Humanists UK announces Non-Religious Pastoral Support Network as new research shows wide demand for service

21 August, 2017

  • New research shows overwhelming demand for non-religious pastoral care, with the public six to one in favour.
  • Humanists UK has pioneered the creation of the new Non-Religious Pastoral Support Network (NRPSN) to address demand.
  • NRPSN members are already working in 25% of NHS acute trusts and 15% of prisons.
  • NHS England and Her Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service recommend hospitals and prisons appoint NRPSN members to offer greater choice for service users.

69% of people (73% of non-religious people) think non-religious pastoral carers should be provided alongside religious chaplains in institutions like hospitals, prisons, and universities, with 88% of people (93% of non-religious people) never making use of chaplains where they are available.

These and other findings from new research published today show strong support for the introduction of non-religious pastoral support providers in hospitals, prisons, and universities, to provide the same help to non-religious people that religious people get through chaplaincies. The research, conducted by YouGov for Humanists UK, is being published to greet the launch of the Non-Religious Pastoral Support Network (NRPSN), a national professional network of individuals providing pastoral care, which already has over 150 trained and accredited carers, who are being supported by Humanists UK to meet this demand.

Demand for non-religious pastoral care

Today’s poll results show that the demand amongst the general public is real. By six to one, the public agree that non-religious people should have access to such pastoral care, with agreement crossing across all religious groups.

Furthermore, a plurality (45%) of non-religious people say they would personally choose to access a non-religious pastoral support provider, should one be available, compared to just 4% who have used a religious chaplain. Non-religious pastoral carers are found to be even more in demand, overall, than religious chaplains are. Demonstrating that the explicit naming of such support as ‘non-religious’ matters, less than 10% of people think that ‘chaplains’ can be non-Christians.

Some 75 healthcare institutions now have a NRPSN member on their team, constituting some 25% of acute trusts. The same is true of 15% of prisons. Between them, they are already supporting some tens of thousands of people a year. Thanks to charitable support, paid posts are now held by two pastoral carers in hospital teams, with more currently being recruited. Working with Humanists UK, NHS England recently organised training aimed at ensuring that paid adverts do not unlawfully discriminate on the basis of religion.

The NRPSN is also hoping to branch out into other settings, for example is in discussions about running a pilot in the armed forces, and is exploring work with ex-offenders and in healthcare community settings.

Commenting on the significance of these latest findings, Humanists UK Chief Executive Andrew Copson said: ‘Ground-breaking initial research we conducted a few years ago with non-religious people in hospitals and prisons established a clear demand for humanist pastoral support. That demand is only reinforced by the results we are publishing today. We are delighted to now be in a position to begin to seriously meet that demand, as it is vital that everyone receives support and empathy in their times of greatest need, regardless of their religion or belief. We will continue to work hard to ensure that the gap in services for the non-religious that currently exists disappears in coming years.’

Summing up the need for non-religious pastoral care, NRPSN Chair Dr David Savage commented: ‘At our times of greatest need, it is vital that we all have access to likeminded individuals who can be a source of compassion and treat our views with dignity and respect. Religious people in hospitals, prisons, and the armed forces have long been able to seek such solace in chaplaincy services, but for the non-religious there has been nothing equivalent. That is now beginning to change, and we firmly believe that the establishment of the Non-Religious Pastoral Support Network will have a transformative effect on the lives of the large non-religious population across the UK.’

Humanists UK Head of Pastoral Support Simon O’Donoghue, said: ‘The research shows that most non-religious people want to see a non-religious pastoral carer rather than a chaplain and that the vast majority of people associate “chaplains” solely with Christianity. The time is right to offer choice and fair provision to the non-religious majority and I’m delighted that the launch of this new network will support that essential aim.’


For media requests for further comment or information, please contact Humanists UK Director of Public Affairs and Policy Richy Thompson at or on 020 7324 3072.

In 2014, the National Offender Management Service recognised that non-religious people in prison have the legal right to humanist pastoral care, and in 2015 NHS England updated its guidance on Promoting Excellence in Pastoral, Spiritual & Religious Care, which established for the first time that NHS bodies should provide equal pastoral support for the non-religious to chaplaincy services for the religious. Since then Humanists UK has appointed a paid Head of Pastoral Support, Simon O’Donoghue, established the NRPSN, and rapidly built up the network to meet that demand.

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Supportive quotes

Rt Hon Jeremy Hunt MP, Secretary of State for Health – extract from letter sent to the Chair of the NRPSN Board: ‘It would be wonderful to see this non-religious volunteer based initiative extended to other hospitals, to ensure that all patients have the same choice for care and support when they need it most.’

Keith Munnings, Chair of the Network of Pastoral, Spiritual and Religious Care in Health: ‘This is to express my personal respect and praise for the Non-Religious Pastoral Support Network, gained through the work we have carried out together. Over the past three years I have served alongside NRPSN members whilst working together on a national project to better meet the pastoral needs of sick and dying patients in a variety of healthcare settings.

‘I have consistently found the contribution from the NRPSN management team to be of great value – always conducted in a collaborative and open manner, with the capacity to address difficult questions and to arrive at practical solutions to challenging emerging situations. I have never failed to be impressed by the calibre of these individuals and the possibility of them adding real value to the healthcare chaplaincy service.’

Mike Kavannagh, Chaplain General, Her Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service: ‘It can be especially valuable where humanists are part of the chaplaincy team. Including them can help some prisoners whose sense of themselves may not involve a “higher power” but rather a renewed sense of faith in human potential to do good and of the dignity of human being apart from any notion of transcendence.

‘Her Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service is committed to ensuring high quality care for all, regardless of religion or belief, and we very much believe that Humanists UK/the NPRSN will be a useful addition in supporting our multi-faith teams in the care they can provide.’

Mark Burleigh, President of the College of Healthcare Chaplains and University Hospitals of Leicester NHS Trust’s Managing Chaplain: ‘There was a strong ethos in Leicester that the chaplains were there to support all patients, relatives and staff of any religion or belief, but there was no paid member of the team who non-religious patients could choose. The Head of Chaplaincy put together a bid to the Leicester Hospitals’ Charity. The proposal was to secure sufficient funding for a half-time non-religious pastoral carer for 2 years and during that time to assess the demand for such a service and the benefit to patients.’

Jane Flint, Leicester University Hospitals Pastoral Carer and first paid non-religious pastoral carer in the NHS: ‘My duties include providing individual emotional (spiritual in the broadest, non-religious sense) support to patients, their families and staff. This may be in the context of support through a patient’s dying phase to the patient and anyone involved. It could be support in coming to terms with a difficult diagnosis or support to think through decisions the patient or family must make. At times it is support regarding the low mood that sometimes affects long term patients or fears and anxieties about how patients’ families are coping without them.

‘Feedback from patients is 100% positive. Even those who do not want any kind of support at the time tell me they are very glad to know there is support from a non-religious person available to them should they want it. Many local patients have also expressed their pride in their city for being the first NHS trust in the UK to have a non-religious pastoral support post.’

Asad Abbas, recipient of pastoral care at Guy’s & St. Thomas’ Hospital: ‘It would have been a pleasure meeting humanist pastoral carer David anywhere but more so in the hospital as you really welcome any human interaction in those settings. David spent some time with me when we talked not just about my health but also about humanism.

‘It probably depends on the individual, but I feel that those atheists who seek company must feel deprived when other patients have it in the form of a chaplain’s visit, but they don’t.’

Sue Falder, pastoral carer in Stafford Prison: ‘I have been working at Stafford long enough to be troubled by the lack of support in general for prisoners reentering the community, a situation that’s worse for non-religious prisoners. Hopefully our pastoral care network will build over the next few years and be able to branch out into areas like that as well.

‘I wish I were 20 or 30 years younger. There’s so much we can do now we’ve started!’

Allan Greenwood, pastoral carer in Sue Ryder Hospice: ‘Not everyone wants to talk about matters of life and death. At times conversations are just about patients’ families and their memories – the reminiscing that we all like to do. At other times, talk might just be about last night’s episode of Downton Abbey!

‘For me, the most important part of Hospice Volunteering is to provide a listening ear and to display a genuine interest in people’s unique situations.’

Isabel Millar, former paid pastoral carer in University of Westminster: ‘The creation of my role as Secular Advisor at Westminster University was an absolutely thrilling development. I advised on the perspective of humanism in the context of a multi-faith and culturally diverse institution and provided a non-religious ethical reference point with regard to social, cultural and political issues arising in the university.’

About Humanists UK

Humanists UK is the national charity working on behalf of non-religious people who seek to live ethical and fulfilling lives on the basis of reason and humanity. It promotes a secular state and equal treatment in law and policy of everyone, regardless of religion or belief.

The Non-Religious Pastoral Support Network is a network of people who provide non-religious pastoral support across a range of institutional and community settings. We aim to grow our network of accredited non-religious pastoral support providers and foster it as a mutually supportive, professionalised community of practice. We encourage and support our volunteers, whilst engaging with relevant bodies to ensure the equal provision of care for the non-religious throughout the UK.