen from 31% to 50% between 1983 and 2009 according to the British Social Attitudes Survey’s 28th report issued in 2011. Among people aged between 18-24, the incidence of religious affiliation is only 36%. ABOUT HALF OF THE POPULATION DESCRIBE THEMSELVES AS NON-RELIGIOUS.

The National Secular Society is also challenging the expenditure on religious chaplaincy in hospitals.

Anne Marie Waters of the NSS wrote in Newsline 4th may 2012.

As previously reported (pdf) by the NSS, the NHS spent around £29M on hospital chaplains in 2009/2010. The National Secular Society argues that churches, mosques, synagogues, and temples should fund these chaplains off their own backs and I couldn’t agree more, especially in times of austerity because as we keep hearing – we are all in this together. Aren’t we?

I am a Humanist chaplain and ceremonies celebrant.

I am writing to NHS Hospitals who do NOT acknowledge their many non-religious patients in their Pastoral Care Services. It would seem from your chaplaincy section of your website that there is no provision for appropriate pastoral care for your many non-religious patients and their families. Glibly stating:  We are here to support people of any faith or none does NOT make it an inclusive service. When I am contacted by the head of Chaplaincy at King’s College Hospital he says. Another ‘no dog collar’ request.

This is what the British Humanist Associations states: 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.

The BHA has an informal network of humanists who are working to provide humanist pastoral and moral support and advice in hospitals. Some hospitals/hospices have been more responsive in recognising that non-religious people may need emotional, psychological existential care or moral support from those with a similar non religious/humanist outlook. 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 belief and ethics and to a person’s lifestance with someone with a similar outlook.

At a time when the NHS is under threat the needs of all patients have to be addressed.
I look forward to your response and I hope that this will begin the process of responding appropriately to all your patients and their families.

These happy chaplain chaps are from Worcestershire NHS Trust.

These are from Bolton Hospital

The response from Addenbrookes Hospital came via the UK board of Healthcare Chaplaincy. They use the phrase Religious and Spiritual Care.

Here is their definition of spiritual
Spiritual needs are assessed and addressed and may include the following:
exploring the individual‟s sense of meaning and purpose in life;
exploring attitudes, beliefs, ideas, values and concerns around life and death;
affirming life and worth by encouraging reminiscing of the past;
exploring the individual‟s hopes and fears regarding the present and future;
exploring the individuals concerns about how their illness will affect others;
exploring the „WHY?‟ questions in relation to life, death, illness and suffering.

Liaise with local or national resources for spiritual support and with the patient‟s permission contact relevant groups/individuals. where spiritual seems to be shorthand for non-religious.


Religious needs are assessed and addressed and may include the following:

With the patient‟s permission facilitate referrals to local faith groups and religious leaders.

Protect patients and their carers from unwanted visits from spiritual or religious groups and representatives

Religious Care is given in the context of the shared beliefs, values, liturgies and lifestyle of a faith community.
Spiritual Care is usually given in a one to one relationship and is completely person centred and makes no assumptions about personal conviction or life orientation. Spiritual Care is not necessarily religious. Religious Care, at its best, should always be spiritual. (NHS HDL (2002) 76)

Chaplaincy often has its roots in religion however, for the generic chaplain their personal faith provides a base from where they can journey with people of different religious transitions and those who hold another life stance.

·         Exploring the individual’s sense of meaning and purpose in life

·         Exploring attitudes, beliefs, ideas, values and concerns about life and death.

·         Exploring the individuals hopes and fears regarding the present and future

Here is their definition of  Belief group

Any group which has a cohesive system of values or beliefs but which does not self classify as a faith community.


The difficulty with this document is that it is trying to add on BELIEF to incorporate the non-religious/atheist/humanist perspectives. But it doesn’t fit.  Most non-religious people DO NOT belong to a BELIEF GROUP.  There are no atheist groups nor heretics societies or skeptic clubs, infidel associations etc.  providing spiritual leaders. So, who do they get to provide appropriate spiritual and pastoral care for the many people who do NOT believe in the supernatural, miracles, voodoo or superstitions. It would seem that BHA is the default belief group that can supply a representative  yet they are not mentioned by name in the document. This is the problem with this NHS Chaplaincy document.  The Rev. David Mithchell does mention humanism but does not mention the BHA by name  or, of course, any other appropriate providers of pastoral care for the non-religious.

The Rev. David Mitchell, Treasurer UKBHC   in his email to me states: The UK Board of Healthcare Chaplaincy is working with the Department of Health in England to develop NHS chaplaincy services that are inclusive of all faiths and beliefs including humanism.

I wrote to Brighton and Sussex University Hospitals NHS Trust which does not mention the non-religious on their chaplaincy page. The Royal Alexandra Children’s HospitalChaplaincy Service

A FOI request from Brighton and Hove Humanists about the chaplaincy costs elicited this information:  Total funding for Chaplaincy by Brighton and Sussex University Hospitals NHS Trust for the financial year 2009/10 was £198,320.

here is the response I received from Revd Canon Peter Wells,Lead Chaplain,Bereavement Offices Manager,Brighton and Sussex University Hospitals NHS Trust.

1.    We recognise that whilst a number of patients may not feel they belong to a religion a number declare themselves to be ‘spiritual’.

2.    This would include people who feel that there is something greater than themselves, that transcends their lives which often includes a notion of a ‘god’, or a ‘greater power’  of some form ‘out there’.  Providing support for this group of people is normally initially supplied by the chaplaincy team who would hope to assess patient need in finding the most appropriate person for the patient to talk to should they desire on-going support,
3.    and as we experience, although some patients do not particularly think about such matters whilst being well an episode requiring hospitalisation leads them to consider ‘spiritual’ issues in a way that they have not done so prior to coming into hospital.
4.    For those patients who declare themselves to be humanist we do have a contact with our local BHA group.  These details are on our Chaplaincy Contact list.   I do understand that being on such a list is not fully acceptable by the local group but they do appreciate that being on the list declares to staff that such people are contactable.
5.     Our chaplaincy team includes a wide variety of both staff and volunteers who all, in one way or another, represent different faiths and belief systems.  This enables us to normally find someone who can support patients in most situations.
I hope that the above addresses some of the questions that you raise.

I thought the reply about the group known as the There most be something believers was interesting.

The reply I received from the NHS Grampian Chaplain gave me the proverbial slap-on-the-wrist rebuke. In my defence I reiterate that I saw no mention of how they did respond appropriately to the requests from non-religious/atheist patients or who they called upon to provide it. 

It is unfortunate that you did not speak to Dr Stuart Hannabuss before drawing your conclusions from the web-site . We work in close partnership with him, he is the Scottish Humanist Society’s Representative on our Spiritual Care Committee and a Chaplaincy Volunteer Ward Visitor . I am sure Stuart would vouch for the inclusiveness of our approach should you wish to contact him .  

 I shall be reporting back on any further defensive replies that I get from the many reverends who are being paid by the state to work in hospitals,   hospices, prisons etc. in pursuance of bringing their religious beliefs to their flocks. It is what happens in Christian countries and is endorsed by the state and Prime Minister Cameron.


One Response

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  1. Martin Sebastian said, on October 26, 2013 at 9:20 am

    Dear Sheela-na-Gig,
    I work in Aged Care and have a strong interest in all matters spiritual. My question is whether there exists any non-religious pastoral care training at university level. To me it seems that institutional religions still have a monopoly on pastoral care that seems today to be more a relic of the past than an accurate reflection of social demand for pastoral care by health consumers. It would be wise to make pastoral care training generally non-religious but somewhat reflecting the need for meaning more than general counselling. So I see a real need in the hospital/hospice system for pastoral care that is non-religious but also not just plain counseling. I wonder whether humanist position could be a way shower in this process. I genuinely feel that patients and residents should have spiritual, humanist guidance available and not just as a religious trojan horse ie Rev So and So slowly pushing his/her religious views slowly and in a chinese water torture like way.
    Any comment would be appreciated also if you know of any colleges universities that are offering such education?
    I would like to thank You for reading the above. My well wishes to You in your vital work for all of humanity.

    Kind regards,

    Martin Sebastian

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