Secular Liturgies

Enriching secular life with Humanist and progressive ethics, heritage, liturgy, ceremony, community leadership and pastoral care…


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Easter 2021 at St Luke’s

It was lovely spending part of Good Friday with one of my fellow Chaplains, a few of our family members, and a member of staff at the University of Exeter’s St Luke’s Campus. We very much look forward to welcoming more staff and students into the university’s reflective spaces when it is safe to do so.

After collecting stones from the community garden and building a cairn (great for keeping my boys busy!), we held a short service in St Luke’s Chapel. My colleague and her husband shared readings and poetry, including a passage from John’s Gospel (Ch13 v.33 to Ch14 v.6), Thomas Merton (p.54  Prayer, meditation, contemplation) and Jane Mead’s poem ‘Concerning that prayer I cannot make’.

I had spent some time the previous evening writing a poem to read at the service. I thought it would be nice to share it here with a couple of photos.

Wishing you all a very Happy Easter!

Easter is a Story which Never Dies

Easter is a story which never dies,
Simply because it tells us there is life;
Life in humanity and life in ideas,
Hope for a kinder, fairer world,
Even after loss, even after death and despair;
Even when the hero is slain,
And the villain goes free.

Easter is a story which never dies,
Simply because it tells us life goes on;
On both beyond us and because of us,
On in meaning, in purpose,
in love, joy and wonder.
On in the ripples we create,
And the children that we make.

Never underestimate a story,
With its journey and adventure,
Its anguish and its torture;
With its bitter-sweet, victorious end,
Still dancing in the mind, still singing in the heart,
Reminding us of who we are,
Recalling us to what we should aspire.

Stories are as sacred as the earth,
For they too give us shape and meaning,
And form the hope on which we’re leaning;
Partly sensed, in part imagined,
They arise before the author and the creed
Before the pen and its double-edged deed.
And evolve long after.

And only the fool tells a single story,
Or talks of a people, in black and white,
Narrowing their reality to a stereotype.
Only the fool gives seat to hubris,
And spirit to meanness, but the wise say,
“Let them all tell the story, 
in its many colours, in their many colours.”

And so, it is today with Easter,
A story in the midst of change,
And changing in our midst;
The old tales flickering here, sighing there,
the new, uprising.
But which the children will choose to tell, 
We cannot know, though we wish them well.

Easter is a story which never dies.
It’s another world in the eye of the mind,
Where the great are humbled 
Where the humbled are raised.
Where the female Christs and the Christs of colour,
And all the Christs once crucified, hidden,
Smash up the darkness and spill in the light,

Easter is a story which never dies,
Because sometimes, we must die to rise.
And the heart of the story is an ageless thing,
Only its clothes become worn and thin,
For a living story must move and grow.
It ebbs, flows, takes form and flies,
And reaches its depths to see the skies.


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What do people mean when they talk about God?

Hello, my name’s Anastasia Somerville-Wong. I’m the Founding Humanist Chaplain at the University of Exeter and an Executive and Trustee of the Devon Faith and Belief Forum. I’m also an academic historian, with a special interest in marginalised and minority histories, and in the history of belief, philosophy and religion. In this article, I’m going to dig deep, and explore what people mean when they talk about God. While they can mean very different things, there are some clear trends and parallels that cross the boundaries of culture and religion, and these come under two broad categories, a concept of god which liberates, and a concept of god which oppresses. I’m going to speak briefly about the latter but my main interest is in the liberating conceptions and their relevance for today.

Throughout human history there have been people seeking power, or already in power, who have used a concept of god as a supernatural lawgiver and judge, in order to give themselves unassailable authority. They control the beliefs and behaviour of a group or populace with law and dogma they claim to be divine. It is a very effective way of establishing and maintaining power, and the reason why so many religions have had indisputable creeds and strict laws, with harsh punishments for disbelief and rule-breaking, ranging from social exclusion and discrimination, to torture and execution. It is why there have always been tribal communities of ‘believers’, constantly at war with one another, even over seemingly trivial matters of religious doctrine and practice. It is also why religious elites form governments, as in the case of theocratic states, or have a strong influence over governments, conferring supposed divine legitimacy upon particular leaders or regimes in return for the safeguarding of their religious privileges. The gods of these religions, are the gods who stand in judgment on how we behave, rewarding and punishing us, and ultimately deciding whether we can enter their heavenly realms or not. These are the gods who intervene in our affairs in response to how well we follow religious law, how fervently we believe religious dogma, how earnestly we pray or how well we perform rituals. These are the anthropomorphic ‘sky gods’, created by human authorities in the image of human authorities. They are a means by which a minority elite can oppress a majority.

However, while there are many people in the world who still believe in a supernatural lawgiver and judge, many others do not think about god in this way. For them, God is a very different concept, or even an experience, which cannot be easily reduced to absolutes in either law or dogma, and it this subtler, often liberating concept of god that I want to explore.

But first, I don’t want you to go away thinking I have dismissed traditional religion altogether. Not at all! For we do find elements of the more nuanced understandings of God in orthodox religious traditions, teachings and scriptures, because of course, they reflect the whole character of the those who created them, and even social elites have their moments of insight, wisdom, compassion and self-doubt. Orthodox religions also contain echoes of the social reformist movements which, in many cases, marked their beginnings, since religions are often formed when counter-cultural movements, often personality cults, gain a following among those with power and social status and are then formalised in ways that conform to the dominant cultural norms. We see this process clearly underway, for example, in the New Testament, where there are traces of the voices of rebels, reformers and eccentric cult leaders, such as Jesus and John the Baptist, voices which are soon heavily overlaid by those of privileged converts who call for social conformity and reinterpret the whole movement through the lens of the dominant Greco-Roman elite culture. Therefore, the traditional religions contain a potent mix of authoritarianism and rebellion, social conformity and social critique, moral excellence and moral decay. For these reasons, there is still inspiration to be taken from many of the world’s long-standing religious and philosophical traditions, even while there is much to be questioned and left behind.

Returning to our subject, God, for some modern people, the word ‘God’ refers at least in part, to perceived experiences or encounters with a supernatural being, beings or force. However, for others, the term is used in a much broader sense, and one which applies to those who have no belief in the supernatural as much as it applies to those who do. For example, there are those who use the term ‘God’ in a literary sense, as a complex metaphor for the heights of human aspiration, or the infinite mystery of life and the universe, or for profound emotional and psychological experiences of awe and wonder, unconditional love, self-transcendence and transformation.

The term ‘God’ is also a superlative, capturing experiences like those I’ve just described, for which ordinary words seem inadequate. Indeed the ‘God’ concept can become poetry, lifted beyond blunt simplistic categories and inflexible dogmas to something more, well, divine! Humans turn to words like ‘God’ and ‘divine’ when ordinary words do not do justice to extraordinary experiences. We use our imaginations and language to crown such experiences with greater meaning and importance when we communicate them, to show others that they are of great value, even if they are only of great value to us, and even though they are, in truth, entirely natural events. I might survive a war or severe illness against the odds, for example, and feel the only word that does justice to how much it means to me is the word ‘miraculous’. To others, however, and even to one’s own objective self, such events, though of immense human interest, are simply rare, complicated and unusual, like so many other events that take place in the world. Many things are, after-all, statistically unlikely but by no means impossible, and so they are to be expected from time to time. Words like ‘miraculous’, however, imbued as they are with magic, are still useful metaphors for capturing and communicating how significant an event is to us. Indeed, the word ‘magic’ itself is a commonly used metaphor for when something is great, wonderful, or special.

Getting back to the word ‘God’; it is also a personification. Being social animals, many of us naturally personify things all the time, simply for fun, and children are apt to see agency in all sorts of things before they learn the difference between what is alive and what isn’t, and between human agency and that of other animals. One might argue that in order to relate to such a complex metaphor as ‘God’, we are especially inclined to address it in personal terms, which is of course how prayer is born. When we experience, for example, one of those rare moments in which we become aware of the awesome extent of life on earth’s interconnectedness, we are often so enthralled that we call this an experience of ‘God’ or a ‘divine’ experience. Using a word like ‘divine’, is a way of keeping much that is included in the complex metaphor that is God, while sidestepping the word’s traditional anthropomorphic associations. However, many people now prefer more secular expressions like oneness, otherness, consciousness, awakening, mindfulness, universal love or infinite mystery to describe these profound experiences of self-transcendence. Such moments are a world away from our normal experiences but they can be seen as psychological and imaginative rather than as supernatural, and this by no means demeans them. They remain deeply meaningful to us at a subjective level, so much so, that in some instances, they can even change the course of our lives, as some of us who have had such experiences can testify.

Many of these subtler concepts and experiences people call ‘God’ are liberating, liberating from the oppressive concepts of God, which have often dominated formal religion, but also liberating from other forms of ideological and social oppression within families, communities and societies, as well as being liberating from the mundane, the routine and from the self, with all its flaws and delusions. They provide solace, perspective, awareness and escape, and a fuel for creative expression, even if only within one’s own mind.

Some of the religious people who have rejected oppressive concepts of God, and indeed supernatural theism altogether, have come to describe themselves as non-theists, though many remain open to subtler concepts of God. They are often members of progressive or universalist denominations such as the Unitarians, Quakers or Unitarian or Quaker Universalists, or, they are members of progressive religious reform movements like Progressive Christianity, Humanistic Judaism, Secular Buddhism or Religious Naturalism. These groups or sub-groups within progressive religion have a lot in common with Humanists in that they promote a rational, evidenced-based approaches to knowledge, a commitment to living an ethical life based on empathy and compassion, and a commitment to building a kinder, fairer and more reasonable society. Like Humanists, they champion human rights and human flourishing and promote the well-being of the earth and all its inhabitants through sustainable development. They therefore come under a broadly Humanist umbrella. Indeed, early religious progressives were some of those who established the first Humanist organisations. 

However, most Humanists today, especially those who are members of secular Humanist organisations, identify as atheists rather than as non-theists, and they are often deeply uncomfortable with belief in the supernatural of any kind, on account of its tendency to lead to unhelpful superstitions and the oppressive forms of theism. Interestingly though, right from its inception, Humanism’s manifestos and declarations have said little to nothing about atheism. While Humanist groups have always embraced atheists and defended their human rights in the face of discrimination and violence, they have rarely made formal assertions or denials of the existence of God – ‘God’ being a word which can be understood in different ways – but they have said a great deal about the need to reject appeals to any kind of supernatural moral authority, and thus preclude belief in the anthropomorphic God of supernatural theism. Most Humanist movements, however, especially those within the progressive religious denominations and reform movements, have always included those who use the word ‘God’ or ‘divinity’ in a literary or metaphorical sense and all Humanist movement have included, and still include, those who are agnostic about the supernatural.

So, while some Humanists are hard-line atheists and rationalists who are deeply suspicious of anything mystical or poetic for fear of it leading to superstitious assertions about the supernatural, other Humanists are more willing to accept the emotional and imaginative aspects of our nature as an essential and enduring part of what it means to be human. After all, just as our rational minds can help us to master unhelpful emotions, our emotional responses can in turn enlighten the rational mind, a mind which we should remember, is prone to err on account of cognitive biases and narrow reasoning. Empathy, after all, which is fundamental to Humanist practice, is primarily an emotional response, when we literally feel with the other person who is experiencing, for example, joy or pain. It can help us to understand another person’s behaviour and perspective, and can lead us to question flawed assumptions and judgments we may have made about them. It is important to note here that even the most militant of atheists experience and speak of the profound emotional and psychological experiences I mentioned earlier, of awe and wonder, unconditional love, self-transcendence and transformation. We are all emotional beings, whether we like to think we are, or not! Ironically, those who like to think of themselves as unemotional, or more rational than others, are often those who are the least self-aware, and the most enslaved by their emotions.

My personal view, is that it’s more important than ever for Humanism to be as open and inclusive as possible, and not to intrude too deeply into people’s most private thoughts and feelings. It’s unwise, as a former queen once put it, to ‘make windows into other people’s souls’. After all, that is exactly the sort of thing we criticise religious zealots for doing, and I for one, wouldn’t want to be part of a community, which policed people’s innermost thoughts and feelings about god, thoughts and feelings which are bound up with their most intimate experiences. We should also remember that beliefs are often transient and evolving, and so they should be. The mistake the zealous of all persuasions so often make, is attacking what’s known as a ‘straw man’, that is, attacking their own idea of what someone believes and means by certain words, rather than what the person actually believes and means, either in that moment, or in general.

So, as I have explained, many progressive-minded people are agnostic, atheist, non-theist or have a literary understanding of God, but there are also two other common positions on God which progressives often take up. These are pantheism, a belief that God is in all things, or panentheism, a belief that God is transcendent but also immanent, being in some way beyond the universe while also containing it. This kind of God is seen to be immanent in the sense that it is manifest in and through the world, and is often referred to as ‘divinity’ or ‘spirit’, or even ‘energy’. The essentially mysterious and largely indefinable nature of this God prevents it from being reduced to the traditional anthropomorphic conception of God as a lawgiver and judge – the conception which has so often inspired dogmatism, tribalism and bigotry. However, while panentheists frequently use ‘god’ as a term to encapsulate such things as mystery, beauty, goodness and love – the literary use again – they still reach for what is other than natural in the transcendent aspect of God, speculating beyond what it is possible for us to know. Pantheism, on the other hand, so closely equates god with the natural world that the two become almost synonymous. ‘God’ becomes another word to describe the world we can access through our senses, but pantheists very often reach for some kind of undefined supernatural dimension to nature, or ‘spirit’ within nature. Reaching for the supernatural always involves imaginative speculation, and raises those famously thorny questions about evil and pain. If there is a supernatural good or benevolent spirit, why is there so much cruelty and suffering in the world?

Perhaps pantheists and panentheists are happy to leave that question hanging, along with any questions about the supernatural nature of their God. Some certainly convey mystical notions of ‘God’ as something which is essentially unknowable, but then of course, saying you know something in unknowable is self-contradictory, and this mystical approach begs the question of how something unknowable can be experienced at all, since an encounter or experience of this God, would always result in one knowing something-or-other about it.

It is important to look at panentheism, especially because immanence and transcendence, or in other words, the God within nature (including us) and the God beyond it, are central themes to many of the historically liberating concepts of God, including those of black and Latin American liberation theologies. The God of panentheism, is the God who affirms us as we are, liberating us from shame and guilt about our bodies and our nature, but a God who is also separate from us when we become corrupt. While Humanists and many nonreligious people are uncomfortable, as I’ve said, with a concept of divine moral authority or indeed the idea of any kind of infallible, unquestionable authority, others see belief in a transcendent ‘God’ as a crucial guard against corrupt rulers, fascist regimes and the corruption of humanity in general, including themselves. After all, many oppressed people cling to god as the only hope left, when everything else is in a state of chaos and degradation. However, a concept of ‘God’ or ‘goodness’ does not need to be supernatural to be transcendent. While I may experience a goodness which has a transcendent quality, this quality may be simply the new awareness one experiences, when one reaches more deeply into one’s own conscience than before, or when one reaches out beyond one’s usual external influences to new sources of wisdom and learning. Transcendence can be about rising above the self or one’s inherited culture without necessarily implying supernatural interference or an external supernatural source. Moreover, what exactly makes something ‘other’ enough to warrant it being called supernatural anyway? In such a vast universe and in a reality possibly with multiple dimensions and even multiverses, who’s to say where the natural ends and the supernatural begins? In such a context, the term ‘supernatural’ becomes meaningless.

We can still find ways of transcending received notions of what is good and what is not – those passed on in the dominant culture or enforced by the government or instilled in religious indoctrination – we can transcend them by finding new sources of information and wisdom, and by searching deeper within ourselves. We can stand against the evils of a dominant culture or regime with or without reference to the supernatural. We can use faculties such as our inbuilt moral conscience, perhaps nurtured in childhood, our ability to empathise, and our ethical understanding of consequences, rules and virtues. While it may be tempting to equate transcendence with the supernatural, and while it may be harmless if one doesn’t speculate too much beyond that, it is not necessary for finding solace, escape or rebellion, even in a concept of God.

There is clearly an overwhelming commonality across the spectrum of progressive movements and organisations in terms of beliefs, values and goals, and when we start to discuss our differences they usually amount to very little more than quibbles over the meanings of words, the word ‘God’ being a prime example! Our feelings for or against certain words usually depend on how they have been used in our culture and communities and whether we have developed positive or negative associations with them. So, while some people are happy to reinterpret and repurpose words like ‘God’, ‘spiritual’, ‘divine’, ‘religion’ or ‘church’, others feel these words have too much baggage, and cannot be rescued from their orthodox connotations. This is a debate still ongoing among and within progressive groups, and there is debate within the humanistic movements about whether words like ‘faith’ and ‘spirituality’ should be used in relation to Humanism. Different approaches have also been taken with regard to faith symbols and other cultural content, while the Unitarians welcome people from all backgrounds by including all faith symbols in their meeting spaces, the Ethical Culture movement stripped away all the trappings of people’s former religions to form a community around a universal ethic alone. Thus, there are different approaches to pluralism and different approaches to god among progressives and Humanists but I would argue that the overlap in beliefs, values and goals far outweighs these differences, and that there is much room for collaboration.

You might be wondering what my own personal position is on God. Well, I’m a fan of the various poetic uses of god words, while being an agnostic with regard to the supernatural. Agnosticism is so often maligned by people who say “but why then aren’t you agnostic about fairies, after all there’s no more evidence for God than there is for fairies?” Well, for a start, agnosticism in most cases doesn’t actually mean agnosticism regarding the anthropomorphic Gods of the traditional religions. Many agnostics are plainly atheists when it comes to those. What agnostics are agnostic about is often a much deeper, broader concept of God – one that isn’t necessarily supernatural but may possibly be, such as I have discussed above. As I have mentioned, once you start contemplating the complexity of the universe, the term ‘supernatural’ either becomes meaningless or has to be redefined in some way. Well, you may say, it’s definitional isn’t it? Supernatural, means beyond the universe and anything we can sense or measure doesn’t it? Well no, not really, the supernatural has rarely been conceived of like this, and where it has it’s a very modern thing driven by the advance of science, which has forced traditional religious people to push their ‘god of the gaps’ further and further out. In all faiths, God is described as having a certain location and often as being subject to time or certain natural laws. The people who invented the Abrahamic religions believed their God resided in the heavens, literally somewhere in what we would now call space, or in other cases, in the sky itself. How ‘other’ then does something need to be to be called ‘supernatural’? Perhaps something very new and ‘other’ will be discovered, which resonates with one of the subtler conceptions of what God is.

My own agnosticism is essentially, a deep awareness of (and an increasing contentment with) what we don’t, and perhaps will never know, combined with an ever-deepening sense of awe and wonder in what we can and do know. For now, I embrace those experiences I mentioned earlier, of awe and wonder, unconditional love, self-transcendence and transformation, as spiritual experiences, which may or may not have a deeper aspect to them than the psychological and emotional aspects I am currently aware of, a deeper aspect which may or may not be justifiably called supernatural.

I also feel somewhat uncomfortable being defined by something I’m not. Defining myself as an atheist, someone who doesn’t believe in God, would seem strange when I am in favour of so many things the complex metaphor of God stands for, when I am deeply concerned with the spiritual life, and when I happen to live in a society where few people still believe in the traditional anthropomorphic and oppressive Gods, making it unnecessary for me to define myself in opposition to them. I am always open, however, to the idea of evolving in my view and identity as time goes on and circumstances change. While I can be pretty certain of many things, or the absence of them, on account of the great strides we humans have made using reason and the scientific method, I always maintain a sliver of healthy scepticism, and agnosticism seems the best fit for someone like me. After all, the greatest progress is made by those who are open to new possibilities, and who are happy to be surprised or forced to tweak or even overhaul their current assumptions. It is my personal preference not to be pinned down too heavily with labels, and I prefer not to become too entrenched in any particular organisation or ideology. However, I do embrace loosely held layered identities, where they are compatible of course, and in that sense, I’m a bit Secular Buddhist, a bit Unitarian, a bit Quaker, a bit modern stoic and a bit Progressive Christian as well as being Humanist! 

I should note here, however, that atheism isn’t as dismissive as it’s often made out to be. After all, if you think about it, there’s a sense in which monotheists, like traditional Christians and Muslims, are some of the most atheistic people on earth, because they have rejected literally thousands of gods, choosing to believe fervently in only their own. Atheists simply go one step further to exclude all of them. Also, while some atheists will vociferously claim no God or gods exist, implying they know for sure they don’t exist, many atheists will say that although they don’t see any evidence for God, they can’t fully exclude the possibility of a god existing. In other words, they think it possible but very unlikely. The latter sometimes call themselves agnostic atheists! Similarly, some people who choose to believe in god do not fully exclude the possibility of that god not existing, and some religious people’s conception of God is universalist, meaning they don’t exclude other people’s gods, but believe their God is manifest in the gods of many faiths, not just their own! There is therefore much complexity on this subject, which is why it is so important to listen, and not to caricature individuals on account of the labels they might assume. However, of course, it remains important to criticise worldviews and worldview groups more generally, when they are the cause of harm.

It is also important not to inadvertently encourage harmful superstitious thinking, so care must be taken about when and where to use certain words. However, as a chaplain engaged in the pastoral care of those facing grief, pain, trauma, mental health crises and other difficulties, I also acknowledge how natural it is for us to create beings and even worlds of the imagination in order to ease our pain or enhance our joy. Even those of us who take a rational approach to knowledge do this when we immerse ourselves in books/films of fiction and fantasy, when we talk to someone we love who has died, when we cry out to the universe as if it were a conscious being because we are in crisis or because we are bursting with gratitude for something that has worked out wonderfully in our favour. In those brief moments, alternative realities; gods, ghosts, a conscious universe – all these things are momentarily real and meaningful to us, even though they may not be real in the literal sense.

Indeed, we are often better at grasping concepts, especially philosophical and ethical ones, when they are presented to us in a fictional narrative, which is why the myths, legends and parables of the major religions and dominant cultures are so enduring. The gods and their stories may contain aspects of our ancestors’ prejudices, which we would do well to leave behind us, but that doesn’t negate the usefulness of fictional narratives altogether, and their powerful potential for inspiring us to be more thoughtful, more compassionate and more courageous. Many of our national and religious myths need a thorough update, or if they cannot be sufficiently re-interpreted and repurposed, they need to be replaced, because we still need stories which give us rich cultural identities and reinforce common values and goals, in addition, of course, to the amazing stories science can now tell us about what we are and where we have come from. My hope is that whatever our concept of god or lack of it, more of us will choose to take part in creating narratives that will inspire future generations; stories which will shape a kinder, fairer and more sustainable future for us all.

Thank you for reading, and I hope you will join me next time, when I will be exploring what it means to live a spiritual life.


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Genocide in Cambodia: when the darkest side of our nature prevails

Below is the script of my recent talk on 3rd February 2021, organised by the Devon Faith and Belief Forum as part of the 2021 Holocaust Memorial Day events series. A recording of the talk can be viewed here:

Giving examples from historical genocides, Dr Anastasia Somerville-Wong explains why, under certain conditions, people start to see those with different characteristics as subhuman. There is a particular focus on the 1975-1979 genocide in Cambodia, which had a devastating impact on members of her family. Anastasia goes on to explain how these tragedies can be prevented by creating and sustaining economic and political systems which thrive on diversity and nurture the better side of human nature.

Hello, my name’s Anastasia Somerville-Wong. I’m the Founding Humanist Chaplain at the University of Exeter and an Executive and Trustee of the Devon Faith and Belief Forum. I’m also a historian, with a special interest in marginalised and minority histories, and in the history of belief, philosophy and religion. The subject of genocides – how they happen and how they can be prevented – has significance for me both professionally and personally, because my mother-in-law and extended family on my husband’s side are survivors of the genocide in Cambodia. My mother-in-law lost her first husband, her parents, some of her siblings and many other relatives and friends to the brutal killings carried out by the Khmer Rouge in the four years between 1975 and 1979, and this remains a tragic part of my husband’s heritage and that of my children.

In recent times, Cambodia has been celebrated as a friendly and beautiful holiday destination, and archaeologists have used laser technology to reveal cities concealed under the earth not far from the ancient temple city of Angkor Wat. These cities made up the world’s largest empire in the 12th century. It is right that the world should learn about Cambodia’s long and impressive history, and celebrate its rich culture and natural beauty. However, the darker periods of colonialism, war and genocide are still very recent, the memories raw and painful for many Cambodians still living today.

The regime of the Khmer Rouge, led by the Marxist leader Pol Pot, claimed the lives of an estimated 2 million people, though some argue that the real death toll could be closer to 3 million. Declaring that the nation would start again at “Year Zero”, Pol Pot isolated his people from the rest of the world and began a programme of regressive social engineering, abolishing money, private property and religion, and forcing millions of people out of the cities to work on communal farms. Anyone thought to be an intellectual of any kind was executed. Indeed, people were condemned for things as innocent as wearing glasses or knowing a foreign language. Particular targets were minority ethnic groups, such as Cambodian-Vietnamese, Cambodian-Chinese, Cambodian-Lao, Thai and Cham Muslims. Hundreds of thousands of educated middle-class citizens were tortured and executed in special centres such as the notorious S-21 jail, Tuol Sleng, in Cambodia’s capital, Phnom Penh, where as many as 17,000 men, women and children were imprisoned. Hundreds of thousands more, including many whole families, died from starvation, disease and exhaustion, as members of the Khmer Rouge, many of them indoctrinated teenage recruits, forced the population to do back-breaking labour. These crimes against humanity went largely unnoticed by the Western world, until the release of the 1984 film, ‘The Killing Fields’, which was named after a number of sites where collectively more than a million people were killed and buried.

Tens of thousands of children were orphaned by the genocide in Cambodia, and due to the loss and destruction of papers, many will never know to whom they belonged or whether any of their relatives survived. When the brutal regime ended, my mother-in-law looked after many orphans and even brought one with her to the UK along with her own baby daughter. She often tells family and friends the harrowing stories of how she lost loved ones, land and property. Her brother-in-law, who I met in Paris, where many fleeing Cambodians settled, described how he was forced to watch while his first wife and children were tortured and murdered. All the survivors in the family suffer from the long-term effects of trauma.

While the holocaust stands out in terms of the numbers murdered and the mechanisation of the killing, the murder of Jews has been disturbingly fetishized by the far right, and is fed by a seemingly endless run of programmes on Adolph Hitler and the Third Reich. While I think it is incredibly important to remember these events, especially on Holocaust Memorial Day, it is important also to remember that there is nothing in particular about Jews which might inspire hatred, just as there is nothing in particular about Germans which makes them especially prone to do evil. No indeed, any people may become the victims or perpetrators of genocide under certain conditions. No one should become complacent. As a descendant of holocaust victims said on a recent television series, “It’s not really about the Jews. It’s about hatred and where it can lead us”. The Cambodian, Bosnian, Rwandan, Armenian and all other genocides and crimes against humanity should also be remembered, so that we remain alert to the dangers of extremism of any kind, and prevent such atrocities from happening again.

In terms of the signs and dangers, we know that there are certain conditions which make genocide more likely, including war and conflict, political instability and power vacuums, poverty and hardship, increasing competition for resources and economic inequality (especially if it’s along racial or ethnic lines). If there are longstanding animosities between groups within society, these often come to the fore under these conditions, as people try to protect themselves and look for someone to blame. Also, it’s under such conditions that opportunities arise for extreme political and/or religious groups to exploit the vulnerability of a population. Desperation, corruption, inequality, lack of opportunity and possibly even boredom can cause ordinary people to become open, often for the first time, to arguments based on ideologies they would once have mocked and to people they would once have viewed as fanatics. When people come to doubt their authorities, their sources of information and even their friends, they begin to look for truth in places they would not have considered before, and unfortunately, the sociopathic leaders of extremist groups are all too eager to tout untruths and manipulate such people for their own ends. Suddenly, the sorts of things they peddle, including conspiracy theories, pseudoscience, fake news, and pseudo-histories such as nationalist myths, start to gain a wider appeal.

Once such ideologies gain legitimacy in mainstream public life, it is often too late to prevent disaster in the form of a violent takeover by such groups or a gradual tightening of their grip on power accompanied by deepening systemic corruption. Those who have sold out to an extremist ideology then reinforce one another’s beliefs with mass gatherings and collective hysteria, and suppress doubt with censorship. Thus, the darker side of human nature – greed, mistrust, hatred, envy, blame and fear of difference, however superficial – become the prevailing culture. In these circumstances, certain groups are deemed to be somehow alien, and therefore potentially disloyal and a threat. They become convenient scapegoats for all the ills of the world. The distinctive characteristics of such groups are then mocked and exaggerated, resulting in their dehumanisation. Thus, the toxic ideology of a high-control group, which was once seen as fringe, and even insane, by the mainstream, becomes the dominant social force, and those who were once reasonable begin to behave in ways they probably never believed themselves capable.

I should mention here that while we often hear about genocide in wartime situations such as happened in Cambodia and Germany, there is also such a thing as slow genocide, which happens during peacetime over decades and even centuries. Examples of this can arguably be found in colonialism, the genocide of indigenous peoples and the transatlantic slave trade.  In these cases, the political and religious ideology of the oppressors is used to justify atrocities, and enables a dominant elite class, driven by insatiable greed, to control and oppress peoples both in foreign lands and in their own. Moreover, in addition to killing and theft of land and property, there is also such a thing as cultural genocide, which results in a loss of identity, language and heritage, and which has terrible consequences for the psychological health and prospects of a people over many generations.

The solution to the problem of genocide in all its forms is not illusive. We know that societies which are the kindest, happiest and most stable, are those which celebrate diversity and include everyone, so that everyone has opportunities for growth and betterment and no one is left behind. They are societies which keep the wealth gap between richest and poorest to a minimum, and which guarantee a decent standard of living for all. These societies nurture our better selves and noblest aspirations by rewarding pro-social and creative behaviours. They nurture our ability to empathise and practice compassion, to reason and be reasonable, to think critically and independently… It is hard to poison people’s minds against a minority group when they are educated and flourishing, but frighteningly easy to do so when they are ignorant and uncomfortable. Most important to recognise in our time, is that it will be the societies which make the greatest efforts towards sustainability, so that people’s lives and their children’s futures are secure, that will prove most resilient against extreme political and religious ideologies, because they will be less susceptible to the kind of insecurity and crises which open the doors to extremist groups.

As this is a Faith and Belief Forum event, it is especially important to state that every faith, belief or political group has a special responsibility for preventing genocide from happening again, since these are groups which claim to care primarily about ethics and how we should live. It is incumbent upon such groups to ‘speak truth to power’ and hold our government and institutions to account. We also need to lead the way in tackling systemic prejudice and injustices, which make it harder for people to be generous and kind, and which instead reward those who are selfish, greedy and ruthless. Those who engage in pro-social and altruistic activities should be the best paid, not those who work for their own profit at the expense of others and the planet. No group which claims to care about ethics should rest until such is our reality. Moreover, every political, faith or belief group has a responsibility to reflect on its own beliefs and practices with honesty and courage, and to question any beliefs and practices which diminish the humanity of others, whether they be women, children, minorities or foreigners with different traditions and cultures.

We all, as inter-dependent members of society, whether we’re members of a faith and belief group or not, have a responsibility to develop our better natures – our reasonableness, empathy and kindness – through reflection, practice and education. All humans start out with an innate capacity for empathy and compassion, which can either be stifled or nurtured by the cultures and traditions in which we are raised. The only way our species can survive and flourish and prevent atrocities such as genocide, is to make continual efforts to teach, encourage, grow and develop the finer feelings and nobler aspirations of our children and young people. With this in mind, I’d like to finish with a quotation from Mengzhi, better known by the Latinised version of his name, Mencius, who was a philosopher and political adviser in China in the 4th Century BCE:

“All human beings have a constitution which suffers when it sees the suffering of others… If people catch sight suddenly of a child about to fall into a well, they will all experience a feeling of alarm and distress… Because we all have these feelings in ourselves, let us develop them, and the result will be like the blaze that is kindled from a small flame, or the spring in full spate that starts with a trickle. Let these feelings have a free rein, and they will be enough to give shelter and love to us all.”

Questions raised in the talk to discuss further:

  1. What were the specific causes of the genocide in Cambodia?
  2. What might be the ongoing challenges for survivors, orphans, refugees (and their descendants) of the war and genocide in Cambodia?
  3. Why is it important to remember all genocides and crimes against humanity, and to assert that any people may become the victims or perpetrators of genocide?
  4. How can we remember these tragic events in the most respectful and purposeful way?
  5. What are the conditions which can lead to crimes against humanity, and are we seeing any concerning trends in our own societies today?
  6. What are the extremist political/religious groups and ideologies of our time, and how might they be best countered?
  7. Which groups in society today are vulnerable to (or are already experiencing) aspects of dehumanisation?
  8. What are ‘slow genocide’ and ‘cultural genocide’, and are these things still happening in the world today?
  9. What makes societies happy, stable and nurturing of the better side of human nature, and which countries are currently the best role models?
  10. Humans have a great capacity for altruism and pro-social behaviour, after all, we need each other to survive. However, humans also have the capacity for extremes of cruelty. How can we enhance the former traits so that they overcome the latter?
  11. Why is sustainability so important for preventing future atrocities?
  12. Why do faith, belief and political groups have a special responsibility for preventing future atrocities?
  13. Why do we all have a responsibility for preventing future atrocities, and what are the things we can personally do to fulfil this responsibility?


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Interfaith Week Addresses 2020 by AE Somerville-Wong

In my capacity as a Humanist Chaplain and Executive and Trustee of the Devon Faith and Belief Forum I gave the following addresses during Interfaith Week 2020:

Address at the Devon Faith and Belief Forum event ‘Sharing Faith and Belief Perspectives on Racism and Prejudice’ on Tuesday 10th November 2020

Humanism asserts that every human being has equal worth and dignity, not because of what they believe, where they were born or which community they belong to but simply by virtue of their humanity. We are all part of the same species and the same long story going back about 300,000 years to a common ancestor in Africa. We therefore have a shared history, a shared identity and a shared experience of everything it means to be human. Humanists have always sought to cultivate this sense of kinship and empathy.

Like all species, we are also part of an even longer story going back 3.7 billion years to the beginning of life on earth, and so kinship and empathy should also extend to life beyond humanity, albeit in a different way. Humans, and indeed all life forms are connected, ever more so in a globalised world, and so we are all dependent on one another. We need each other as much as we ever did to survive and flourish.

Humanists have a long history of campaigning for racial justice and equality. Indeed, along with movements to extend the franchise to women and the working classes, abolition was one of the great causes of the 19th Century, which brought progressive minded people together; people who saw that the universal values underpinning abolition needed to be forever defended; people who went on to found the humanist ethical societies. Humanists organised the first global races congress in 1911, which was an early effort at anti-racism. They campaigned against colonialism in the early twentieth century, and campaigned for laws against racial discrimination from the mid-twentieth century onwards.

Leading Humanists like Eleanor Roosevelt sought to ground the Humanist sense of kinship and empathy in universal human rights, and the rights they developed have proven to be the best way to create peaceful societies. As a long-standing friend of the humanist run New York Society for Ethical Culture and a speaker at many of its meetings, Roosevelt fully supported its summer youth program, the Encampment for Citizenship, which was very ahead of its time with its empowerment of both black and white youth who attended together. Martin Luther King also spoke there. Eleanor Roosevelt was instrumental in drafting the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which was based on these humanist ideals, and which was presented to the General Assembly of the United Nations in 1948.

Humanist organisations and movements have long been very diverse. Black people who have shaped modern Humanism, for example, include James Baldwin, Zadie Smith, Richard Wright, Lorraine Hansberry, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Zora Neale Hurston and Wole Soyinka. The current Vice-President of Humanists UK is of course Jim Al-Khalili and many other people of colour are patrons and leaders of Humanist groups around the world.Humanists have always been champions of universal human rights and human flourishing, and to this day, an important part of this is our condemnation of racism and racial discrimination in all its forms. We remain as committed as ever to campaigning for racial equality across all aspects of society.

Address at the Devon Faith and Belief Forum ‘Universal Peace Prayers’ event on Sunday 8th November 2020

Rather than engaging in prayer to a deity or deities, many Humanists participate regularly in a variety of reflective practices. We reflect on our thoughts, feelings and actions, and on our values, aspirations and ideals. As well as using our own faculties of reason and empathy, we use readings from across literature, meditation techniques, and experiences of nature and the arts to guide and inspire us. As we reflect, we cultivate awareness and compassion for others; other humans, other animals and indeed all living things.

For a Humanist, public reflection and ceremony is a time to strengthen shared values. Events like this promote cooperation and build community. They create a time and a space for the whole community to reflect, learn and grow. We need to come together often to remember the lessons of the past, to consider the perspectives of others, to nurture empathy for those far and near and to encourage a variety of activities to address need and alleviate suffering.

Peace is an especially important subject for public reflection, since few of us can survive and none of us can truly flourish where there is hostility and warfare. We are all connected in a globalised world, and thus we are all dependent on one another. When one suffers, we all suffer, when one thrives, we all thrive.

A quotation from The Oslo Declaration on Peace, made at the 2011 World Humanist Congress…

“Peace is more than just the absence of war. Peace requires respect for the worth and dignity of our fellow human beings, tolerance among individuals and harmony within each person. It also requires global justice in place of global inequalities, not least the elimination of hunger and thirst in a world that produces plenty.”

And finally, a quotation from one of my favourite Humanists, the diplomat and human right activist, Eleanor Roosevelt, who was instrumental in drafting the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and presenting it to the General Assembly of the United Nations in 1948:

“It isn’t enough to talk about peace. One must believe in it. And it isn’t enough to believe in it. One must work at it.”


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Chapter 2: The Reverend Knowles (from a novel by AE Somerville-Wong)

I was hoping for more parish gossip over pudding, when there was a ring at the bell; a real, glorious brass bell, which hung in the kitchen on a cast iron bracket. While I traced the bell pull along the wall and out into the hallway with an adoring eye, I became aware that a willowy, rather neurotic looking personage had been given admittance and appeared to be joining us at table. This was much to my dismay. She was the kind of middle-aged clergywoman who wore the hairstyle of a choirboy accompanied by long-hanging earrings and manners equally as precious. The whole ambience was altered by her presence alone, but it was when she declined the delectable offerings that were crying out to every being with a soul to eat them – requesting instead some kind of noxious looking ‘detox’ tea which Elizabeth seemed to have stocked for her benefit alone – that I knew the effects would be profound and irreversible.

Perhaps my observations were not quite fitting for someone with my vocation, but the Reverend Doctor (anthropology of course) Jillian Knowles, newly ordained, was one of those over-earnest types, who, for some perverse reason, the assessors of candidates for the priesthood particularly favoured. She was the kind of safe pair of hands, I suppose, for steering what they knew deep down, to be a sinking ship, though they would never admit it. Indeed, she was a real-life Dickens-esque caricature of the sort of joyless, mealy-mouthed personage of combined academic and spiritual leanings, who was guaranteed never to do anything out of the ordinary, and who would never say anything of consequence for fear of giving offence. Should I ever be tempted, for example, to make reference to the Reverend Morley-Wright’s post-luncheon appearance of being stoned, she would no doubt slice my soul in two with daggers for eyes and patronise me with a lecture on the seriousness of drug abuse and how it is by no means a laughing matter.

The irony of course is that by perpetuating its conservative outlook and taking so few risks, the church was in fact sealing the very fate for itself that it so dreaded. I mused upon this, while plundering a cheese platter with pickles, and upon the state of Knowles’s consciousness. Did she and her ilk ever laugh freely and wildly? Had she never done so, even in childhood? The thought that humourlessness could go back as far as that, or that it could even be genetic, seemed too grim a possibility for contemplation, especially at a banquet such as this. However, it did appear to be undeniable that a certain proportion of humans were born to each generation incapable of humour, and that many of these ended up in some puritanical wing of whatever religion they happened to be exposed to during their formative years. As depressing as this subject was, anything seemed better for the digestion than actually listening, as Knowles related drearily, and at length, the various sorrows and hardships of her parishioners, and described in comparable detail, the sorts of self-indulgent psycho-spiritual therapies that she had recommended for their improvement.

As she droned on, I felt a rigor mortis setting in. There were of course the kind of people who talked so incessantly that they would cause one to break out in a sweat and even, on occasion, to momentarily lose consciousness, but this experience was infinitely worse. I can only describe it as akin to being drawn slowly and inexorably towards a black hole. It felt as if all the while we had been eating, drinking and admiring this merry home, we had been oblivious to the fact that some terrible atrocity had been unfolding outside. I watched, my contempt thinly disguised, as Norma Coles blew her nose and dabbed moisture from her eyes in a revolting display of something a less perceptive person might have interpreted as empathy but which in truth, was nothing more than a show of cheap sentiment, relating to one or other of her unfortunate human subjects. I found the experience doubly intolerable because in my view, Christian ministry, or indeed any sort of ministry, was about being honest with people, and especially about being honest when it came to the randomness of our fate and the sheer absurdity of our existence. It was certainly not about trying so hard to be ‘saintly’, in one’s own eyes, that one not only misses the mark entirely but nosedives into a kind of humourless oblivion that must, most assuredly, be the real hell. Towards the end of this reverie, I remembered my vocation, and it struck me that whilst I was as sure of it – sure at a depth of being so hard to fathom that we call it our soul – I was not in the least bit sure that the Church of England was its true home. However, in the absence of a viable alternative, I suppressed my sense of homelessness with the argument that one’s home was simply where one was determined enough to build it. Clearly, I had slipped through the first round of interviews without being detected by the church authorities, and I reflected, looking from one to the other of the assembled company and letting loose a smile that must have been mysterious to my companions, that Elizabeth, and for that matter, Fergus, must have slipped through the net entirely.

In the presence of the Knowles woman, I began to see Fergus, with his open, easy manner, in quite a new light. Indeed, the prospect of being apprenticed to this somewhat intellectually challenged man of middling years seemed not quite so ghastly after-all. One never ceases to be amazed at the extent to which a single encounter, not to mention a conversation over lunch, can change one’s perspectives. And as for E.R., though she must have been somewhere in her mid to late thirties when I was of an age where anyone over thirty seemed ancient and pitiable, this was all forgotten once I had succumbed, like so many before me, to her understated but nonetheless considerable charm. Had she been someone else, I might have studied her crow’s nests and the other signs of dilapidation that appear once our twenties are behind us, and looked on in horror, something I recalled doing on a previous occasion when I went for drinks with some older male colleagues and promptly ruled out dating anyone with more than a couple of years on me. Instead, I found her lines oddly compelling. In both the manse and its latest occupant, old and new seemed to collide throughout with rather magical results. I was reminded of an article I had read, which had said that the most addictive foods are those composed of high and roughly equal proportions of sugars and fats, ice-cream and donuts being notable examples. Elizabeth seemed to me to exude intelligence and kindness in equal measure, to a degree that I had never previously, nor ever would experience in any other creature, and it was certainly addictive.

I, in contrast, was a not particularly erudite, but nonetheless opinionated young scoundrel who had recently finished a master’s degree in English Literature and Theology. Like many highly qualified young people, I was pretty confident that I knew everything that was worth knowing. I also had the misfortune of having the surname St Paul, which given my choice of career, or ‘calling’, as clergy so pretentiously call it, meant that it would eventually be suffixed with Reverend. The possibility of one day being addressed as the Very Reverend St Paul did not bare thinking about. It was far too ‘holy’, in the traditional sense for which I was so ill suited. It would do for the pompous hypocritical breed of clergyman whose censoriousness and rotundity told two different stories, but not for me. Let’s face it, I was much more likely to be in cahoots with rebels and miscreants than to engage in social policing whether in the name of ecclesiastical law, dogma or anything else. My only consolation on the name front, was that I had already crossed paths with a Canon Ball and a Pastor Salad, and had quite understood that their need of sympathy would always be greater than mine.

As it happened, Fergus had already abbreviated my name simply to ‘Saint Paul’, and it so tickled him that he ceased to use my Christian name altogether. As you may have noted, my Christian name was Morven, after the Highland town from which my mother and her ancestors hailed. I was not at all convinced that naming a child after a place, even one so intimately connected with family, was a sensible choice, given that such a decision stemmed from a sort of romanticism about a place that might not be widely shared. Nor did I think such a choice was sufficiently creative but I had nevertheless refrained from raising these concerns with my parents. I did wonder though, about all those little British girls fashionably named ‘India’. It was one thing to be named after a small and inconsequent place on the edge of the world, such as Iona or Skye, or indeed Morven, about which romanticism still abounded (though even this smacked of a certain trite sentimentality). It was quite another to be burdened with the weight of a whole nation, with all its beauties and its degradations. Indeed, it seemed to expose a certain parental naivety, rather than to bestow the intended sacredness upon a child. A name ought to have weight, I considered, but not a ludicrous amount. Mind you, with names such as ‘Pixie’ and ‘Peaches’ being flung at the next generation, gravitas was clearly something that was not as much a priority for others as it was for me.

In spite of the thoroughly misleading air of religiosity that came with the name St Paul, one could still argue a case for my being thankful for the name. I might never have considered the priesthood, had I not been curious about my name’s sake, and then discovered how wrongfully maligned he had been. After all, scholarship had revealed he most likely never wrote those unfortunate lines in the epistles, which were attributed to him; the rotten ones, that is, about women, which say they should be silent and submissive. It was most likely one of the other prominent male converts who vigorously set about conventionalizing the Jesus movement in ways the surrounding Graeco-Roman culture would have approved of, and who decided to put women back in the box from which they had experienced a brief but considerable moment of freedom. While I wouldn’t now place such store on the scriptures and who wrote what, the injustice spurred me on to clear his name, and incidentally, my enquiries led to a more general interest in Christian history and theology. Had I been called Bottle, I might have had quite a different calling. After all, with all these gardeners called Flowers or Honeydew, not to mention the number of naturalists with names like Forest or Badger, one never quite knows whether the passion takes its inspiration from the name or whether the name was once inspired by the passion of an ancestor, a passion which was then passed down by more usual means.

That first evening of my official placement, full to the gunnels and blissfully sedate, my mind kept wandering back to Elizabeth. She had been married, but tragically, her husband had died less than two years later, and before they had had any children. It seemed she had been remarkably resilient, though a sensitive person could detect a certain melancholy, hovering on the shoulder of a natural exuberance. Under the work-a-day exterior, there was also a rather handsome sort of woman, if somewhat neglected. She was the type for whom an inner beauty was worth a few external sacrifices. Her workload must have been extraordinary, with the regular duties of a parish minister to perform, as well as being the sole founder and director of the Randolph Centre. However, she appeared to run the show with remarkable efficiency, and so one could hardly blame her for the occasional ensemble (of clothing) that was not altogether harmonious.

It crossed my mind that in her efforts to build ‘progressive spiritual community’, Elizabeth might have sought to cure her own loneliness along the way, but then it occurred to me that on the contrary, loneliness was very often a price – indeed the greatest price – to be paid for the privilege of being leader and host. ‘Progressive spiritual communities’, she had said, ‘are those which draw from the insights of our past and continuing spiritual, religious and philosophical traditions, while welcoming all knowledge gained through science and historical criticism. The hallmarks of a progressive spiritual community are its willingness and humility to learn, adapt and change its beliefs and practices as new discoveries are made, coupled with an unwillingness to remain idle in the face of injustice.’ Given the indeterminable speed at which the unwieldy body of the Church of England (and to be fair, most of her sister churches) could be moved in the forward direction, I could barely imagine just how great a struggle it must have been, and how much patience it would have taken not to implode with frustration or run-a-muck. Presented with that age old dilemma of whether reform might be best achieved from within existing institutions or from outside them, Elizabeth had chosen the former path, and had been undeniably successful. However, times were changing, and fast. The Church was divided between those pushing for progress and those more determined than ever to return to the traditionalism of the past. As a whole, the institution was mired in division and bureaucracy, and external movements for change were looking much more attractive to younger people. There were even new kinds of progressive and Humanist ministry, though these were not as yet fully developed or remunerated. Thus, my own dilemma was set to be more intense than that of my mentors, though I had no idea back then just how much more.

Elizabeth’s ‘big culture’ and ‘progressive spirituality’ projects were based on her fascination with the world’s myriad of cultures and her determination to preserve any aspects of them that were compatible with liberal values and human rights. She believed that just as with genetic diversity, cultural diversity held the key to our future success as a species, and for similar reasons. It gave us a pool of knowledge about ourselves that might prove large enough for us to adapt and survive the crises we were facing, most of which had, after all, been brought about by our own destructive behaviours. She had a particular passion for oppressed, marginalised, lost or forgotten cultures and went to considerable lengths to find guest speakers from such communities or from among their descendants. She had stated emphatically that liberal values and human rights, though better established in the West, were by no means the preserve of Western cultures but had always been struggled for the world over. The Jesus movement over two thousand years ago in the Middle East was itself, she asserted, an example of how these values periodically rise to the surface, even from within the most oppressive of regimes, when individual are brave enough to ‘speak truth to power’ in the face of punishment and death. She had long attacked relativistic arguments, which claimed that basic values were different in other cultures but nevertheless equal to ours, and that it would therefore, be wrong to judge them according to our liberal values and expect them to conform. Elizabeth believed that where rights and freedoms were minimal, it was due to the religious and political oppression of elite classes who themselves enjoyed many liberties, at the expense of others. She was convinced that most ordinary people craved their rights and freedoms at a deep level, even when they were cowed into saying things that seemed to contradict this, and even when indoctrinated to such a degree that they tried to suppress or no longer recognised those cravings. ‘Every mind desires free agency in the world. Every mind longs for the dignity of being considered equal to other minds.’ she had said.

Unlike many other leaders in the church, Elizabeth was unapologetic in her insistence that individual human rights should be given priority over the rights of religious groups. She had on occasion caused a furor by accusing other religious leaders of ‘whinging’ and ‘playing the victim’, when they complained that equality laws were encroaching on the rights of religious people to freely practice their faiths. It was, she said, a cover for the endemic misogyny, homophobia and racism within their communities. For Elizabeth, respect for the universal and inalienable rights and dignity of every human person was the very foundation of any genuine spirituality. Much that was at the pinnacle of religious aspiration the world over, she asserted, was powerful confirmation of this, even if communities muddied those noble aspirations with erroneous beliefs and practices that were cruel, perverted and unjust. ‘It is easy for human beings to agree in theory that compassion is a good thing’, she said, ‘but far more difficult to agree on what a compassionate society should look like or on how it might be achieved. After all, it costs us nothing to pay lip service to a noble idea but putting it into practice may cost us a great deal.’

To me, hearing Elizabeth speak, albeit courtesy of YouTube, was like hearing a much braver and more articulate person expressing all the things that I thought and felt, in ways that made me feel truly vindicated. It seemed to me that there could be no deeper connection between human beings. This was before I met her. After that first gathering at the manse, I was amazed to discover that rather than the disappointment one expects upon meeting a person in the flesh whom one has admired from afar, there was only an immeasurable warmth and the rising excitement of a fledgling friendship. This was also surprising because I had somehow supposed it wasn’t possible to be friends with clergy. They had always seemed somehow aloof, as if the intimacies of friendship might threaten to expose their humanity. There was no such vibe with Elizabeth. Indeed, she seemed not only to accept but revel in her humanity.

In my mind, a minister ought to be open in this way. Being a minister, I surmised, was rather like being a midwife, but a midwife who brings forth people’s spiritual sides as opposed to their progeny. It involved building community and enriching cultural life through gatherings, ceremonies and rituals. It meant nurturing care of the earth and our sense of connectedness with nature and one another. It meant cultivating human empathy and compassion, fostering creativity, inventiveness, art and storytelling, and creating experiences of awe and wonder. Ministers, in my view, should be able to teach and provide spaces for reflective practices such as meditation, contemplation and mindfulness. They should help people to transcend the self, create meaning and devote their lives to higher purposes. They should help us to connect with our heritage and build resilient identities based on both diverse culture and common humanity. They should also encourage ethical and political engagement and support the emergence of pioneers and social reformers who are willing to speak truth to power. And of course, they should model all these things themselves as best they can, but without concealing their imperfections or otherwise managing their image. Elizabeth had given me the confidence to develop a humanistic approach to ministry in spite of all the pressure to inherit the old tribal conception of what a minister ought to be. Indeed, while many in the church still expected priests to be conservators of doctrine, concerned primarily with the supernatural, Elizabeth was convinced these things had been little more than tools for social control and that they had in modern times become wholly irrelevant. Her leadership freed many young Christians from the cage of traditional religion to explore human spirituality in all its marvellous forms and guises.

Also on my mind as I drifted home was something less salubrious; the Frottle situation. There he was, supposedly mourning the loss of his wife, while all the time chasing after a woman young enough to be his daughter. I had met the man early the previous morning in the church office, and had enjoyed the first meaningful conversation of my placement with him. He had seemed a most respectable, cultured sort, so the revelation, albeit without hard evidence, had come as a shock and a disappointment. The thought of this Mr Hissop putting himself about was bad enough. But of course, it was ever thus. Indeed, I had seen it all in caricature when I had, out of curiosity, attended the evangelical churches in my first couple of years at the university. There were, invariably, far fewer men in those congregations than women, especially single men. So, excepting those who took on leadership and preaching responsibilities, most unmarried churchgoing males formed motley cliques of the socially inept, those deficient in personality, the grossly unattractive, ‘second-timers’ (divorcees) with handfuls of ‘baggage’ and often the plain creepy. These men hung about the traditionalist establishments like farts in phone boxes, in desperate hope of bagging a submissive young wife. There were hardly any takers of course. Then there were the dogmatic evangelists and apologists from evangelical homes, including a fair few who were desperately trying to convince themselves that they weren’t gay. Meanwhile, the pulpits were thronged with a host of beautiful but serious sorts of young women, all enamoured of a handful of oratorical men in their prime, the kind of men who preached love and sacrifice with passionate intensity, causing their female hearers to swoon in their pews. These young women desperately sought to attract the attention of one of these clean living, vigorous specimens of manhood who had powerful command of the English language and a strong sense of responsibility. Such men had an overlay of gallantry, which, while in fact nursing stereotypes of female helplessness and incompetence, appeared to flatter the young women, who rather innocently assumed they were honoured in some way. This charm offensive made the faith-based chauvinism of these men harder for young inexperienced girls to recognise. Indeed, to an inexperienced but sensible sort of girl, these men seemed greatly preferable to the drunken, reckless and boneheaded males of popular choice. I had almost fallen for one myself, until a sudden realisation in a hot bath convinced me that it was the mating instinct rather than any kind of spiritual connection at work; an instinct which in fact drove the whole industry. On closer inspection, the young man in question, charismatic though he was, was preaching a great deal of nonsense!

While the Rabbi in Frottle’s case was no doubt teaching something far superior to the aforementioned evangelical preachers, it seemed likely that this was not the reason for his attentiveness. Just as women fell for men who spoke compellingly in public, so men fell for women with similarly persuasive rhetoric. However, while a certain kind of young woman was prone to throwing her knickers at boy bands and while both genders were apt to mistake sexual desires for spiritual ones at any age, it seemed to me that male sexual instincts were in general, far more of a liability. Having been incredibly fortunate with my own father, and even my brother, both of whom were fair-minded, self-controlled and public-spirited individuals, I had been somewhat disturbed by what I had seen of the other half of the species since leaving the bubble of my all-girls academy. Once, out of curiosity, I took a detour on my way home from a lecture, and paused to watch Britain’s youth pouring out of the gates of a local high school. The sounds were like those one might expect to hear in a farmyard, and I was sure I could actually smell testosterone. A large group of nearly full-size human males, great, greasy, hairy things, loped out into the street in front of me. They were probably between fourteen and sixteen years old, though their physical development, ill proportioned and unprepossessing though it was, had far outstripped anything that had taken place between their ears. They appeared to be exchanging pornographic videos on their smartphones with lashings of derisive laughter. One of them raised his arms and moved his groin in a series of gyrations that reminded me of a dog I once had. It was then that I realized the problems with men started much earlier, and that clearly, not enough was being done about it.


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Elizabeth R. (Opening chapter of a novel by A.E. Somerville-Wong)

I was a small but determined twenty-two-year-old when I found myself bearing down on the trough at St Sidwell’s Manse. That was the moment I first saw her, Elizabeth I mean. The Reverend Doctor Elizabeth Randolph, famously renegade but indisputably brilliant vicar of St Sidwell’s. Formerly a parish church in typical decline, St Sidwell’s had been transformed single-handedly by the Reverend Randolph into a thronging pioneer ministry in the heart of the ancient City of Exeter. It was frequented by sceptics, free-thinkers, Humanists, atheists, agnostics, Philosophical and Secular Buddhists, Humanistic Jews, religious naturalists, non-theist or post-theistic Christians from among the Unitarians, Universalists, Quakers and other denominations, and contemporary luminaries, academics and progressive thinkers of every kind. What they all had in common was the view that knowledge ought to be acquired through reason and empirical evidence, the desire to live an ethical life based on empathy and compassion, and the determination to build a kinder, fairer and more reasonable society.

A rational outlook, when combined with this commitment to living a good life and building a good society, was what defined Elizabeth’s own brand of Humanism; a Humanism which embraced many cultural aspects of religion – those compatible with universal human rights and freedoms – but which stopped short of assumptions and assertions beyond that which was demonstrably true. The humility and inclusiveness of this approach appealed to many nonreligious people and to nondogmatic people of faith who had become resistant to the labels and tribalism of the past. As far as I was concerned, The Randolph Centre for Humanist and Progressive Spirituality was the future. The Church of England had done its best to be rid of Elizabeth of course, but her many supporters would not allow it, and coming as she did from an illustrious dynasty of clergy, albeit one with a tendency towards rule-breaking (in a famously jovial sort of way), the powers that be were disposed to be more tolerant in her case. Social class had much to do with this of course, and Elizabeth was very much aware of the privileges she had inherited.

Unfortunately, the closest I could get to Elizabeth was a placement in the nearby parish of St Michael’s. There I was condemned to the tutelage of one Reverend Fergus Morley-Wright, reputed to be the biggest buffoon in the county, manipulated by all and sundry in his parish from the great to the small, and consequently undergoing a more or less continuous round of humiliation. I was darned if I was going to be dragged into one of his hair-brained schemes, but it became apparent that Elizabeth was strangely fond of the creature, and it was for this reason alone that for the duration of what was, after all, the very first of our communal feasts, I permitted my guard to stand at ease.

The rectory kitchen captured the essence of what the Japanese called wabi-sabi, albeit with a very English aesthetic; that sweet spot between symmetry and chaos, flourishing and decay, that makes one feel one might just about belong in this world after-all. Parked at a defiantly misshapen solid oak table, one that had probably witnessed the vicissitudes of multiple generations of clergy and their families, I found myself in reflective mood, absent-mindedly fondling one of its many splendid knots. It was as well to meditate when I did. Moments later, baser instincts prevailed, with the arrival of steaming broccoli and stilton soup and the most effusive loaf of bread I had ever seen. These came with plates of smoked salmon, a cheese board, olives, pickles, salads and coleslaw, and to the rear, something tantalizingly concealed under an embroidered napkin which was later introduced to us as moist strawberry and apple cake. Everything that could be, was ravishingly homemade, and possessed of that wholesome, bucolic charm, which not even the finest of packaged foods could reproduce. Such a vision was quite capable of stripping the famished guest of all her usual manners and decorum. However, just as I was feeling an alarming loss of self-control, I was steadied – rescued from what would have been a thoroughly disgraceful exhibition of greed – by the ensuing conversation.

‘Everything is big these days Elizabeth’, said Fergus, gazing into the middle distance, and arranging himself in a chair. He looked uncannily like a bewildered faun, who upon his first visit to a human abode, was attempting to get to grips with the furniture.

‘Big data, big history, big, err, well, people?’ he continued, gingerly.

‘Indeed,’ replied Elizabeth warmly, ‘which is why my next sermon will be about another kind of big, something I’m calling Big Culture.’ 

This statement was met with silent incomprehension on all sides, and Fergus’s eyes seemed to swivel from side to side with the sheer effort of thought. Seeing this, Elizabeth continued,

‘Big Culture is a celebration of the best that humanity has to offer in terms of the arts, humanities, faiths and philosophies that have characterized the world’s many cultures. By distilling the liquid gold from our present and past, and equally by ridding ourselves of the dross, we may just find our way to meeting today’s global challenges and safeguarding our democracy. It’s the only way we will ever be worthy of the name Sapiens, which as you both know, means ‘wise’.’

When a further pause elicited no response but signalled no decline in interest either, she expanded on her theme:

‘Every culture has its good and evil aspects, its strengths and its weaknesses, though one might argue that some cultures are more corrupt than others, across time, and more controversially, space. It is easy to say the fascist culture of Nazi Germany was exceptionally degenerate, for example, it being consigned to the annals of history, but more difficult to make comparisons in the present without giving offense. However, controversial or not, Big Culture must include a critical process, however painful that may be, yet as far as possible with objectivity, without prejudice, and with equal respect for individual persons regardless of their cultural background. And, it should always, for the sake of courtesy, begin with honest criticism of one’s own culture, an exercise which demands a good measure of humility. I might for example, begin by pointing to the failings of contemporary British culture; its mindless acquisitiveness, its vulgar fetish for celebrity, the anti-intellectualism that makes a taboo of everything that really matters, not to mention the epidemic of social isolation, overwhelming loneliness, and a poverty of social skills eased only by an excess of alcohol. Our aspirational classes are often the worst. Soured by ruthless competition and riddled with status anxiety, they no longer know how to form real relationships, since these require mutual vulnerability, and they have exchanged imaginative and reflective thought with a treadmill of overblown busyness of the purely utilitarian sort. We have these potentially fatal cultural flaws like every other human society, even though we often feel as if we are the lucky, superior ones, but once we have engaged with this self-critical process, we can look to other cultures, including our own past cultures and present sub-cultures, to see if any provide clues to living better. I am confident that we will find inspiration in the ideas and practices we find, not for us to simply copy, but to reinterpret in the light of our own knowledge and adapt to our own circumstances. Only Big Culture perspectives can help in the age of globalization and the cosmopolitan city. The narrow religious and political ideologies of our predecessors simply will not do. They have lost all credibility. Unlike many of my peers in the church who see this as a tragedy and rattle on about the end of Christendom, I see it as a great opportunity. With Big Culture, we will see a revival in human inventiveness. We will see some of the old ideas and practices remodeled for a new age. We will take our foot out of the grave of outdated institutions and absurd beliefs, and renew a more authentic pursuit of excellence and virtue. We will not flounder in confusion as the traditionalists, ironically, insist, but prove ourselves just as resourceful as ever, redefining what it means to be successful, based on a richer, more inclusive culture and… I could go on but I see I’m talking far too much as usual; an almost universal flaw among clergy I’m afraid.’

Fergus had developed a slightly dazed look, and I detected even a creeping pallor. He looked like someone who had given ‘A Brief History of Time’ a fair shot but had come over a bit faint. Meanwhile, I tried to hide a rapt expression, which would have come over too servile, and would have given unnecessary insight into the advanced state of my ignorance. I was all eyes and ears to learn from the best in the trade, and eager to volunteer my services to this remarkable woman and her Centre for Humanist and Progressive Spirituality at the first opportunity but I was never one for fawning. This was the first time I had heard Elizabeth speak about her work in person. Her address was impossibly polished, though simmering with quiet passion, and notably without affectation. She reminded me of a broadcaster rather than the stereotypical vicar, except that she did not ooze self-satisfaction or reek of cronyism as so many of those people do. On the contrary, Elizabeth was wonderfully and fearlessly honest, and without hint of apology for the intellectual rigor of her conversation. Fergus too, to give him his due, was remarkably at home in his own skin. He made no effort to moderate his natural eccentricities; the falsetto laughter, the contortions of the face, and the rather antiquated use of language; all were delivered with abandon.

After a quiet few minutes in which we chewed audibly, ruminating like a herd of cows, and in which I was disappointed to find that engorgement was fast approaching before I had had my rightful share of cake, I noticed some distinctly anomalous movement opposite – more anomalous than usual that is. Fergus was oscillating upon his stand and clearing his throat in such a way as to suggest he was gearing up for some kind of elaborate response to the Big Culture proposition. The tension I was already feeling about the middle, was overshadowed by another uncomfortable sensation one experiences in that region in anticipation of a thing too cringe-worthy to be borne.

‘Dear me, Elizabeth, that all sounds awfully complicated. The way I see it is that we would do well to look at the indigenous cultures or First Nations if we want to learn a thing or two about wisdom. Only yesterday I was reading about…’ Then there was silence. Fergus appeared to be missing in action, the mouth hung open, and he was frowning deeply. Apparently, the act of voicing his opinion had caused him to think better of it, either that or he had lost his thread altogether. This was no doubt to our collective advantage. However, I wondered whether Elizabeth would pick up on the subject of indigenous cultures, for somewhere within Fergus’s skull, a connection had been made that did appear to have some validity. Elizabeth muttered something about indigenous cultures being of great importance to any Big Culture project, especially given our need to regain an older understanding and respect for the ecosystems of which we are a part. However, she was busy with some brie and toasted walnut salad, and having sampled it myself, I could hardly blame her for being a little preoccupied.

After an interlude, in which Elizabeth fetched a couple of extra serving spoons – a shortfall in serving spoons being a matter requiring urgent attention – I eventually plucked up the courage to speak.

‘I’m wondering’, I said tentatively, ‘do you think there really is hope for humanity, given the mess we’re all in?’

Elizabeth fixed me with a determined stare.

‘We are living at a critical time for our species and for our planet as a whole,’ she said firmly, ‘On the one hand, we face a number of existential threats of our own making, including climate change, pollution, mass extinction and the possibility of nuclear conflict, and on the other, we have reached a point in our history where the world’s educated classes have the knowledge, the tools and the global historical perspectives required to learn from our mistakes, overcome our cognitive biases and create a world order superior to anything that came before. Thus, when envisioning the future, we find ourselves in one moment starring into an abyss of mutual destruction, and in the next, marvelling at our potential for innovation and advancement. Never before has there been a more urgent need or a more opportune moment for the world’s many humanistic and progressive movements to come to the fore; movements which promote reason, and independent, critical thought; movements which demonstrate empathy and compassion, and which champion human rights and human flourishing in balance with the natural world. Only a marriage of humanistic ethics and scientific excellence, nourished by a greater understanding of human history and human nature, can save our planet and save us from ourselves – a species so deeply afflicted by its own weaknesses and destructive behaviours. The problems we face will require innovative, rational and evidence-based solutions, and while our priorities must be reversing environmental destruction and refraining from waging wars, we also have to worry about potential threats from unregulated artificial intelligence and bio-engineering technologies, and we have an urgent duty to end grave social injustices such as poverty, excessive wealth inequality, gender inequality, modern slavery, corruption and the persistence of bigotry and systemic racism. Our problems may seem insurmountable but I do believe we are capable of solving them if enough of us put our minds to it. It’s no good giving up or sitting back and hoping for the best. We must all play our part.’

This rousing speech was followed by a silence, not an awkward silence, but the silence of an unspoken ‘Amen’.

Fergus eventually broke that silence: ‘I must say’, he said, having retreated to more familiar territory, ‘that upon a much smaller scale, I too have had my challenges this week. One of our staples, a Mrs Hissop, came to me two days ago asking whether I had seen her husband. Apparently, he went away on business with a forwarding address but is reported by the proprietors of said address, to have since gone AWOL. She is convinced he is having some kind of dalliance with a younger woman, and described his activities as most assuredly that of, well, she used the words deluded, old, and fool, in that particular order. She insists I investigate the matter, locate the accused, and bring him to his senses. The whole thing sounds very ominous, very ominous indeed. However, I am quite sure I can get up some scheme to solve this mystery and put the matter to rights. It will of course demand those great machinations of the frontal cortex, for which I am especially well equipped. Indeed, be assured young Morven, the problems of St Michael’s parish are in the safest of hands.’

 ‘You see’, he added, still looking in my direction, ‘Elizabeth may be the philosophical brains of Exeter’s Anglican outfit, but I am quite definitely the master, when it comes to the solving of mysteries.’

I tried to disguise a sneer, while Elizabeth beamed with pleasure. ‘Ah’ she said, with tones of affection, ‘then you must tell me what you have in mind, once you have it in mind of course, and regale me with all your plans. Do not spare a single detail. Where will you start your search?’

‘Well, I will begin tomorrow by making enquiries with those persons who are aptly known as the ‘social hubs’ of my parish, namely a Mrs Ableton and a Mr McNeish (take note young Morven). These are bound to know something. Then, if that fails to dredge up a lead, I will apply promptly to Mrs Hissop for details of the colleague who is reported to have been bundled off with Mr Hissop in the company car.’

‘Hasn’t Mr Hissop (one of our esteemed local accountants, she added, in an aside to me) been buzzing around that O’Brien girl, the fidgety one with the red hair and the coy mannerisms?’

‘Maggy O’Brien, so I hear, though I seem always to be innocent of such observations.’

‘My dear Fergus…’ said Elizabeth, turning again towards me, ‘He wouldn’t notice an affair if it reached its climax in the front pew during Holy Communion.’ Then she laughed heartily at the thought.

I beamed, delighted by this candid exchange among clergy.

‘Well, I say!’ Fergus protested, albeit with a sparkle in the eye, ‘I’ll have you know, there are matters in which Fergus Morley-Wright is far more perceptive than most.’

‘And what might those be?’ replied Elizabeth, skeptically, but without a hint of the disdain I happened to be feeling for the man.

‘For a start, it has come to my attention that Mr Frottle, esteemed local solicitor (another aside for my benefit), has been frequenting a synagogue, and I am quite convinced he intends to abandon the Christian faith altogether and return lock, stock and barrel to his ancestral roots. He claims he has a Jewish ancestor you see, though so far back that it cannot even be verified and I’m certain this is no more than an excuse. As treasurer for St Michael’s, he will be leaving us all quite in the lurch, which is most inconvenient but far more vexing is the fact that I cannot get through to the man that he is quite at liberty to immerse himself whole-heartedly in the Jewish faith, without taking Jesus off the menu altogether. I mean, there are Messianic Jews aren’t there?’

‘Indeed, there are’ Elizabeth confirmed, ‘and it is possible for a progressive-minded person to blend the best of both faiths but we must remember that as we pass through the seasons of life, with their differing sensibilities, we cannot always find fulfilment in the same spiritual exercises or the same community. It may be that the particular people, teachings and practices at the synagogue are more appealing to George, given his current disposition and circumstances, and it could be that they hit the zeitgeist in general better than we do. If the former, he should be encouraged to go with our blessing. If the latter, then we should think about doing a better job of meeting contemporary needs before we find ourselves haemorrhaging congregants. This all depends of course on whether George really is leaving us, though I agree, it seems likely.’

‘Oh, too bad… too bad’, Fergus lamented.

‘Come, come, Fergus. Perhaps it will be just the thing to give a new lease of life to an old friend, and it’s not as if he’s moving abroad. You’ll still see him every now and then. We clergy must remember to act in our parishioners’ best interests, even when we’re talking about personal friends. I do understand though that you are very fond of George. It’ll be a wrench for him too, losing the old rhythms of familiar company.’

Fergus sighed gloomily, for she had seen all, but he soon rallied the old spirit.

‘I heard there’s a new Rabbi there’, he said, ‘with a talent for rhetoric and philosophical debate, something that might appeal to George, I suppose, coming to terms as he is with the loss of his beloved Meg. It was all so very sudden and premature, you know. Even if he cannot find any definitive answers, as I who have spent my whole life searching have somehow failed to do, he may nonetheless benefit from a more rigorous process of exploration than I can provide. Indeed, it may prove essential, as you say, for his wellbeing.’

Fergus’s disappointment that Elizabeth did not share his view that Frottle should be persuaded to stay was plain to see, in spite of his efforts to arrive at the same conclusions. The impending loss of a colleague and friend stung all the more because it seemed, to Fergus, to signify the passing of an era. However, there rolled over his Eeyore-like dial a peculiar expression, more peculiar than was usual, as if something deeply troubling but of a rather different nature had just occurred to him.

‘George mentions this new Rabbi in some context or another every time I see him these days. All I ever hear is Aphra this and Aphra that! You don’t happen to know do you Elizabeth, whether this lady is by any chance an attractive female, and of somewhat tender years?’

I reeled, and not imperceptibly this time, at this infuriating and stereotypically male train of thought. Even I, new to the area as I was, had caught wind of the fact that the synagogue now had a Rabbi after many years of lay leadership, and that she was a woman. Yet here was Fergus, clearly assuming that a man could not possibly take so much as a thimbleful of interest in a woman and what she had to say, unless there was some underlying sexual motive.

The real shock, however, came from another quarter.

‘As it happens, said Elizabeth, she is rather attractive, and unmarried, and just shy of her fourth decade I believe.’

Fergus started violently as if struck from behind, disturbing his teacup such that the saucer was flooded with the murky substance. He now looked less like Eeyore and more like a startled tapir. I too looked askance, while feeling simultaneously ashamed that with those few words of Elizabeth’s, I had become just as suspicious as our male companion. Being young and innocent as I was, I had rather hoped that it might be possible for a man to admire a younger woman’s intellect, without wanting to sleep with her or possess her in some way, but experience kept trying to disabuse me of such a notion.

Watching Fergus fumble with his teacup, I was struck by how the very same beverage, which in one moment so enticed and beguiled, could in the next lose all its allure, merely upon a change of receptacle. The thinness of what made something desirable, or indeed repellent, was an revelation that stayed with me.

 ‘Good grief’, said Fergus, in a timorous voice, once he had steadied the china and begun dabbing at the spillage with a cloth handkerchief. ‘Poor old George. Is there no end to this march of remarkable women?’

At this display of male prejudice, I fumed inwardly. It seemed to me to be a perennial fault with men to immediately blame a woman (or women in general), for everything that went awry, when in this case as in most, it was some blundering brute of a man who lay at the root of the trouble. Frottle was approaching his fiftieth year, at the very least, which meant that from where I perched as a mere fledgling, he was just about fossilized. He ought to have known better than to behave in such a ludicrous way, and if anyone deserved our disapproval, it was him. I was about to make my feelings known when Elizabeth cut in.

‘No, I believe not. In fact, taking the long view of human history, this is only the start.’ She spoke, not haughtily, but certainly with the gleam of triumph.’

‘But how can a respectable man retain his dignity in such an age; the age of the demi-goddess?’ He stared upwards, as if the last phrase were scrawled somewhere across the sky, making me sick to the stomach.

‘In the same way you retain yours with me, Fergus dear.’ Elizabeth replied warmly, with a mischievous wink in my direction. 

‘Ah but Elizabeth, with us it’s different. Everything you say goes straight through my head like one of those high-speed sub-atomic particles who looks at us and sees only empty space. I barely catch the gist before that too rattles its way out. Being in a perpetual state of incomprehension is hardly compatible with an infatuation.’

We all laughed.

In those early days, I secretly wondered why Elizabeth bothered with this prize idiot. Was she not ‘throwing pearls before swine’? I was still of an age perhaps, where one expects rather too much of some people and rather too little of others.


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Creating a New Secular Calendar

I’m creating a new Secular/Interfaith Calendar, which can be fully embraced and enjoyed by nonreligious people, humanists, progressives and non-theists but which does not exclude orthodox religious people. The aim is to support the flourishing of nonreligious people who are often partly or wholly excluded from seasonal celebrations, while being as inclusive as possible.

Existing secular calendars tend to have a lot of dates that are a bit partisan or not so inclusive (atheist days for example – not even all Humanists identify as atheists!), days which focus on particular people but often exclusively white males like Charles Darwin and Thomas Paine and so forth. I am looking to create something more international and inclusive than the previous calendars but in addition to that framework people can celebrate certain more exclusive days and events that are important to them but not necessarily to others.

Punctuating the year with seasonal festivals and special days, with their associated rituals, customs and events, helps to make our journey through life more meaningful. It anchors the passing of time in our values and aspirations and the rhythms of nature.  These events bring us together and help us connect with one another and the earth. They enrich our lives with art, culture and learning. They also make life a whole lot more fun!

Below is the first draft. I would really value readers’ comments and participation as I continue to develop it. The events correspond as closely as possible to existing special days, weeks and celebrations.

I will be updating the calendar over the course of a few months in response to further research and the constructive comments and suggestions I receive during consultations with the wider community.

The plan is to launch the New Secular Calendar in January 2021.

Do add your comments and suggestions below!

New Secular Calendar:

1. Remembrance Week (late January) to remember all the victims of human evil and folly, including victims of war, genocide, slavery/trafficking, oppression and injustice. Holocaust Memorial Day takes place during this time.
2. STEM Week (early March) to celebrate science, technology, engineering and mathematics with a strong public education focus and events for families etc.
3. Spring Festival Season (April – May) to celebrate new life or renewed life, warmth and sunshine, and the wonderful produce of the natural world (including cocoa!).
4. Golden Rule Day (April 5th) to celebrate humanistic and universal values such as the need to treat others as we would wish to be treated ourselves. The Golden Rule appears in all cultures in writings going right back to ancient times.
5. Earth Day and Sustainability Week (April 22nd and the following week) to promote the care and clean-up of the earth and all things sustainability related and to celebrate the awe-inspiring beauty of our planet.
6. Diversity Day (May 21st) or ‘Rainbow Day’ as my kids call it and Diversity Week to celebrate people from different social and racial backgrounds, people of different genders, the LGBTQ+ community, people with different abilities, minorities and marginalised groups and to promote pluralism/multiculturalism.
7. Humanities Week (early June) – as you can imagine I’m very keen on this one and can’t imagine why there isn’t one already! This will celebrate excellent scholarship and promote life-long learning and public engagement with history, ancient and modern languages, literature, philosophy, archaeology, anthropology, human geography, law, politics, religion, art and digital humanities.
8. Health and Well-being Week (Late June/early July) to coincide with World Wellbeing Week which promotes an overall awareness of the wide-ranging aspects of wellbeing, including social, physical, emotional, financial, career, community and environmental wellbeing.
9. Arts and Creatives Week (August) to celebrate and encourage participation and excellence in the visual arts, theatre, dance, literature, design, music and all other forms of creativity!
10. Ethical Business Week (October?) to reflect, assess and discuss businesses and how they can be more ethically run, and to celebrate businesses that are taking the lead in areas of sustainability, social justice and so forth.
11. Interfaith Week (second full week of November) to promote interfaith dialogue and mutual understanding, to affirm common values and goals, and to encourage cultural exchange and celebration.
12. Winter Festival Season (December) to reflect on the past year and prepare for the next, and to celebrate and be thankful for family, friendships and all things wintry.

I am very much hoping people will create their own rituals and artistic interpretations based on the calendar, as well as joining in with those I may suggest, and that the calendar will support the growth and flourishing of all but especially the non-religious in terms of an ability to create and renew meaning, a depth and enjoyment of human connections (and connections with other living things and the earth), an experience of wonder, love and self-transcendence, reflective, creative and contemplative practices, a reinforcement of shared values and goals, ethical engagement and the nurturing of visions and aspirations, an ability to remember important aspects of history and a commitment to lifelong learning and growth in critical thought, empathy, compassion and so forth…
autumn-forest-woodland-wall-mural


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Reflecting on the Past and Planning for the Future: Humanist Chaplains in 2020

An Introduction

A Humanist is someone whose knowledge is acquired through reason and science, who lives an ethical life based on empathy and compassion, and who strives to build a kinder, fairer and more reasonable society. We are champions of human rights and human flourishing, and promote the well-being of the earth and all its inhabitants through sustainable development. Humanism isn’t a faith. We don’t have a creed, though there are several manifestos and declarations outlining the humanistic worldview. There is a wide range of philosophical thought within Humanist communities and we are proud of our diversity. We embrace uncertainty and respectful dialogue, and draw from a long and rich history of humanistic thought going back to ancient times.

In this vein, thousands of Humanists are working across Europe (and increasingly in North America) in ‘secular ministries’ as Non-Religious Pastoral Carers and Humanist Chaplains in hospitals, prisons and universities, as funeral, wedding and naming celebrants, as leaders of humanist communities or ‘congregations’, as ethical business consultants and as advisors and speakers in schools and colleges. However, in many countries this work is still in its infancy or adolescence and there is much still to do to develop and establish these roles and to meet the needs which they seek to address.

It seems an ideal moment therefore to take stock and reflect on how far we have come (both individually and collectively) and on what we hope to achieve. Thus, I decided to send out a call for answers to ten relevant questions, initially to fellow Humanist Chaplains. Below are the first few sets of responses, with my answers in the mix as well (brief bios at the end). Whether you are involved in this kind of work or not, I hope you find our stories intriguing, uplifting and inspiring!

 Anastasia E. Somerville-Wong

 

  1. What were your childhood and adolescent experiences of belief, religion, philosophy and spirituality?

James Croft (US)

I grew up in a nonreligious household. However, my school had a Christian foundation, and as a member of the chapel choir I sang regularly in church services throughout my teenage years. I enjoyed the ritual and the sense of significance church services offered, while never believing in any of the specific religious claims being made.

Gerardene Douglas-Scott (Scotland, UK) 

I was born in the west of Scotland into a Roman Catholic family of Irish origin. My family were not particularly religious but I adopted it seriously from the age of 11, when I decided to become a missionary nun. My whole life was full of it. I loved the rituals, the smells, the symbolism, singing in the choir, leading the singing, going to the obscure services like ‘Devotions”. I loved it all. When 16 I set up a meditation prayer group and then attended “One World Movement” weekends which were great fun as a teenager. Shared prayer, walking meditations, dancing and of course ‘heavy petting’…

I went to Stirling University to study Religious Studies and Spanish. I became the chair of the parish council and led the singing and played the guitar in true ‘Kumbaya” style for 3 years.  Then I went off to the convent in Dublin called the Sacred heart of Jesus and Mary sisters, a teaching order. I knew within a few weeks that I had made a mistake. The three vows of poverty, chastity and obedience were never going to sit well with me (LOL!). Poverty: the nuns were spending piles of money on ‘lay’ clothes, discarding their habits at that time. Obedience: well, no one will ever be able to tell me what to do I’m afraid! Chastity: well, if the church was to be believed my hands would have fallen off, never mind my head, having had an affair with a catholic priest for 5 years!

I became the first Catholic RE Specialist in Scotland, married the physics teacher and had three children. I lasted 2 years teaching – I did not believe a single thing I was saying to the teenage girls especially. My wonderful children went to a catholic school. I knew it was wrong for them and they were bullied badly for their LGBT sexuality. Then there was the poverty thing again – we had very little material possessions and certainly couldn’t pay money to the church every Sunday.

One day (around 1985), I knelt down in my living room and said “God, that was good in the main, but no thanks”. I never looked back, though I did miss the ritual and the community (though not the community of nuns of course).

Tim Maguire (Scotland, UK)

I was raised a catholic, sent to fee-paying schools run by Christian Brothers and Benedictine monks. Both Scotus Academy and the Abbey School Fort Augustus have since been implicated in the abuse of children – other than being regularly beaten often for the most trivial of offences, I can’t remember that happening to me. I do however remember intensely hating being at both schools and resolving on leaving that I would never again allow myself to stay anywhere I was unhappy or be forced to do things against my will. On the upside of the ledger, I am grateful for my understanding of Latin and Greek, and I enjoyed singing in the choir, not least because once a year it gave me the chance to meet girls of my own age.

Anastasia Somerville-Wong (England, UK)

I was brought up in a non-religious home in West London and moved in very multi-cultural and multi-faith circles. My schools were Roman Catholic and Anglican but I was never satisfied with their ‘arguments from authority’ – this or that is true because I’ve told you so or the church says so or because it’s written in this or that book etc. I was always very ‘deep’ for my age, questioning everything (which sometimes got me into trouble!), and interested in what could be learnt about the world and about practical wisdom from science and the world’s philosophical and faith traditions. I was an agnostic, until in later childhood I decided the evidence for a god just wasn’t forthcoming, and since I wasn’t agnostic about the existence of fairies, I decided the rational thing to do was to commit to atheism.

However, in my late teens I experienced severe anxiety, and when I hit ‘rock bottom’, I had a sudden and life-changing ‘mystical’ experience of overwhelming love and the promise of healing, which at the time I attributed to some kind of divinity. I began avidly reading religious literature and soon after that I became a devout Christian, albeit a very ecumenical one. I remained so until my mid-twenties, when I became rapidly disillusioned with orthodox faith; with its lack of evidence, its inconsistencies and the cognitive dissonance required to believe in its dogmas on the one hand and navigate the real world on the other. I found it extremely liberating and far healthier when, for the sake of intellectual and emotional integrity (sanity, even), I chose to stick to reason and science alone and also to follow my heart – my compassion for all those human beings who do not fit the norms and requirements of religious orthodoxy. I began a PhD in historical theology, which gave me the time to research the history of Christianity, and religious traditions, texts and contexts more broadly, and to test their claims at much greater depth. This accelerated my journey to a Progressive Christian position, and soon after that, I settled in what was effectively Humanism with a Christian flavour.

I still maintain close associations with the Humanist-embracing groups that have emerged from orthodox Christianity such as the Progressive Christians, British Quakers, Quaker Universalists, Unitarians and Unitarian Universalists. I have also been engaged since childhood in aspects of Secular/Philosophical Buddhism, and in more recent years, I have developed an interest and connection with Humanistic Judaism. Having been a bit Stoic for many years, I have also enjoyed the renewed interest in this area brought about by Modern Stoicism. While Humanism is the best fit for my beliefs and values, I continue to take inspiration from the insights and practices of many of the world’s faiths and philosophical traditions.

  1. What led you to Humanism and then to Humanist Chaplaincy?

James Croft (US)

I started self-identifying as a Humanist in my late teens, after reading the Humanist Manifesto 2 in university. I found in that Manifesto a clear expression of the values by which I already lived my life.

Gerardene Douglas-Scott (Scotland UK) 

In 2002 I went to a funeral. It was Joe Hughes RIP, one of the first Humanist celebrants. Never had I wanted to do something so much in my life. Until that point, I had been a Public Health Specialist but latterly was NHS Adviser to the Scottish Government in involving people in the design, delivery and monitoring of care. I called it “Involving People”. The government called it “Public Involvement”. I decided that the change in perspective was not what I wanted. I very much enjoyed providing the secretariat to the Spiritual Care Guidance developed in the government at that time. The MEL (Management Executive Letter) of 2002 that I was part of developing, has become a beacon for many to differentiate and highlight spiritual care (and religious care within that). I left the government in 2003 and completed the two weekends of training to be a Humanist Chaplain. A few months later, I undertook a full-time Post-Graduate Diploma in Person Centred Counselling – a humanistic approach to therapy.

I wanted to speak my truth and decided that life was too short for anything else. I wanted to walk alongside people at the transition times in life. Funerals and celebrating and ‘marking’ peoples’ lives became my passion.  I belonged to the large Humanist organisation and was probably one of their busiest celebrants. I was around the 13th celebrant to be trained. I remember them hoping they would get to 30 and then aim towards 50. Since then many humanist organisations have sprung up in Scotland and there are many hundreds of celebrants in here now.  My partner trained in 2008 to be a humanist celebrant and we were the first women to be married in Scotland at midnight on 31/12/14. (It was a Registrar and not a humanist sadly – but that is another story that involved humanist mal-politics and hurt us very much).

We set up Celebrate People in 2019 after a few years with a different Humanist organisation to provide humanist empathy, compassion, love and equality to all. We embrace pluralism and spiritual care as part of our humanist approach to life.  (www.celebratepeople.co.uk). Our statement of belief is on the website.

Tim Maguire (Scotland, UK)

I was married in a humanist ceremony just before they became legal in 2005 and the celebrant suggested I train. I thought about it for about 40 seconds and agreed. Until stumbling across humanism because I wanted a meaningful ceremony, I had associated the word with Erasmus and the Renaissance. On discovering that humanism offered a moral and ethical framework for a good and worthwhile life without god, I stopped being what I called a Recovering Catholic and embraced humanism with all the enthusiasm of a convert.

Anastasia Somerville-Wong (England, UK)

I seem to have explained already how I came to Humanism! Humanist chaplaincy was a natural progression from my previous work. I’ve always felt my particular suite of skills and talents was well suited to ‘ministry’ of some kind but unless you are an orthodox religious believer that path is closed to you in the UK. Even the so-called ‘broad churches’ are not welcoming to progressives/humanists when it comes to ordained ministry, and I hadn’t been a member of a Unitarian Church so there didn’t seem to be anywhere where I could fulfil my vocation. Academia, with its focus on research, education and pastoral care was another great fit. I undertook several post-doctoral research and teaching fellowships but as you may have heard, academic career paths have been completely undermined by the actions of previous generations and successive governments. It’s pretty much impossible to get a secure academic position at a university, especially if you are a woman and primary carer of young children. I can’t just drop everything every six months or so to take up whatever fixed-term post happens to come up somewhere or other in the world. Also, these posts are on professors’ projects and do not develop upon one’s own work. They are often exploitative and lead nowhere. It’s really sad to see our universities lose out on so much younger talent because of the greed of a few but there it is!

It was exciting to discover that Humanists UK was training people in pastoral care and enabling them to become Humanist Pastoral Care Volunteers in hospitals, prisons and universities. Even though there are currently no paid positions for them at universities, I hoped that this might change in the future. The broader ministerial role of chaplain appealed to me even more. I had many years of experience as an educator, mentor and pastoral carer in higher education and other settings, and I knew there hadn’t yet been a Humanist Chaplain at the university near where I lived, so I began negotiations with the Multi-Faith Chaplaincy there. Its full-time Anglican chaplain had been hostile to Humanism but she had recently left and the chaplaincy had come under restructure with the appointment of a Chaplaincy Co-ordinator and greater university supervision. It turned out my approach was perfectly timed! I had already undertaken the assessment and training in pastoral care with Humanists UK and was an accredited member of the Non-Religious Pastoral Support Network. I became the first Humanist Chaplain at the University of Exeter on 30th January 2020, and was just getting stuck in when the pandemic and lockdown struck!

  1. What books, authors, thinkers, activists or previous chaplains have inspired you and why?

James Croft (US)

Carl Sagan, probably the greatest communicator of the Humanist worldview ever, with a capacity to express the wonder of the universe in a quasi-religious way without supernaturalism. Philip Pullman, the Humanist novelist par excellence. Kate Lovelady, senior Leader at the Ethical Society of St. Louis, where I work, who has taught me so much about being Humanist clergy. Robert Ingersoll, the Great Agnostic, for his rousing speeches and ability to sway people to freethought at a time when it was almost unknown.

Gerardene Douglas-Scott (Scotland, UK) 

Carl Rogers and the core conditions: Empathy, Unconditional Positive Regard and Congruence is my main influencer.

Tim Maguire (Scotland, UK)

None specifically in terms of Chaplaincy. I often quote AC Grayling when I’m conducting funerals, and Stephen Law when trying to give a short and coherent account of what humanists believe. I’m a fan of both Philip Pullman and Jim Al Khalili – again someone whose view of what humanism represents chimes with me. These two quotations encapsulate it:

“My view is that if you focus on what’s bad about religion that doesn’t serve any purpose. For a lot of people religion is vitally important, it creates social cohesion in communities and offers comfort. As long as it doesn’t affect me or offend me it’s fine. Get on with it.”

 “…I think, that humankind’s fate and future is in its own hands. The reason why we strive for a better world and to be good is not because some old scripture or mythology tells me that I’ll be rewarded if I’m good and punished if I’m bad. But because being good defines me as a human. Anyone who wants to be good because they think they should be, not because their religion tells them to be, for me is a humanist.”

https://newhumanist.org.uk/articles/4070/facing-the-future-an-interview-with-jim-al-khalili

Anastasia Somerville-Wong (England, UK)

There are too many books and authors to mention. Rather than bore you with lists of books, talks and articles that have been meaningful to me over the years, I’ll just mention some of my favourite people when it comes to various aspects of contemporary Humanism. These include scientists like Biological Anthropologist Alice Roberts and Astrophysicists Carl Sagan and Neil deGrasse Tyson, Historians like Yuval Noah Harari and Karen Armstrong, the psychologist and broadcaster Margaret Knight, behavioural psychologists/economists like Daniel Kahneman, Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein, Philosophers like A. C. Grayling, Alain de Botton and Sam Harris, Activists like Greta Thunberg, Malala Yousafzai and Yasmine Mohammed, ecologists like Rachel Carson, Stephen Kellart and Arvay Clemens and humanist creatives like Gene Roddenberry and Phillip Pullman.

I’ve chosen these people because their thinking, values and goals resonate with my own and I admire their work. I’m rather too independent-minded to call myself a fan or follower of anyone, and I haven’t had the experience of one particular book or author changing my life. My children are young and demanding so I don’t get much time to read for pleasure. I do a lot of sneaky skimming of short articles and reviews and listening to interviews in the background while I’m working or keeping my kids busy! I tend to spend any precious free time doing more focused research into areas that have not been thoroughly explored yet. As an academic historian by training (and in some sense by nature), I am researching the history of humanistic ‘ministries’ and the history of chaplaincy more specifically. History, especially applied history relating to aspects of my current work as a chaplain, is an important part of my reflective practice.

Over the years I have also taken inspiration from progressive Buddhist thinkers and I welcome the contemporary Secular Buddhism movement led by Noah Rasheta. I have also admired the work of Progressive Christian ministers I have known personally and worked alongside in the churches. The latter were mostly people who had moved to a more humanistic position later in their career, having already established themselves in ordained ministry in various denominations. A few were trained in more progressive and universalist traditions.

  1. What studies, training, qualifications and accreditations do you have, which help or are required for the role of Humanist Chaplain?

James Croft (US)

I am an Ethical Culture Leader (Leader is the formal title of clergy in the Ethical Culture movement), and that requires a number of years of academic and practical training akin to ordination in other traditions. I also have an EdM and EdD from the Harvard Graduate School of Education, where I studied Human Development, which informed my work in numerous ways.

Gerardene Douglas-Scott (Scotland, UK) 

BA in Religious Studies, PostGradDip in Counselling, Celebrate People accreditation, currently studying for Diploma in Pastoral Care Supervision and Reflective Practice…

Tim Maguire (Scotland, UK)

I’m an honorary unpaid chaplain at the University of Edinburgh. I was appointed to the chaplaincy team in 2013 and I was an unpaid ‘belief contact’ for five years before that. My honours degree from the same university has no direct relevance to my work as a chaplain: I’d like to think that having been in post for seven years without complaint, I must be doing something right even if I’ve had no training, but I’m sure there is more I could learn.

Anastasia Somerville-Wong (England, UK)

I have a PhD in Historical Theology from the University of Aberdeen and an MA (Hons) in Philosophy and Politics from the University of Edinburgh. I have also completed postdoctoral research fellowships at the Universities of Exeter and Plymouth, and an associate lectureship at the University of Aberdeen. Most of my work has been on inter-disciplinary projects covering a wide range of subjects including heritage studies, digital humanities, law, English literature and environmental studies and all have shaped my current approach to humanistic philosophy and practice in some way or another. In 2019, I underwent an assessment and training in pastoral care with Humanists UK, a membership organisation of the Network for Pastoral, Spiritual and Religious Care in Health, and am an accredited member of the Non-Religious Pastoral Support Network.

My experience in research, education, pastoral care and mentoring probably counts as much as my qualifications and accreditations when it comes to this work. In terms of pastoral care and mentoring, I have provided this not only in higher education but also in hospitals, care homes, schools, youth clubs and community centres in a variety of volunteering roles over the years. I have also worked in child protection social work and on community projects for areas of deprivation, which were very enlightening.

  1. What are the particular needs of those people and institutions you serve and of people in the UK/US more generally, and how do you endeavour to meet those needs?

James Croft (US)

I don’t primarily serve university students or staff – I serve a whole congregation of people of many ages – although I am part of the Interfaith Campus Ministers’ Association at Washington University. My general sense is that college students who are not traditionally religious often lack any structured way to explore the spiritual, existential, and ethical aspects of life, and I think it’s our role to provide ways for them to do that which parallel the resources religious students have at their disposal.

Gerardene Douglas-Scott (Scotland, UK) 

As humanist and secular chaplaincy takes hold in Further Education and the NHS, there is a need for more Pastoral Care courses or accredited courses in chaplaincy recognised by UKBHC.

Tim Maguire (Scotland, UK) 

There is a very small (and declining) humanist and atheist group at the University of Edinburgh. They ask little of me other than to talk to them once a year. As a chaplain most of my one-to-one sessions have been with students and staff who don’t identify as humanist but who are not religious. Having said that, I have been asked for help directly by religious students, so it’s hard to generalise about student or staff needs other than that they need to be listened to and helped.

Anastasia Somerville-Wong (England, UK)

The needs of students and staff at universities are many and complex. Students frequently look for general life guidance, mentoring, signposting, a reassuring human contact and someone who will listen.

The issues we tend to come across include mental health problems, relationship problems, loneliness, isolation and a lack of belonging, fear and uncertainty about the future (due to economic issues, increasing inequality, Brexit, the pandemic etc.), a lack of clarity of purpose/vocation, a lack of opportunities for ethical and spiritual growth and development, financial problems like student (and other) debt, political polarization and conflict (e.g. between LGBTQ+ and orthodox/evangelical religious groups on campus), more general issues of fundamentalism, political extremism and radicalization, the marginalization of vulnerable groups, issues of consent, abuse/discrimination against women on campus, drug and alcohol addiction/abuse, issues around free speech (some students call for ‘safe spaces’ and the ‘no-platforming’/censorship of speakers whose views offend them), and a lack of religious/worldview literacy including a low awareness of Humanism and all it can offer.

There is also an increasing need for secular or Humanist ceremony/ritual on campuses. Some humanist chaplains are trained funeral, wedding or naming celebrants but the events are different at universities. There is a need for greater input from humanist chaplains in predominantly secular ceremonies such as graduations and memorials, and in ‘inter-faith weeks’ and other celebrations of diversity, and there is much scope for creating new events and rituals around a Secular/Humanist Calendar.

  1. What are the different aspects of your role and how would you weight their importance? (Is a Chaplains role primarily one of pastoral care, nurturing spirituality in young people, community building, the creation of rituals, seasonal events or habits of reflective practice, educating and improving knowledge of humanism and comparative religion and philosophy, presiding over secular ceremonies such as memorial and graduation services, policy development, advocating for vulnerable or oppressed individuals/groups or political and social activism?)

James Croft (US)

I do everything in the list you provide, though some with more energy than others. I am the Outreach Leader at the Ethical Society, meaning I’m more focused in growing the community and expressing our values in public – I’m the evangelical one =P. We also create many educational programs to help people better understand our tradition.

Gerardene Douglas-Scott (Scotland, UK) 

All of the above!  The most important is empathy.

I live in Glasgow with my wife, Susan. We are both celebrants and non-religious family chaplains and have been together for twenty years. After a year together, we exchanged vows and rings privately, then in 2006 we had a civil partnership, and then we were the first women to be married at the stroke of midnight on the December, 31, 2014. We feel very blessed because we have always been very close, but we understand that’s because we’ve always made the effort to work on our own personal development and on our relationship. We also married two other couples, who are women, on that night. We had our family and friends around us and it was a night that made us very proud to be Scottish.

We both trained to become authorised humanist celebrants, but our work has evolved to encapsulate so many other aspects of caring and compassion. Whatever we do that’s the two things it boils down to – it’s how we live our lives, with lots of fun too of course. To describe ourselves as humanist celebrants doesn’t cover everything we have come to do, but in our celebrant work we conduct weddings, funerals and naming ceremonies, and that brings so much life through our door. We encounter every walk of life, and deal with every kind of situation, and it’s not always straightforward. It’s very important to be sensitive to what people are going through and to support them with love. For one family we might perform weddings and also their family funerals. The relationships we build with people are very intimate, every day we get to be up close with the very things that life is about. We think the work that we do has made us realise what’s important in life. We also get to spend a lot of quality time together in our work and in supporting each other.

What we do reaches out to everyone, regardless of who they are, where they come from or what they do. Susan takes that forward in her other work where she’s instrumental in influencing public policy around disability, equality and health and social care. It’s been a thread throughout her career and it’s hugely important to her. I am also a person-centred counsellor, and it’s a therapeutic extension to my other work.

We have five grown up children together, who we raised in our family home where we still live. We are very proud of them. They are all good people and it’s wonderful to be able to say we are friends with them. We are incredibly privileged in our work and in our personal lives. We never take each other for granted and we work really hard to live in the moment, to continue this wonderful journey together. Today’s the day we know we have.

Tim Maguire (Scotland, UK) 

Pastoral care, community building, the creation of rituals, presiding over secular ceremonies such as graduation, memorial and other services, policy development, advocating for vulnerable or oppressed individuals/groups, political and social activism, educating and improving knowledge of humanism and comparative religion and philosophy, seasonal events or habits of reflective practice, nurturing spirituality in young people: and like Gerrie, I believe that empathy is the well-spring of all of this.

Anastasia Somerville-Wong (England, UK)

The role of Humanist Chaplain is very varied. In addition to pastoral care, which is primarily about listening and using ‘counselling-type’ conversation skills, it includes advocacy and signposting for individuals and groups who are vulnerable or in crisis, and the wider nurturing of ethical engagement and reflective practices. It involves organising social events that deepen human connections and build community. As Humanist Chaplain, I will be responsible for the creation and leadership of secular services, rituals and celebrations.

Education is an important aspect of the role, especially as I have an academic background and am engaged in related research. I aim to improve knowledge of Humanism, its history and variety of expressions, and to improve knowledge of comparative religion and philosophy. Chaplains are often sought after by the media for their views and guidance when there are traumatic events, disputes and ethical controversies on campus. We also play a significant role in policy development at our hosting institutions. My role will also be to support student societies and work collaboratively with academic staff and other chaplains.

Those who have an existing understanding of what a chaplain is and what a humanist is (many do not!) are often struck with the impression that the term “Humanist Chaplain” is an oxymoron. Indeed, chaplaincy grew out of the Christian tradition and I appreciate this heritage. However, there is a great deal of continuity between Christian Chaplaincy and Humanist Chaplaincy, since the role has long been developing in a humanistic direction due to the influence of secular/humanist ethics in wider society and the progress of liberal theology in the mainstream churches. Indeed, right from its inception, chaplaincy was a means for the church to take a more humanistic, compassionate approach to people in the midst of real-life crises.

Chaplaincy involves putting aside one’s own agendas and prejudices to meet the immediate needs of real people in real-life situations that are often messy and complex. Empathy and compassion for other humans, whoever they are, is essential, along with respect for people’s individual beliefs and values. There is no room for dogmatism and proselytising when confronted with physical and mental health crises, with the consequences of crime and abuse, with bereavement and poverty, and in the case of military chaplains, with the realities of war. What could be more Humanist than a person-centred tradition with the humility to listen and learn from the evidence in front of you? Not all chaplains live up to this example but it has been the aspiration of many.

There are Humanists who prefer to be called Pastoral Support Volunteers or Humanist Advisors but these titles do not encompass the full breadth of the role. Something vital is lost when we cut ourselves off from our history, even if there are elements of that history we want to leave behind. I myself take inspiration not only from Humanist thought and practice but from the insights and practices of many of the world’s faiths and philosophical traditions. I appreciate their stories, music, art, architecture and practical wisdom, even while I do not subscribe to their dogma. Some Christian groups wholly embrace Humanists, such as the Quaker, Unitarian and Universalist traditions, and the Progressive Christianity movement. Other faiths also have progressive and humanistic streams, for example, Secular Buddhism and Humanistic Judaism. I myself have been a regular at Quaker Meetings and Buddhist meditations on and off over many years.

Since recently joining the Multi-faith Chaplaincy at the University of Exeter, I have been working on creating a library of humanist/humanistic literature on campus. I am on the regular duty rota for pastoral care, and post-Covid-19, I am hoping to starting a regular ‘Talk and Walk’ where people can meet and get to know each other while enjoying some fresh air and exercise. I’m also developing a new Secular/Inter-Faith Calendar, which is inclusive of humanists, progressive/non-theist religious and nonreligious people more generally, as well as publishing chaplaincy-relevant articles at www.secularliturgies.wordpress.com. I am an advocate for Humanists and non-religious people at Multi-Faith Chaplaincy meetings, and am enjoying getting to know the local Humanist community and the student and staff societies I hope to support. I am also developing a course on Humanism, writing a book, hoping to establish a Pluralism Centre or Pluralism Project at the university and trying to find ways of funding my work in the longer term so I can bring all these plans to fruition!

  1. What are the other roles and affiliations you have regarding Humanist work? For example, in addition to being a Chaplain, are you also a Celebrant, or a campaigner, board member, broadcaster etc. and how are your roles integrated or complementary?

James Croft (US)

I create classes for the American Humanist Association’s Center for Education. I am also a celebrant and conduct tons of weddings, and am broadly involved in the Humanist movement in the USA and abroad.

Gerardene Douglas-Scott (Scotland, UK) 

I am a Director of Celebrate People.  We run retreats, provide counselling and are chaplains to 300k women travelling in the world (Girl Gone International).  We frequently speak at workplaces, interest groups and charities e.g. Rotary. We campaigned for Equal Marriage for over 20 years and our Marriage Certificate is displayed in the Scottish Parliament as a symbol of how ordinary people can influence the law.  We were also the face of the Scottish Human Rights campaign with the Equalities Minister. Our current campaign is with the Funeral Industry with the aim of planting trees to offset the carbon produced by cremation.

Tim Maguire (Scotland, UK) 

I’m a celebrant of 15 years standing, a campaigner and a writer:

https://timmaguire.co

I’ve had several articles published by The Guardian and other newspapers.

https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/belief/2011/oct/04/humanism-the-h-factor

I also campaigned to open up Thought for the Day to humanists and – in partnership with the Guardian – created a series of podcasts called ‘Another Thought for the Day’

https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/series/another-thought-for-the-day

I have addressed the Scottish Parliament,

https://timmaguire.co/2015/09/my-take-on-happiness-time-for-reflection-at-the-scottish-parliament.html and delivered three Remembrance Day ceremonies for the Scottish Government

https://www.heraldscotland.com/news/15654357.first-non-religious-remembrance-day-service-held-by-scottish-government/

I was a board member of the Humanist Society Scotland (before it became a company with professional management).

Anastasia Somerville-Wong (England, UK)

I am Founding Editor of the Secular Liturgies Network and Forum (SLN), a professional knowledge-exchange network, research initiative, publisher, think-tank, creative hub and events pioneer for humanists, progressives and non-theists. Its mission is to enrich societies with secular ethics and reflective practices, informed by the latest research, and expressed in original creative, scholarly and journalistic publications and events. The work has strong themes of well-being, sustainability, cultural enrichment and community building. The SLN, founded in 2018, is a culmination of my previous work as a published writer of liturgies and poetry, and my knowledge of history, theology, philosophy and comparative religion. It publishes original creative works of poetry, fiction and creative nonfiction, incisive journalistic articles including interview-style articles with experts and practitioners in relevant fields, and original research papers (which aim to be shorter and more widely engaging than traditional academic publications).

My research with the SLN is on secularism, humanism and other non-theist philosophical and faith traditions (and on chaplaincy itself!) so it’s very relevant to my role as Humanist Chaplain! I have a special interest in the impact of human belief and unbelief on our wellbeing, in terms of religious, non-religious and political world-views. I am also interested in the development of secular ethics, secular community, reflective practices, ritual, pastoral roles, and comparative religion and philosophy. I am currently researching the emergence of progressive religious reform movements, and the development of secular, humanist and inter-faith/universalist models of community. My paper entitled ‘Secular Liturgies’, was published in Secular Studies (Volume 1, Issue 2, October 2019), an international peer-reviewed journal (Brill).

I am also developing a course on the History of Humanism for students in higher education (with an adapted version for use in high schools). Training as a Humanist Funeral Celebrant may also be on the horizon, in part because I would like to develop the liturgical and ceremonial aspects of my role as chaplain and to be able to offer humanist memorials and other events to students and staff at the university.

  1. How are Humanist Chaplaincy roles supported in the UK/US? (Are you sponsored? Are you funded/paid and by whom (or are you a volunteer)? Are you full or part-time? How secure is your post? Does your host institution provide you with training and oversight or is this provided by Humanist organisations?)

James Croft (US)

I’m a full-time employee of the Ethical Society, which is funded through the membership pledges of our members.

Gerardene Douglas-Scott (Scotland, UK) 

I am employed by the NHS in Scotland.  I am also a Pastoral Care Volunteer in a Hospice.

Tim Maguire (Scotland, UK) 

I am a part-time volunteer and have no sponsorship. As to how secure my post is, that’s a good question! Neither my organization nor the university provide training and oversight.

Anastasia Somerville-Wong (England, UK)

I am a part-time volunteer and an associate member of staff. I am sponsored by the Non-Religious Pastoral Support Network and Humanists UK but I receive no funding. Currently, the only paid university chaplains are those salaried by their faith denominations. By far the majority of Humanist Chaplains (in all settings) are volunteers and rely on other sources of income from humanist work as celebrants, from writing books, public speaking and sometimes from ethical business consultancy but more likely from other kinds of paid employment altogether.

There are increasing numbers of Humanist Chaplains in paid roles in hospitals and prisons in the UK, and at least one of our number, Lindsay van Dijk, leads an NHS chaplaincy team (I interviewed her previously – An Interview with Lindsay Van Dijk). Eventually, educational institutions will have to follow suit, since we are proving just how useful Humanist Chaplaincy and Non-Religious Pastoral Care can be. We need to make sure our roles are clear, professional and justifiable, providing evidence of their effectiveness in order to be accepted and valued by institutions and in order to secure the financial backing required to further develop this work. There is also the possibility that in the future, the universities and schools themselves will offer paid opportunities that are open to humanistic and inter-faith chaplains!

  1. What are the key challenges for Humanist Chaplaincy in the UK/US, and relatedly, how is Humanist Chaplaincy received by your hosting institutions? (Including staff, service users/patients/students, faith Chaplains, religion and philosophy departments and wider society?)

James Croft (US)

I think on many campuses it is simply a challenge to get a foot in the door. Convincing campuses that humanists and nonreligious students have the same needs as religious students can be very difficult. I was recently kicked off a campus interfaith chaplaincy team specifically for being a Humanist, so I know how difficult it can be to make the case!

Gerardene Douglas-Scott (Scotland, UK) 

People are very receptive in Scotland. They are so familiar with Humanist Funerals. I often hear people say “That’s brilliant, most people in this hospital/ward are not religious.”

Interestingly the situation for Chaplains in NHS Scotland is different. Chaplaincy is generic and not denominational, so strictly speaking there is no such thing as a “Humanist Chaplain” or a “Sikh Chaplain” etc.

The key challenge I believe is to build up a body of evidence for chaplaincy in general and a body of work that underpins that. It is all still too “fluffy” and set in the past.  Modern Chaplaincy needs good academic and evidence-based acceptability and standing and needs to be worthy of support.

Tim Maguire (Scotland, UK) 

The key challenges are funding and persuading institutions that it’s time to change!

I would say Humanist Chaplaincy is received very positively by the university, in the sense that I think people feel that the appointment of a humanist chaplain gives parity of esteem. I was (and remain) the first ever to be appointed at the University of Edinburgh, and it’s encouraging that Napier University (also in Edinburgh) reached out to me when looking to appoint an honorary humanist chaplain there last year. That role is being performed by my Celebrate People colleague Sharon Campbell.

Anastasia Somerville-Wong (England, UK)

There is lack of understanding of Humanism at institutions and sometimes a reluctance or slowness to change procedures in order to accommodate non-Christian and nonreligious groups who do not have local church structures and congregations. However, universities as secular institutions themselves, are increasingly becoming aware and open to the idea of nonreligious and humanist pastoral care, reflective practices, rituals and celebrations.

My greatest challenge is to find ways of engaging with a wider body of students and staff. Among my own generation but more-so among the generations that follow, people are very often reluctant to subscribe to a particular worldview or join a ‘faith and belief’ group. Others embrace a multi-layered identity, rather like I have done, but I think we are in a minority. Meanwhile, a much smaller number of young people find themselves drawn to the religious fervour and dogmatism of the orthodox and evangelical/fundamentalist traditions.

I see my task as primarily reaching out to the former two groups, the ‘nones’ and what I’m calling the ‘multiples’, in terms of participation in humanist activities, not because we are concerned with numbers but because these activities encourage reflective and critical thought, deepen ethical understanding and practical wisdom, encourage and inspire creativity, support many noble and urgent causes including human rights and sustainability, and have the potential to contribute hugely to student and staff well-being. As a Duty Chaplain, however, I am of course available to provide pastoral care for all, regardless of their beliefs and affiliations. We are not interested in conversion like a faith group would be but we are interested in being useful by helping individuals to live more meaningful, ethical and fulfilling lives and by building communities at universities and schools where young people can really grow and flourish and feel they belong.

  1. What is your vision or hope for Humanist Chaplaincy moving forward both at your institution and more generally? (e.g. Humanist Chaplaincy in schools, prisons, hospitals, the military, workplaces etc.)

James Croft (US)

I think it is essential that on every campus there are resources for all students to engage with the spiritual, existential, and ethical aspects of life. Since these aspects are deeply tied to one’s religious view, I think that means there has to be resources both for religious students of all types, and nonreligious/Humanist students as well.

Gerardene Douglas-Scott (Scotland, UK) 

My vision is that everyone has a choice of who they want to support them at the challenging times in life – when they are questioning their meaning, purpose or values.  I believe in the amazing potential for Humanist Spiritual Care Chaplaincy to offer what people need at the right time, in the right place, and for the right reason. This is a point in time where there are so many possibilities.  We have to work toward a body of evidence to make it stick!  In the meantime, it is wonderful just to walk with people wherever or whoever they are.

Tim Maguire (Scotland, UK) 

My hope is that humanist chaplains will come to be accepted more widely: the example of Northern Ireland’s prison service is especially encouraging as is the appointment of Gerrie Douglas-Scott as the first paid humanist chaplain in the NHS in Scotland. Being a full-time chaplain would be rewarding and I am sure that there are many eminently suitable candidates waiting in the wings to take on that role.

Anastasia Somerville-Wong (England, UK)

I would like to see the role of Humanist Chaplain better established at universities and would like to see it take root in colleges and schools as well. Funding is the biggest factor determining whether or not we will achieve our aims, since we cannot rely only on wealthy and retired people who can afford to work as volunteers. We must create paid opportunities for mid-life and younger people who have sufficient relevant experience and qualifications for the pastoral care, educational and other demands of the role. I am constantly aware of how much more I could be doing if only my work was remunerated and I could arrange for childcare and better support my own family. I do occasional/seasonal paid jobs as a speaker, writer, tutor and examiner but my situation is far from ideal and very precarious!

With both my academic and chaplain hats on, I am hoping to establish a cross-disciplinary Pluralism Project or Pluralism Centre at the University of Exeter, a bit like the one at the University of Harvard but better suited to the European and British contexts. It will go beyond tolerance or relativism to encourage respectful inter-faith/philosophical dialogue, with the aim of reaching mutual understanding, strengthening common values and achieving common goals for the betterment of society. With continued secularisation – brought about not least by generational replacement – and the steadily increasing interest of secular institutions in appointing Humanist Chaplains, the future for us looks promising.


Dr. James Croft (USA)

James Croft

James Croft is Outreach Director of the Ethical Society of St. Louis, one of the largest Humanist congregations in the world. In that capacity he represents the Ethical Society and Humanism in the St. Louis community and beyond, speaking on panels, giving workshops, and taking to the streets in defense of Humanist values.

James is also part of the Interfaith Campus Ministers’ Association at Washington University. He holds an MA from the University of Cambridge and an EdD from the Harvard Graduate School of Education, where he studied Human Development. He is an in-demand public speaker, an engaging teacher, and a passionate activist for human rights. James was raised on Shakespeare, Sagan and Star Trek, and is a proud, gay Humanist.

Gerardene Douglas-Scott (UK, Scotland)

Gerrie Douglas

Gerardine is a Health and Social Care Chaplain (NHS Ayrshire and Arran), Person Centred Counsellor and Marriage Celebrant.

Website: http://www.humanistweddingscotland.com

FaceBook:  www.facebook.com/humanistweddingscotland 

Twitter: @humanistscot

Tim Maguire (UK, Scotland)

Tim+Maguire+headshot

Tim is Honorary Chaplain to the University of Edinburgh and a Marriage Celebrant authorised to conduct legal weddings in Scotland.

Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/humanistweddingsinscotland
Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/humanisto

Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/humanisttim/

More about Celebrate People: http://celebratepeople.co.uk

Dr. Anastasia E. Somerville-Wong (England, UK)

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Anastasia became the first Humanist Chaplain at the University of Exeter in January 2020. She is also Founding Editor of the Secular Liturgies Network and Forum and an Assessment Specialist (Examiner in History) at the University of Cambridge. Anastasia has a PhD in Historical Theology from the University of Aberdeen and an MA (Hons) in Philosophy and Politics from the University of Edinburgh.

University profile: https://www.exeter.ac.uk/chaplaincy/humanist/

Secular Liturgies Network and Forum: www.secularliturgies.wordpress.com


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My Humanist Easter by Anastasia Somerville-Wong

Easter is now closely associated with the central doctrine of Christianity, the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ, but of course, this celebration of new life goes back to a time long before the advent of the Christian religion. Easter was originally a pagan festival celebrating the spring solstice. The name itself comes from the Old English word ēastre, which is of Germanic origin, and relates to the German word Ostern (east). It is thought to derive from Ēastre, the name of a goddess who was associated with the spring and who was celebrated each April with feasting.

Early Christians assimilated pagan festivals, and Easter, centred as it was on new life, fertility and the triumph of surviving another winter, was perhaps the greatest of them. Feasting in honour of the goddess was replaced by the Paschal month. However, many of the rituals, symbols and activities which characterised these pagan festivals were retained by the Christians and repurposed. The result is that in many cases, it is very hard to tell where the pagan ritual ends and the Christian one begins. In my view this is a good thing. The gradual evolution of these ideas and practices means that no one faith group or tradition can claim exclusive ownership over a celebration like Easter.

Every faith, culture and philosophical tradition is built on what came before it and heavily influenced by the cultures surrounding it. And so, while contemporary cultures and world-views have their distinctive features and flavours, there are some traditions that are so ancient and so widely shared across a region or even globally, that no-one can claim them as exclusively their own. Easter, I would argue, is one of these. It is after all, at heart, a celebration of the spring, a time of great significance to all of us. This is especially true for agricultural societies and those living in rural communities but all of us who are living in post-industrial, urban societies rely on the seasons and on agriculture as much as we ever did, even while we are somewhat removed from them, and it would do us good to be more mindful of that.

I must, therefore, disagree with those Christians and Neo-Pagans who claim Easter is really their festival and complain that it has been stolen and sullied by others. I must also disagree with nonreligious people who say we should boycott Easter because it is about outdated dogma and superstitious belief. Instead, everyone may claim ownership of Easter if they so wish, and celebrate it in a way that befits their beliefs and values. We  might like to create our own family or community Easter traditions, continuing the natural evolution of its associated ideas and practices. The emphasis of Easter is, after all, on a universally human experience, that of renewal, which is also shared by most other living things. The history of Easter spans so much space and time that for many of us, it is an irrevocable part of our cultural inheritance whether we believe in supernatural beings like Ēastre or Christ or not. Rather than fight against this heritage because of elements we might not like, I prefer to embrace Easter and make it my own.

For many secular people, and I would argue almost every child in existence, Easter is about chocolate eggs and rabbits. These things are wonderfully symbolic of new life, even if they have been overly commercialised and appear in the shops much too early (some of the worst offenders have them in store straight after Christmas!). However, Easter can (and perhaps should) be about much more than the worship, albeit understandable, of chocolate. It is a celebration of life. What could be more profound than that?

Life is a very difficult thing to define. Indeed, there is currently no consensus when it comes to a definition. A popular definition is that a living thing is an organism composed of cells, which has open systems for maintaining homeostasis, a life cycle, and the ability to undergo metabolism, grow, adapt to its environment, respond to stimuli, reproduce and evolve. Other definitions include non-cellular life forms such as viruses and viroids. Interestingly, the vagueness surrounding ‘life’, makes death difficult to define as well. I tend to think all this vagueness is a good thing. It allows room for creative thinking and variation. We instinctively identify with life and death in both the physical and metaphorical senses but we do so in very different ways, depending on the culture within which we were raised. So, for example, some peoples view death as the moment the body stops working in the ways listed above, while others view it as the point at which there is no one left alive who remembers you.

Another result of the mysteriousness of this quality we call ‘life’ is that other concepts like renewal, rebirth and resurrection have a wide variety of interpretations as well. While there are many experiences of renewal we have in common, each individual’s ‘journey’ and perception of renewal is unique. Easter presents an ideal opportunity to reflect on one’s own path, where one has been and where one hopes to go. The emphasis on renewal at Easter has always had a special personal significance for me because my name, Anastasia, which comes from the Greek work anástasis (ἀνάστασις), means resurrection – coming back to life as so many plants are doing at this time of year – and I have certainly had a number of personal ‘resurrections’. Easter has always reminded me to reflect on my name, a name that resonates with courage, and to draw upon that courage for whatever challenges I happen to be facing.

Many of us have moments in life (moments which could be as short as a second or as long as a year) that are so significant that they amount to a ‘resurrection’, where we are in a metaphorical sense, reborn. These might include the moment when we discover our vocation, a moment of conversion to (or from) a faith, the moment we realise we have found our life-partner, the moment we discover the place or people to whom we can belong, a moment where we turn the corner of recovery during an illness (or re-create our identity and purpose after a life-changing illness or injury), the moment where our activism bears fruit and liberation and justice is achieved, or lightbulb moments where a veil of ignorance or delusion is lifted and we see reality more clearly…

For myself, the Lenten period has been a useful time to reflect on my own ‘journey’ thus far, and on the growth that comes from even the most difficult of experiences. It is only fitting to work through one’s most painful (often buried) emotions in the run up to Easter’s resounding celebration of healing and wellness. On the 5th of April it was Golden Rule Day, the Golden Rule being of course the universal principle of treating others the way that we want to be treated. Just like Easter, the Golden Rule is ancient and modern, secular and religious, personal and common, going back as it does to ancient philosophy. Like Easter, it long predates Christianity and in various formulations it has featured in human thought and value-systems the world over. The Golden Rule is “a powerful tool for all of our relationships – with ourselves, others, animals, and the planet.” (Charter for Compassion) Golden Rule Day proved to be a useful calendar marker in the run up to Easter, encouraging us to think and reflect on our key aspirations. My children and I made rainbows to symbolise these – reason, kindness, courage, hope and diversity.

Special days and festivals like Easter, with their associated ideas and rituals, can be powerful tools for reflection, remembrance and positive change. They are reminders of what is most important to us, and those which like Easter, correspond to the recurring rhythms of nature, reconnect us with the natural world of which we are a part.

This Easter we will be enjoying the usual egg hunts, chocolate worship and family feasting but we will also be reflecting on what it means to be truly alive, and on how we might live our lives more fully. At the same time, we will be letting go, and allowing the healing spring sunshine, singing birds and colourful blooms warm and revive our winter-weary bodies and minds. We humans experience the world through only five finite senses, so let’s make the most of them! Below is a list I made of the things that make me feel most alive. I will be reflecting on it this Easter and discussing with my family how we can experience more of these things more often.

How will you be spending your Easter? Do share your cultural and family traditions in the comments section below.

Things that make me feel alive:

  • Human connection – good conversation, mutual understanding, belonging, cuddles and kisses with my children;
  • Nature – a glorious land or seascape, feeling the elements against my skin, birdsong, savouring food that’s fresh from the earth, smelling the spring flowers and herbs, re-discovering my oneness with the natural world and thus transcending the ‘self’;
  • Movement – dance, travel (going for a walk counts) and taking action – doing the right thing even when it’s hard or scary;
  • Reflection – frequent moments of stillness and quiet;
  • Art – creating and appreciating beauty in music, art and literature;
  • Learning and growth – intellectual discovery and growth in wisdom, empathy, understanding and character;
  • Vocation – a service and passion which makes a positive difference to society and to individual’s lives; being able to use one’s mind, hands and voice to influence the world for the better;
  • The small things – mindfulness and enjoyment of the small things in life: “raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens, bright copper kettle and warm woollen mittens” and so forth;
  • Cultural heritage – objects, rituals, customs, sayings, stories and memories, the things that connect me to my family, my people, my ancestors and more generally, to our common human past. Again, these help us to transcend the ‘self’, as we see we are part of something much greater.

many coloful easter eggs

 


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21 Lessons Learnt from the 2020 Pandemic by Anastasia Somerville-Wong

I shared this on Facebook last night and thought it’d be fun to share it here too. Enjoy 🙂

1. Taking a wash and getting dressed count as inessential activities.

2. Alcohol and self-isolation are not a good combination.

3. Under pressure your friends split into three camps: the angry, unreasonable and downright bonkers, those who surpass themselves with wisdom, wit and heroism, and those who even a global catastrophe is powerless to make interesting.

4. Being in your house too long you discover you are not the only resident species. Indeed, you find yourself in the company of more spiders, moulds and molluscs than you ever thought possible. This proves to be a blessing after a week with your spouse and children.

5. Clapping outside your front door is a great way to find out who your neighbours are.

6. There were very good reasons why you didn’t train to be a teacher. (Or, if you are a teacher, you will now know that your teacher training is completely useless when applied to your own children.)

7. The so-called ‘great work’ of literature you promised yourself you would read one day is even more boring than you feared it would be.

8. You remember to think twice about laughing when your husband claims to be dying of ‘man flu’.

9. Some people simply do not get black humour. Many of those people live in North America.

10. There were good reasons why you and your partner previously took turns to work from home.

11. Self-isolation and advanced image manipulation technology allows you to finally undergo your full transformation into that perfect-looking, happy-go-lucky social media persona you have been cultivating, without anyone knowing that you’ve gained weight, become addicted to antidepressants and haven’t washed in weeks.

12. You can finally put your rainbow in the window without everyone thinking you’re ‘coming out’.

13. Being fit requires more than occasionally ascending the stairs or squatting in front of the fridge door as you extract the brie (substitute a cheese of your choice) for the fourth time that morning.

14. Gardening isn’t always the stress busting activity it’s cracked up to be. For the uninitiated, it can be as perilous as DIY. Idiots are no safer at home than they are anywhere else.

15. In a crisis, the whole world reveals what matters most in life: toilet roll. (though in the US they can’t make up their minds whether its toilet roll or firearms).

16. Vulcan salutes and ‘up yours’ signs are a much more honest way of greeting the people you know. Let’s hope those sweaty handshakes, awkward hugs and pretentious kisses are a thing of the past!

17. The basic necessities of life are water, air, food, WiFi, and yes, you guessed it, toilet roll.

18. Hypochondriacs are happier during pandemics than one might expect. They can at last go out wearing their masks and surgical gloves without getting any weird looks.

19. Under restrictions to normal life, people you once respected become obsessed with sex, sex with anything at all. It’s at times like this that you are most thankful for the social distancing rules.

20. Video-conferencing your colleagues is much more fun when you all agree to cut your own hair prior to the meeting.

21. A few people losing their sense of taste poses no problem at all, unless of course it’s the few people who had any taste to begin with.