Armed forces to recruit first non-religious pastoral officers

30 November, 2023

The Ministry of Defence (MoD) has announced that it will recruit non-religious pastoral support officers for the first time, to operate alongside religious chaplains. The intention is to recruit three staff members – one for each of the Army, Navy, and Royal Air Force. Humanists UK and its section Defence Humanists have been working with the MoD and Humanists and Non-religious in Defence (HAND) on this outcome for many years now, and Humanists UK will be the endorsing authority through its Non-Religious Pastoral Support Network (NRPSN). Today they have welcomed the news.

The new positions are for uniformed Non-Religious Pastoral Officers, on the same terms as chaplains within the armed forces.

About non-religious pastoral care

Non-religious pastoral care is support that encompasses the emotional, moral, ethical, and existential aspects of life. It is grounded in a non-religious outlook and non-religious pastoral carers provide support to people in hospitals, hospices, prisons, universities, and hopefully soon the armed forces. As part of its support of the expanding NRPSN, Humanists UK works to increase provision across all sectors, and in every part of the UK.

Through the NRPSN, which was founded in 2016, Humanists UK has enabled the training and accreditation of over 220 current pastoral carers, who work in 10% of prisons and 30% of NHS Trusts in England and Wales. Most are volunteers but around 15 are staff. In 2018, humanist pastoral carer Lindsay de Wal became the first humanist appointed to lead a chaplaincy and pastoral care team in the NHS. In January, the UK Government announced that it intends to launch a new Chaplaincy Faith and Belief Forum to replace His Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service (HMPPS)’s Chaplaincy Council, which will include humanists from the outset. In February, James Croft became the first humanist head of a UK University’s chaplaincy, pastoral, and spiritual care team. And in August, new NHS England guidelines mandated equality in non-religious and religious pastoral care for the first time.

The armed forces

In 2020, the MoD commissioned an independent review into non-religious pastoral support in the armed forces. That reported in 2021 and recommended that such support be introduced. Since then, a project team was established to implement the recommendations – starting with the three staff posts. Defence Humanists’ sister body, Humanists and Non-religious in Defence (HAND), has been working as part of that team. (While Defence Humanists is a part of Humanists UK, and includes serving personnel, their families, and veterans, HAND is the internally recognised MoD network made up specifically of serving personnel.) 

The latest UK armed forces demographics show 38% of regular forces and 30% of reserves declaring they have no religion. This has risen over the last decade, from 15% and 18%, respectively, in 2012 (reflecting trends in wider society, in which around 70% of young people now identify as non-religious).

Humanists UK’s Head of Humanist Care Clare Elcombe Webber commented:

‘We are delighted that the armed forces will be recruiting non-religious pastoral support officers. This historic step reflects growing demand for the service. In times of critical need, people need person-centred support. Just as this is true of religious people, so it is also true of the non-religious. We look forward to continuing our work with the Ministry of Defence to see this recruitment take place.’

President of Defence Humanists (and former MoD Director, International Security and Senior Champion for Humanists and the Non-religious in Defence) Dr Roger Hutton, also commented:

‘We have long aspired to be able to provide serving non-religious personnel with like-minded pastoral support, as is already the case among a number of allies. We have worked closely and productively with the MoD to achieve this and are grateful that they, with the full support of the existing religious chaplaincy, are taking this important step. This is about supporting the brave men and women of Britain’s armed forces through the many challenges of a service career. And that, in turn, can only be good for the nation’s defence in these troubled times.’


For further comment or information, media should contact Humanists UK Director of Public Affairs and Policy Kathy Riddick at or phone 020 7324 3072 or 020 3675 0959.

Read more about our work on pastoral care and chaplaincy.

Humanists UK is the national charity working on behalf of non-religious people. Powered by 120,000 members and supporters, we advance free thinking and promote humanism to create a tolerant society where rational thinking and kindness prevail. We provide ceremonies, pastoral care, education, and support services benefitting over a million people every year and our campaigns advance humanist thinking on ethical issues, human rights, and equal treatment for all.