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Equal access to pastoral support or chaplaincy

Humanists UK is committed to ensuring that all people have equal access to pastoral support in prisons, hospitals, and the armed forces. In practice we focus on the needs of non-religious people, as religious people have access to such support through chaplaincy. We are committed to removing the legal and societal barriers both for those seeking support and those delivering it. 

We founded the Non-Religious Pastoral Support Network to train and accredit non-religious pastoral carers to provide that support, and now have 250 operating across a range of institutional settings throughout the UK, operating through Humanist Care. In 2014, the Her Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service (then known as 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. Today, over 40% of NHS Trusts and almost 20% of prisons now have a non-religious pastoral carer in their team, most of them volunteers but including ten paid posts. In 2018, Lindsay van Dijk became the first humanist to head an NHS Trust’s chaplaincy and pastoral support team.

In depth

The demand for chaplaincy services from religious persons is already to a large extent met, especially with the growth of multifaith chaplaincy teams in recent years. However, most such teams are lacking non-religious people.

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 religious chaplains.

When referring to non-religious pastoral support, we don’t 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.

What we’re doing

We challenge discriminatory adverts for jobs within chaplaincy teams where restricting the post to candidates from a particular religion or belief is not justified by a genuine occupational requirement. 

  • In 2019, Defence Humanists set out why the time has come to provide non-religious pastoral support services to the armed forces, through a submission to the Government’s Integrated Review of foreign policy, defence, security and international development.
  • In 2018, the first humanist was appointed as the head of a chaplaincy and pastoral support team at Buckinghamshire Healthcare NHS Trust.
  • This followed on from NHS Leicester Hospitals having hired the first paid non-religious pastoral carer in early 2016, with the role being charitably funded.
  • Our Head of Humanist Care was appointed Chair of the Network of Pastoral Spiritual, and Religious Care in Health, which aims to promote and support high quality person-centred pastoral, spiritual, and religious care in healthcare. 
  • Before that, a number of pilot projects were run, such as that overseen by Probation Officer Amy Walden in HMP Winchester. After the successful completion of these programmes, we recruited a volunteer Head of Pastoral Support and began training and accrediting pastoral support volunteers. In 2016 the role (now the Director of Humanist Care) became a full-time paid one, supported by Humanists UK’s Director of Community Services.
  • In 2014, the Her Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service (then known as 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.
  • More recently, we have delivered training on diversity and equality practices in recruitment on behalf of NHS England to human resources leads of NHS Trusts.

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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