Secular Liturgies

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

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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…


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.  ( 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.”

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 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:

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

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’

I have addressed the Scottish Parliament, and delivered three Remembrance Day ceremonies for the 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.



Twitter: @humanistscot

Tim Maguire (UK, Scotland)


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



More about Celebrate People:

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

somerville-wong IMAGE

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:

Secular Liturgies Network and Forum:

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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.

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On Human Nature: A Parent’s Perspective – by Anastasia Somerville-Wong

Being a parent has further convinced me that every unkind act we human beings perform, at least as children, comes not from innate sinfulness or any deep-seated desire to be cruel but from the pain of our own unmet needs. When we do not feel we have the love and respect we deserve, and indeed require in order to thrive, we are gripped by fear, anger and desperation, which causes us to lash out at the world and those around us. In nearly seven years of parenthood, I have seen absolutely no evidence of innate cruelty, but daily, indeed hourly evidence of our near insatiable thirst for inclusion, affection and appreciation for all that we are and bring to the world.

Given the immensity of our need (I can think of no other species that is as high maintenance!) and our frequent lack of awareness of it, not to mention all the unforeseeable trials and tragedies of life which prevent its fulfilment, it is no wonder that there are so many broken and embittered people roaming the earth doing harm to themselves and those they encounter.

Parents of young children are confronted perhaps most intensively with the enormity of this need, as we nurture our little humans whose many demands, insecurities and psychological frailties often seem overwhelming. No parent can fulfil their child’s need for unconditional love and respect perfectly, every time it arises, because they themselves have their own weaknesses, flaws and troubles to contend with. And so, over the years, even with the best of parents, we develop all sorts of coping mechanisms to deal with our unmet needs, some of which are fairly benign and others of which are unhealthy and destructive. For children raised in chaotic, neglectful or abusive homes, this effect is magnified many times over.

I have no reason to assume that this need gets any less as we grow older, though we learn to deny it, hide it, and express it very differently. Rather like children, however, we often express our need in unattractive ways that are counter-productive and are likely to bring us rejection and hostility rather than the love, respect and reassurance that we crave. Of course, the sad reality is that when we adults do this, we are much less likely to be patiently tolerated and offered affection all the same.

None of us want to be trapped in a vicious cycle where we lash out because of our insecurities and then end up more isolated and insecure as a result. All human beings want to experience peace of mind and the joys of companionship. Revenge, cruelty, bitterness and ruthless competition only bring us loneliness and torment. A quiet mind and harmonious relationships come when we learn to recognise and fulfil one another’s higher needs for love and respect, and an important part of this is honouring each other’s autonomy; allowing each other the freedom to express our true personalities and make our own decisions, and enabling one another to develop the talents and pursue the vocations of our choosing. It comes when we fulfil one another’s practical needs for nourishment, shelter and safety. For we humans evolved as social creatures. We cannot find fulfilment by ourselves, however much we travel, meditate or materially prosper but we can find it by means of reciprocity.

So, understanding where unkindness comes from, next time someone is rude or dismissive, or responds to us on social media with passive aggressive or downright spiteful comments, instead of becoming angry because our own need for love and respect are not being met in that moment, we can simply pause, and say to ourselves, “This person has a deep and painful unmet need. I hope that it will be fulfilled. If it is possible to help fulfil it myself, even in some small way, for example, by responding kindly, or at least by refraining from returning fire, then I will.”

Expressing a positive desire or hope for a person, either aloud or in your own head, is a reflective practice reminiscent of ‘prayer’. If you are nonreligious you can do it of course without believing that a supernatural being is listening and poised to intervene, and without calling it ‘prayer’, if for you that word is too much associated with petitioning a ‘sky god’. The activity is for your benefit alone. It is an act of kindness towards yourself, which preserves your own peace of mind. This kind of ‘interruptive’ reflective practice is crucial for taking a step back from an initial reaction of fury and hatred, or a knee-jerk impulse to take revenge. Those who practice it are able to see the bigger picture, rather than be caught up in the immediacy of an event and the storm of emotions it brings. They are far better able to act in rational and compassionate ways that will make a positive impact in the world.

Another thing to reflect upon is that we are rather too good at remembering the times when other people have been unkind to us. Incidences of rejection, exclusion, prejudice, disinterest and hurtful remarks loom large in the mind. For evolutionary reasons, in order for us to survive as a species, it was better that we remembered and learnt to avoid dangers than that we were happy. Therefore, while most of our interactions with others go well, we frequently perceive the opposite to be the case. Once we are aware of this aspect of our psychology, we can practice interruptive reflective thinking again, reminding ourselves that this is just how the world seems to us and not how it in fact is. We can search our memories for the times where we have felt included, respected and cherished, and dwell upon those instead.

Choosing to believe in the goodness of others can help with motivation, and therefore with doing the right things. Moreover, it is true that a mere handful of people with courage and determination can change the world for the better. However, I am realistic about human nature. It is equally true that a handful of people intent on seizing power and control can transform the world into a dystopian nightmare, aided by a complacent (and complicit) majority. A small minority of humans are by nature less able to empathise with others. They can under the right circumstances, become sociopaths, and commit heinous crimes against humanity. Such people will use a pandemic, much like anything else, to try to divide us and advance their own selfish interests. There are also those whose needs have been unmet, or indeed exploited, for so long and with such thoroughness that it is very difficult, perhaps impossible, for them to recover their childhood innocence and find a better path. Others are well-meaning but hopelessly deluded, brainwashed or misguided.

Our psychological complexity makes it difficult to predict whether we will overcome our global challenges and secure a brighter future, or whether we will fail to learn from past mistakes and end up destroying ourselves and our beautiful, fragile planet. However, while we cannot know for certain which way things will go, we can be hopeful. We can throw all our energies into giving ourselves and our fellow creatures the best possible chance. Accepting human nature has its major weaknesses and flaws should never stop us from trying to overcome them. Teaching our children to think critically, to reflect on themselves and their actions, and to better empathise with others is a good place to start. In spite of the tantrums, the quarrels and the at times despotic tendencies of young children, their abundance of affection, their ingenuity and their innate sense of fairness ought to give us a great deal of hope. They are an everyday reminder of our marvellous and immeasurable potential.

Tea Ceremony 1 [JPG Original]


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How to Cope with Anxiety during the Covid-19 Outbreak

Many are afraid to admit weakness. They want to be seen as strong. But the wise understand that to know and acknowledge one’s weaknesses is the only way to become strong.

Anastasia E. Somerville-Wong

Anxiety during an epidemic is heightened and more widespread but it is physiologically the same as at any other time. It is a completely normal response to challenging circumstances like these. Sometimes, just the element of change and uncertainty can make people feel anxious, and fears about the disease or threats to jobs and family income pile on top of that.

Anxiety is also a completely normal response to longer-term underlying stress and can develop at any time, even when a difficult period is over and you expect to be relaxing rather than coming down with distressing symptoms! Anxiety can cause a surprising number of symptoms from the more obvious things like a racing heart, racing thoughts and sweating, to some more unusual symptoms such as amplified sounds (hearing white noise in quite places as if it’s deafeningly loud) and muscle spasms that can feel like electric shocks. You can find an extensive if not exclusive list here  It is really important to reassure you that none of them are serious or life-threatening. However, it is worth speaking to your GP in the first instance to rule out any other causes for your symptoms.

Below are some top tips to help you cope with anxiety during the pandemic and beyond.

  1. Practise acceptance.

Accept your thoughts, emotions and physical symptoms as they are, however frightening and unpleasant they may be. Do not fight them. Do not try to force yourself to relax or feverishly distract yourself as this adds another helping of stress onto what you are already suffering. It will only make your symptoms worse. Instead, accept that they will be with you for a while, and let time pass. There is no hurry to feel better or relaxed. The things you worry you are missing out on can wait. You will recover. You will be able to cope better, even if circumstances get more challenging, but let your mind and body heal in their own time.

Do not overanalyse why exactly you feel this way. There could be many and complex physical, psychological and circumstantial (not necessarily pandemic related) reasons, which you may never get to the bottom of, and which are rarely under your control. Just accept you feel as you do and for good reasons. Something you can do though, is to avoid feeding your anxiety by doing things that obviously increase it, such as listening to endless news reports and constantly checking social media. Watching grim documentaries or tense thrillers won’t help either!

People with anxiety tend to refuel it inadvertently by adding fear of the anxiety symptoms themselves to their initial worries. This leads to a vicious cycle and sometimes the person ends up in what’s known as the ‘anxiety state’ in which they have near constant symptoms and cannot see a way out. The way out is simple, it involves understanding your symptoms are those of anxiety only and that they are not serious or life-threatening. This dispels fear of anxiety itself, since anxiety and all its symptoms begin to dissipate as soon as you stop adding unnecessary fear to them. With the acceptance of your symptoms, you allow your mind to heal itself. However bad you feel, and for however long you have been suffering, you can recover.

  1. Be kind to yourself.

You are not going crazy. You are not weak. You are not having feelings and thoughts you should be embarrassed and ashamed of, however out of proportion, bizarre or frightening they seem. In fact, many anxiety sufferers are incredibly strong, resilient and courageous people. You are simply experiencing the very normal physical and mental symptoms of stress.

Remind yourself that anxiety in all its forms is a common human experience. Many people around the world will be having the same symptoms at the same time as you, and many more will have had them in the past, including notable and highly successful people from all walks of life. Remember that you are justified in feeling as you do. This will prevent your own negative judgments, and those of other people, from adding to your stress and suffering.

If you have moderate to severe anxiety, it’s important to note that while some people will be very understanding and empathetic, those who have not experienced this, or whose anxiety manifests in a very different way to yours, will not understand how you feel and you should not expect them to or you’ll be very disappointed. Some people can even be exhibiting all sorts of anxious behaviours without even realising they are anxious. They may be inflicting their suffering on others rather than internalising it. Those people often think they are coping well and lack sympathy for those who are acknowledging their mental struggles and seeking help.

Seek empathy instead from fellow suffers and understanding from those who are medically trained and experienced in this area. I highly recommend the Freedom from Fear Recovery Group for those seeking further support, encouragement and resources. Its founder, David Johnson of the Freedom From Fear Counselling Centre in Auckland New Zealand, and the woman who inspired his work, Dr Claire Weekes, were a lifeline to me when I was suffering from my worst bout of anxiety and couldn’t see a way out.

  1. Lean in and observe your thoughts and feelings.

Study your emotions, thoughts and physical sensations as if you were looking upon them from the outside as an objective observer. Studying them will put them into perspective. You will find they are not as unbearable as they seem, and that they do not have as much power over you as you feared. You can still function while they are present, however bad they are.

You may feel you can’t cope with your work, take care of your kids, sort out the family finances or go to the shop for supplies but you can. By just doing it, however much you feel you can’t, you prove to yourself that you can. If you keep this up, you will build increasing confidence in your ability to face your fears and take control of them, instead of allowing them to control you, and you will build confidence in your recovery. You have much more strength than you know!

  1. Remain gently occupied.

Carry on doing light physical work like cleaning, sorting, clearing out, running some simple errands and walking the dog. Start ticking off all those little practical jobs that you have been too busy to do, or avoiding, for months or even years. You could also try taking up that instrument that’s been sitting in a cupboard for years, or learning that language you’ve always wanted to learn, but in a fun, leisurely, ‘no pressure’ way. If you are the intellectual type, you may find solace and a positive focus for the mind, in studying and learning a new subject.

Gentle physical activity is often best for distracting the mind from worries, and it has the added benefit of burning off some adrenaline (the chemical cause of many anxiety symptoms) without exhausting you. Anxiety is hugely exacerbated by both exhaustion and idleness, so finding a happy medium is essential. Avoid excessive exercise or intense mental work which will result in tension and fatigue. If you are still working remotely, carry on as long as the work itself isn’t the main cause of your anxiety. Many people make the mistake of giving up work, and this often leads to worsening symptoms and a longer illness.

Those with sudden home-schooling responsibilities will have their hands full already but it needn’t be as stressful as you think. Stop reading posts and comments on social media recommending you use this and that online tool or cover this and that area of the school curricula if they are filling you with horror. Simply read with your children, exercise with them, listen to music with them, talk to them about anything and everything, use their own interests to introduce new concepts and play with numbers. They are much more likely to learn that way than if you try to enforce a strict regime that would usually only work for teachers who are teaching other people’s children. If your children are anything like mine, they won’t listen to you however much you impress upon them that you are now their teacher as well as their parent haha!

  1. Help others.

Focus on looking after those around you in any way you can, though not, as I’ve said before, to the point of exhaustion. One thing that’s great about humans is that we really enjoy helping each other. Seeing those we love happy makes us feel happy too. Being kind to strangers makes us feel good, or at least, better.

There is currently a great need for volunteers to run errands for people who are self-isolating, for those who can provide support, friendship and encouragement to others online, and for those with specialist skills to do their bit. For example, researchers and scientifically literate people are needed to share and explain the facts about this epidemic on social media, and to combat pseudoscience, fake news and conspiracy theories. Note down what you can reasonably offer and how often, so you can keep good boundaries, then get on social media and start letting people know. Most areas in the UK have social media groups set up to co-ordinate volunteering efforts. These are a good place to make local connections and start finding ways you can help.

  1. Write stuff down.

Whenever you feel overwhelmed, pour out your emotion, fears and thoughts onto the page of a journal or notebook, and let yourself cry or scream or whatever is required. Then read what you have written. This really helps you to release tension and gain perspective. Also, those gratitude lists people talk about really do work. If you keep at it, writing down each evening what you are grateful for, however badly you feel, it will start to sink into your subconscious that things aren’t as bad as your imagination and dreams would have you believe. This is a great thing to do at night when your anxieties may be keeping you awake.

The future will be very different from what we imagine it to be, just as our current experiences are often very different from what we expected. This is why it is often better to refrain from speculating about the future and instead to live in the present, keeping your mind focused on what is happening right now, while learning from the past nonetheless, and working in ways that are likely to bring about a better future. It is important to remember that when we are anxious, our minds are less reliable because they are prone to catastrophising, and invariably, things turn out not to be anything like as dreadful as we imagine. The act of writing things down helps to bring our minds back to the present reality.

  1. See the funny side of everything.

There is a funny side, even to the darkest of experiences, even if you do not see it right now. To trigger your sense of humour, try watching, listening or reading something comical that would normally make you laugh, even if you don’t feel like it. If you persist with this you are likely at some point to catch yourself having a chuckle, even if it’s through tears, and this does wonders for low mood and anxiety in the longer term. Some anxiety and depression sufferers (especially in the UK perhaps) enjoy making fun of themselves and their mental struggles – whatever works for you!

Reading the whole hilarious series of PG Wodehouse’s Jeeves and Wooster stories got me through the very worst time of my own life. It wasn’t a cure but it kept me from giving up on life altogether and certainly hastened my recovery. Gently refocussing the mind on amusing and uplifting things can eventually help to change your mood at a deeper level.

  1. Look after your body.

Eat and drink healthily, exercise gently and get as much sleep as you can. If sometimes you really can’t, however, don’t worry about it. Even if food is the last thing you want to think about, try to eat a rainbow diet of fruit, vegetables, nuts, seeds, grains and pulses, and avoid foods high in sugar and fat or with added sweeteners. Many nutritious things are still in good supply. Avoid alcohol because it contributes to low mood and mood swings, and avoid stimulants like caffeine (e.g. in coffee, tea and cola) and nicotine (in cigarettes), which can exacerbate anxiety. Nicotine can also act as a depressant in some cases. You can still eat comforting foods like macaroni cheese, cottage pie and so forth for your main meal of the day, just be sure to include plenty of veg and try not to snack between meals.

As I mentioned earlier, it’s best to choose a gentle occupation that is active rather than passive, and in a way that involves moving your whole body. Go for walks in the parks and woodlands and the countryside in general, since these have a proven positive effect on both mental and physical health, but do not walk (or jog) so fast or for so long that you exhaust yourself because exhaustion increases anxiety. Creating the conditions for good sleep is a must for reducing anxiety, so switch off those screens (unless you’re watching something very restful) and read a book or listen to music for an hour or two before going to bed. Resist the temptation to stay up late and scrimp on sleep. If your anxiety is keeping you awake or waking you up in a panic at night, don’t add worries about sleep deprivation to all your other worries. Just let time pass, while keeping to a good bedtime routine in which you avoid stimulation and continue practicing acceptance and gentle occupation. Sleep will come eventually!

  1. Seek out good company and wholesome conversation.

Human contact and companionship are really important in helping us cope with stress. Indeed, loneliness and isolation are major contributors to anxiety. It is very unfortunate, therefore, that with social distancing, this becomes difficult or impossible. However, for those of you who have close family at home, who you are not keeping distance from, spend as much time together as possible, talk about how you feel, listen to how they feel and enjoy plenty of oxytocin and endorphin-releasing cuddles. Perhaps surprisingly, children can be great company for the anxious because they don’t have all the cares we adults have. They remind us to live in the moment and are often extremely keen on cuddles! Pets can be wonderful company too, and there are plenty of rescue animals who need loving homes.

For those who are alone, spend as much time as you can chatting to people online and on the phone. Reach out, even if it’s just because you crave some human connection. You won’t be a burden on anyone. Remember, many people will be feeling like you, even those sorts who are too proud to admit it! We tend to remember more vividly the times when we have felt rejected or unwanted, even though ninety-nine-point-nine percent of the time, people are glad of our company. So, call that relative or friend you’ve not spoken to in months or even years but who you’ve often thought about. Engage in social media groups with potential new friends in your area and beyond. Many people feel embarrassed about loneliness and suffer in silence but in these unprecedented times we will all feel it. People who have been lonely for a while have the perfect excuse to own it, reach out and make new friends.

It is true that there is a lot of nastiness online, however, and that people can be less patient and polite when they are behind a screen – the last thing you need when you are anxious -, so just be sure to gravitate towards individuals and groups who demonstrate mutual respect, reason and kindness. If there are lots of aggressive, passive aggressive or otherwise toxic comments in a group, leave it immediately and try another. There will be some good ones out there in areas that interest you!

  1. Be mindful: watch, listen, touch, taste and smell.

Watch and listen to mindfulness meditations, and indeed, any kind sounding person talking about comforting, beautiful or inspiring things. This is actually a way of feeling you have company as much as anything else. You can also go outside and watch and listen to the sounds of nature, or you can stop and listen to things you might normally ignore, such as the sound of children playing. You will have heard of mindful eating, well, try doing various routine activities mindfully, exploring with your senses, noticing things in the world outside yourself that you wouldn’t normally notice. In the anxiety state, people become introspective and hypersensitive to their inward thoughts, feelings and bodily sensations. Mindfulness that focuses on outward things can help us to reconnect with the outside world and become forgetful of ourselves, in a good way! It helps us to stay in the present rather than dwelling on past regrets and future worries.

Some types of mindfulness meditation, which focus on observing thoughts and feelings, can also be helpful for gaining perspective on them. However, some anxiety sufferers may need to temporarily avoid the mindfulness meditations that are focused on breathing and inward bodily sensations if the sufferer’s sticky, frightening and intrusive thoughts are centred on exactly those things. They can gradually introduce this type of meditation later in their recovery.

You can find many helpful meditations on YouTube and on free apps like Headspace, Calm, Aura, Insight Timer and Stop Breathe and Think. I also recommend Noah Rasheta’s Secular Buddhism podcasts at

  1. Keep returning to the facts.

Remember, however bad you feel, this time will pass and one day you will start to notice that you are feeling much better, even if external circumstances have not changed! The great thing about emotions and thoughts is that they are fleeting, and when they seem to persist, that is just how it seems to us when we are low. In actual fact, they do not last long at all but change continually. It is common to start to feel that you have been unwell for ages or that you feel bad all the time. This is not true. It is just the trick of a tired and lonely mind. Time seems to pass more slowly when you are suffering. Remind yourself constantly that it isn’t true, and that healing and good things lie ahead.

Many anxiety sufferers have a sort of ‘mantra’, which brings them back to healthy thinking or reminds them of the steps to take to address their anxiety when they are experiencing the worst symptoms. Here are some good ones: “Face, accept and float through it.”, “Let time pass.”, “This too shall pass.” and for when you feel out of control with panic or shocked by your own thoughts: “It’s not me. It’s just that bloody anxiety again.” Swearing is fine by-the-way, though perhaps not in front of the kids. It releases tension!

If your mind ever turns to suicide*, remember that these thoughts and feelings are temporary, even though they don’t feel like it, and that at other times you have a strong desire for life. Suicide is not a solution to your problems, it is a way of escaping from life altogether. Rather, the right help and treatment are the solution to your problems. You can start your recovery right now with the advice given in this article. It has described a method very similar to cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), which you can then develop upon with a trained therapist. If you hang in there, you will one day be embracing a loved one, walking along a beach or immersed in work you love, when you suddenly remember how bad you once felt and realise how deeply thankful you are, not to mention proud, that you didn’t give up! You will know much more about yourself, and how strong you are for getting through this, and you will love yourself better for that. You will have much greater empathy, understanding and appreciation for others. And as you practice the method above and progress through treatment, you will grasp the tools you need to face any challenges life throws at you in the future.

(* If you feel severely anxious, depressed or suicidal, call your GP, 999, or the Samaritans on 116123 ( , for immediate help and support.)

Author’s Postscript

I am not a medical doctor but I am a highly trained researcher. I obtain my information from peer-reviewed research publications and cross reference these also. The best quality investigative journalism is usually reliable but even here, I look behind the statements at their references and sources. I also have many years of personal experience living with anxiety and using CBT techniques to manage it. This is arguably the best qualification for giving advice in this area! I still reach for my books by Dr Claire Weekes when my anxiety symptoms are aggravated and I need some comfort and reassurance. (See ‘Self-Help for your Nerves: Learn to Relax and Enjoy Life Again by Overcoming Stress and Fear’ by Dr Claire Weekes.)

This is the first in a series of articles I will be publishing here to comfort, support and encourage people during the Covid19 epidemic. I would also like to publish suitable guest articles, so please do submit an article to me for consideration if you would like to contribute to this series.

Dr Anastasia E. Somerville-Wong is Humanist Chaplain at the University of Exeter and Founding Editor of the Secular Liturgies Network and Forum. She is a historian and social scientist with a PhD in Historical Theology from the University of Aberdeen and an MA (Hons) in Philosophy and Politics from the University of Edinburgh. Anastasia is also an Assessment Specialist (Examiner in History) for the University of Cambridge.

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Humanist Chaplaincy FAQs by Anastasia Somerville-Wong

1. What does it mean to be a Humanist?

A Humanist is someone whose knowledge is based on reason and evidence, who lives an ethical life based on empathy and compassion, and who strives to build a kinder, fairer and more reasonable society.

It’s as simple as that. Humanism isn’t a faith. We don’t have a creed. There is a wide range of philosophical thought within the Humanist community, and we are proud of our diversity. We embrace uncertainty and respectful dialogue. There is also a long and rich history of Humanistic thought going back to ancient times.

Here’s another neat description of the Humanist worldview…

Humanism Photo

*Note that the British Humanist Association is now called Humanists UK. (

2. What is the role of a chaplain?

The role of Humanist Chaplain, as I understand it, 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. 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.

We are busy right now deciding how to use the technology available to us to provide pastoral and spiritual support during the Covid19 pandemic!

3. Isn’t the phrase ‘Humanist Chaplain’ an oxymoron?

Chaplaincy grew out of the Christian tradition and I appreciate this heritage. 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.

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.

4. Are chaplains employed by the university?

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, a membership organisation of the Network for Pastoral, Spiritual and Religious Care in Health. Currently, the only paid chaplains are those funded by their faith denominations. I hope that in the future, universities will offer paid opportunities that are open to Humanists and those representing minority faiths.

There are increasing numbers of Humanist Chaplains in paid roles in hospitals and prisons in the UK, and a few now lead NHS chaplaincy teams. Eventually, educational institutions will have to follow suit, since we are proving every day just how useful Humanist chaplains and non-religious pastoral care can be.

5. What led you to this role?

It was a natural progression from my previous work. I have considerable experience as a pastoral carer and mentor in higher education, child protection social work, youth and community work, hospitals, care homes and schools. In 2019, I underwent an assessment and training in pastoral care with Humanists UK and am an accredited member of the Non-Religious Pastoral Support Network.

I am also a historian and social scientist, with a PhD in Historical Theology from the University of Aberdeen and an MA (Hons) in Philosophy and Politics from the University of Edinburgh. I completed postdoctoral research fellowships at the Universities of Exeter and Plymouth, and an associate lectureship at the University of Aberdeen. My research interests lie in the impact of human belief and unbelief on our wellbeing, with regard to both religious and non-religious/political worldviews. I am Lead Researcher and Founding Editor of the Secular Liturgies Network & Forum.

What are your initial plans?

I have stocked the Chaplaincy areas with some Humanist materials and have shared an Amazon wish list via social media in order to build up a library of Humanist and related literature for the Quiet Room. I am currently Duty Chaplain on Thursday mornings (now available only by email, phone and Facebook messaging due to the Covid19 pandemic), and am thinking of starting a regular ‘Talk and Walk’ where people can meet and get to know each other. I’m also developing a Secular Calendar and publishing chaplaincy-relevant articles at

I have already been an advocate for Humanists and non-religious people at Chaplaincy meetings, and am enjoying getting to know the local Humanist community. It would be great to link up in some way with academic and cause-focused student societies, such as the Philosophy Society, History Society, Amnesty International and Be the Change.

Now we are in the midst of the Covid19 outbreak, I am seeking ways of using social media to reach out to people who are anxious, isolated and in various practical difficulties. Technology will be our best friend for the coming months it seems!

My contact details can be easily found on the Chaplaincy web page below for any University of Exeter student or staff member who needs a listening ear, and I would love to hear from anyone representing university societies!

Humanist Chaplaincy at the University of Exeter

Are you worried about the Coronavirus?

I worry a little because I have asthma and tend to get colds and flu rather badly. I also have parents who are getting on in years and have underlying conditions as most elderly people do. My sympathies are with all those in high risk groups and with those who are suffering from anxiety, or who because of self-isolation, feel lonely, powerless and disconnected. There has never been a more urgent need for the robust combination of reason and kindness that Humanism offers!

It looks like most of us will have to get Covid19 at some point, since the virus is likely to remain in the population indefinitely, and it will take a long time to develop a vaccine. However, I hope that this crisis will be managed in a way that spreads acute cases over a longer period so that our hospitals can cope and give vulnerable people the best chance of survival.

Looking through a longer lens, I have more anxiety about the terrible destruction our species has caused to the planet. It will result in ever more crises that have no respect for borders, and these could get a lot worse than the coronavirus pandemic. Will we clean up in time to preserve the health of human beings and the diversity of other species? Will we make the political and lifestyle changes needed to build sustainable societies that are fit for the future?

I hope that this experience of pandemic will be a big wake up call to all those living in complacency and not listening to the science. After all, scientists have been issuing warnings about the likelihood of a flu pandemic among other things for years. We need to understand just how interconnected we are globally, re-think our lifestyles, and take urgent action, not just to protect ourselves from disease but to address climate change, pollution, mass extinction and the ongoing possibility of nuclear conflict. We also need to have more urgent and serious discussions about the regulation of artificial intelligence and bio-engineering technologies.

What are your views on the recent controversy regarding the Evangelical Christian Union?

Relatively speaking, we have a tolerant society in the UK, which rightly upholds freedom of speech and protects minority groups, including both LGBTQ groups and conservative religious groups. We only act against a group when it breaks the laws of the land, including laws against hate speech. This works well because ultimately, the best way to deal with bad ideas is not to censor them or even to ridicule them, but to consistently expose their flaws in public debate. If there is one place where radical and harmful ideas ought to be exposed and challenged, surely that is a university?

It is not a new thing for evangelicals to publicly condemn homosexual acts and preach celibacy for those who are attracted to members of the same sex. They held events like this on campus when I was an undergraduate sixteen years ago. And indeed, there are many groups which preach things that others may find offensive. Being offended is part of life, and one has to develop a thick skin. This is ever truer in the age of social media. Therefore, I usually urge caution in this kind of confrontation. If the evidence shows that evangelicals are actually targeting individuals or minority groups in a way that amounts to harassment, or inciting hatred against the LGBTQ community, then those specific incidents should be reported to the police. However, if they are simply preaching their beliefs, however unpalatable and erroneous, then why not leave them to it and focus on sharing an alternative message more visibly on campus – one which clearly exposes the flaws in the evangelical position? It is easy enough to show how beliefs – such as the belief that homosexual acts are immoral – based on ‘arguments from authority’ (from supposedly divine ‘revelation’ in scripture) are impossible to support in the light of scientific evidence, historical criticism of texts, and knowledge of comparative religion and philosophy.

I don’t think it pays to be too precious about one’s ‘safe spaces’ or to ‘no-platform’ people who you strongly disagree with but who aren’t actually breaking the law. The world is a diverse and often dangerous place. All adults must rise to the challenge of that.

Having worked for many years with people of a more orthodox persuasion from a variety of faith backgrounds, I am convinced that making human connections across the divide, rather than taking a combative approach, is the best way to ease tensions and mistrust, and ultimately make progress. The university’s Multi-Faith Chaplaincy includes chaplains from orthodox, conservative and evangelical traditions, and as Humanist Chaplain, I feel a particular responsibility for emphasising what we all have in common as human beings; the desire to be free to make our own choices and to express our true selves through our personalities and talents, the desire to be respected as equal to all others, and the desire for human connections and companionship. I therefore champion the values of liberal, secular and democratic societies and their institutions (including the university), since these are, after all, Humanist values.

What are your views on Brexit?

I always supported Remain but rather than despair that we have lost, my plan is to focus on helping make this country a better place in any small way I can. There’s no point in feeding a world depression, however justifiable. It is possible that after taking a step backwards we can eventually take two steps forward. Hope is still alive!

A related issue gives me cause for greater concern. The unprecedented availability of information online was once a means of liberation for those oppressed by high-control political or religious groups but now we are deep into an ‘Age of Influence’, where harmful individuals and groups channel and exploit this information in ways that make it possible for them to control much larger numbers of people, and even more effectively. Many people in the UK no longer get their news from quality investigative journalism and peer-reviewed research but from social media hearsay, click bait and opinion-based websites and blogs that serve only to reinforce their existing prejudices. They are unable to discern which sources on the internet are reliable, and in many cases, would rather read whatever is most sensationalist.

Universities have a big part to play in helping future generations to resist these forms of indoctrination and control. They have a crucial role in nurturing young peoples’ thirst for the truth, and their ability to find it amid a sea of falsehoods. I am aware that as Humanist Chaplain, I too have a part to play in the war against fake news, fake history and online propaganda.


Dr Anastasia E. Somerville-Wong