Secular Liturgies


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Being Human: The Future of Ethical and Spiritual Leadership

Presented to the Sea of Faith ‘Being Human’ Conference on 27th of July 2022

1.   An Introduction

In my talk this afternoon, I’m going to look at the role of ethical and spiritual leaders in addressing the global challenges we face, in particular, at the need for ethical and spiritual leadership, which focuses on the universally human experiences that define human spirituality – experiences such as empathy, oneness, loving-kindness, mystery, self-transcendence and wonder – which have the potential to help us to address both our personal and global challenges. I will then explore the models of inclusive spiritual leadership and community, which I believe have the greatest potential to nurture these experiences and therefore to inspire, motivate and empower individuals and communities to create a better world for us all. This will involve confronting some of the major external and internal obstacles we face in building and sustaining inclusive and democratically-led communities.

So, let’s get started…

2.   Being Human Is Easier and Harder

Being human is both easier and harder than it has ever been: easier in that most humans today have unprecedented access to effective health care, labour-saving devices and immediate touch-of-a-button information from all around the world, but harder in that things have never been more complicated in terms of our impact on one another and the planet. The pandemic and the war in Ukraine have been stark reminders of how trouble and turmoil in one part of the world can quickly spill over to impact the rest, with often disastrous effects. We modern humans, for the first time in our species’ roughly 200,000 – 300,000-year history (depending on which definition of modern human you use) are now collectively responsible for the fate of every living thing on earth.

We are a young species in comparison to many. We have barely had time to adapt to the environments that nurtured us let alone to adapt to the great transformations to that environment which we have brought about ourselves with the agricultural and industrial revolutions. And now, still barely understanding the consequences of the age of internet and information, we are facing the prospect of fundamentally altering what it means to be human in the light of rapidly developing artificial intelligence and bioengineering.

As David Attenborough has said…

We humans, with all the naivety and frailties of our species’ youth, now find ourselves in a position where in order to survive, let alone flourish, we must somehow accelerate the pace of our rational, emotional and ethical maturing to match the pace of change brought about by the ingenuity with which we’ve been able to exploit the earth’s resources, not only to meet our immediate physical needs, but in many cases, to satisfy the excesses of our greed. We are at a pivotal moment in our history where ordinary people can still take part in defining what it means to be human in the light of inevitable technological development and can build consensus on what our purposes, goals and priorities should be as a species going forward. However, this window of opportunity may well be far smaller than we expect. We cannot afford to let our ethical considerations and associated legal and regulatory processes lag too far behind our actions and those of our neighbours. Too much is at stake.

3.   Our Global Existential Challenges

The global challenges we face, such as climate change, the toxification of land, sea and air, mass extinction and the possibility of nuclear conflict, urgently require innovative, ethical, rational and evidence-based solutions, as do the potential threats from unregulated artificial intelligence and bio-engineering technologies. We also face the spectre of exploitation by autocratic and corrupt governments and multi-billion-dollar private companies, which have ever-increasing technologies, that will enable them to survey, intimidate, exploit and control vast populations. And as if all this wasn’t enough to contend with, our human world is still blighted by grave social injustices, such as poverty, wealth inequality, gender inequality, modern slavery, corruption, violence against women and children, systemic racism and the persistence of bigotry and intolerance in all its ugly forms. 

In the UK and many other nations, we also have a loneliness epidemic, a mental health and obesity crisis, ongoing family and community breakdown, free speech and safe spaces controversies, cultural and spiritual poverty because of rampant consumerism, celebrity-worship and anti-intellectualism, religious and ideological extremism and radicalisation, and a lack of religious and worldview literacy which leaves people vulnerable to extremist groups and ideologies. We also have an epidemic of fake news, conspiracy theories, pseudoscience, pseudo-histories and nationalist myths to contend with.

We have never before had so many tools at our disposal, for forming and enhancing our connections, for meeting one another’s needs and solving the world’s problems, but all too often our technologies are set up or used in ways that serve only to pull us further apart and deepen divisions. We need to make sure, now, that we don’t end up slaves to technologies which are created to exploit our information and our emotional and cognitive weaknesses for the financial gain of technocratic or political elites. We need to make sure we don’t become subject to algorithms, which contain the implicit biases, conscious or unconscious, of those same elites who programme them. We need to make sure our technologies evolve in ways that serve humanity as a whole, and also protect non-human life, and which do so in terms of meeting not only basic needs for food, drink, movement, sleep, shelter and security, but also our higher needs for meaning and purpose, emotional connection and intimacy, community and respect, vocation and achievement, privacy and reflection, and freedom, the freedom that’s associated with having sufficient control over our own lives. Of course, anyone who takes an interest in transhumanism and human enhancement technologies will recognise that our basic and higher needs may well themselves change over time, but this too should be a process which we all have a say in directing, and we need to start having that say, now.

4.   The Role of Ethical, Philosophical and Spiritual Leaders

While governments and political movements must take the lead in rising to these challenges, and while we must all support those governments and political movements which do, the work of ethical, philosophical and spiritual leaders should not be underestimated. Community leaders who persevere in the struggle for reason, kindness and social justice without party-political affiliation, and often in the face of considerable adversity, keep society awake to the full extent of the problems and challenges we face. They may at times be the only people left to prevent us from sleepwalking into the next fascist dystopia. They shape public opinion and help us to hold those in political power to account. They invite us to connect with like-minded people, so that budding and potential activists and pioneers from all walks of life receive the support they need to flourish and become the next generation of leaders and reformers. Ethical and spiritual leaders can create communities where all individuals, whatever their abilities and talents, can become part of the solution to the world’s problems. Even where these communities are small, they have the potential to punch well above their weight in terms of influence, and as anthropologist and broadcaster Margaret Mead famously said, “Never underestimate the power of a small group of committed people to change the world. In fact, it is the only thing that ever has.”

What we need are ethical and spiritual leaders who define spirituality inclusively and provide inclusive spiritual leadership for diverse communities (as well as inclusive spiritual care for individuals) as we navigate both our personal trials and tribulations and the complexities of the modern world. What we need are people who have a passion for grappling with thorny ethical questions and working out as best as they can, what it might mean to live a good life and build a good society in our time; and who are equally passionate about nurturing spiritual and reflective practices that reinforce this vision. I’m not talking about clergy necessarily or people who see themselves as particularly spiritual – and perhaps the less said about those the better – but rather people who are committed to ethical and spiritual growth and who take a keen interest in nurturing the ethical and spiritual potential of others. What we need are people who rise above their labels and affiliations to embrace the skills, talents and insights of a wide range of people, cultures, faiths and philosophical traditions. What we need are people with the humility to accept they may be wrong at times and to own and learn from their mistakes.

One of the things great ethical, philosophical and spiritual leaders of the past (a few of whom are pictured) have in common is their open-mindedness and open-heartedness. They reached across boundaries of gender, class, ethnicity, culture, sexual orientation and religion to shake the hand of anyone who shared their commitment to upholding universal human dignity and human rights. They understood the frailties of the human condition and the interdependence of all living things, and so while they stood out as individuals, they nonetheless sought collaborative and democratic models of leadership. Aware of their own weaknesses and failings, they saw the need for us all to hold one other accountable, and they understood that people only grow and develop in character, spirituality and ethical commitment when they reside in community. We cannot grow in isolation, where we are rarely tested and where we all too easily delude ourselves into thinking we are lovelier and more delightful people than we really are.

Many great ethical and spiritual leaders came from faith and belief communities, but unlike most senior clergy and heads of religion, they had the ability to transcend the dogmatism, tribalism and many of the superstitious aspects of their traditions to better appreciate the nuances and mythologies of other faiths, to better appreciate the oneness and interdependence of humanity and to better appreciate the role of reason and science in understanding the world and achieving progress. Therefore, I would argue that today we need a similar approach but taken a step further as befits our time; an approach which nurtures communities that are even more inclusive because they welcome people of all religious and nonreligious worldviews; a humanistic and universalist approach which goes beyond ecumenism and beyond interfaith. For me, this approach means having eyes wide open to the beauties and horrors of the world and facing this reality with honesty and courage. It means having the humility to accept that we cannot make rigid claims to know more than can be proven or demonstrated with reason, science and rigorous scholarship. It means striving to live an ethical life driven by empathy and compassion for all. It means championing human rights, human flourishing and the wellbeing of the earth and all its creatures. Humanism means engaging in a life-time of responsible free-thinking, critical scholarship and the examination of our own assumptions and unconscious bias. It means engaging in the messy reality of human affairs with the determination to build a kinder, more reasonable society. 

This humanistic approach has both emerged from and been adopted to varying degrees by the progressive religious reform movements and progressive wings of various religious denominations such as the Unitarians, Universalists, Quakers, Humanistic Jews, Secular Buddhists and many others. We therefore have shared roots, though you wouldn’t think it sometimes given the poor attitudes to cooperation and petty rivalries and prejudices that go on between some of the people in these groups! However, many progressive and humanistic groups have demonstrated how we can create space within a humanistic framework for inclusion and respect for the wide-ranging and changeable beliefs of individuals. For example, most of these groups welcome agnostics, atheists and people with various conceptions of God or divinity, whether it be pantheism, panentheism, mysticism or literary concepts of god as metaphor or personification of some of the spiritual experiences, visions, insights and goals that we have. And while traditional theists with more conservative religious beliefs might feel themselves at odds with these groups, they are usually nonetheless welcomed to events and gatherings and are able to express their beliefs openly. It is only through open dialogue in genuinely caring community that people can truly come to understand the perspectives and values that underpin one another’s beliefs and where we can learn to live with integrity, which is when our lived experiences, values, beliefs and actions are in harmony rather than in contradiction.

Humanist groups such as Humanists UK, often express the importance of thinking for yourself and acting for everyone, but many individual Humanists do not promote the idea of doing this as part of a community because they are understandably wary of communities and all the things that can go wrong with them, such as ‘group think’, conformism, dogmatism, leader-worship, mass hysteria, tribalism and hostility towards outsiders. However, while it may at times be easier for people to think for themselves when they are outside groups and communities, the likelihood that such individuals will consistently act altruistically or in ways that benefit us all is somewhat low. An individualism, however beneficent in intention, cannot successfully instil principles in society, or in the very young, or empower us collectively to reach mutually beneficial goals. It isn’t enough for progressive-minded people just to quietly vote for the most ethical party (which let’s face it, is often the best of a bad bunch); it isn’t enough to meet occasionally to put the world to rights over a drink in the pub or a game of frisbee in the park, or to give themselves the occasional injection of culture at a library, museum or concert hall. It takes rather more to meet the human need for connection, and to educate, motivate, inspire and encourage us to take the actions that are necessary to meet the challenges we face as a species.

Most people with noble intentions who get involved in politics, campaigning and activism – and indeed pioneering roles in many other areas of life – have been nurtured and supported at least to some extent by being part of a non-political belief or faith community, and this includes many Humanists of course. There aren’t that many people who have the confidence, means or opportunities to develop outside of community and to go it alone. “Join a political party!”, some may say, but political parties and organisations often have critical weaknesses associated with their quest for political power. We need ethical and spiritual communities precisely because they are independent from political processes and do not have to make so many compromises. We need ethical and spiritual communities where we can find belonging and the resources we need for self-actualisation and where we can connect to purposes, narratives and goals beyond ourselves, beyond our immediate families, and beyond our political parties, political ideologies and national mythologies (that’s the level of self-transcendence we really need). 

The majority of religious communities, of course, have historically combined nobler spiritual goals with ruthless quests for political power, and in doing so became ruling parties themselves, or embedded themselves in secular governance as king-maker priests, and even in some cases, such as the Roman Catholic Church, rivalled native ruling parties across multiple borders. In contrast, one of the fundamental principles and goals of progressive and humanistic communities should always be to remain separate from the state and to refrain from seeking political power, while nonetheless holding political powers to account.

Let’s look just a little more closely at how we should define spirituality in this context…

5.   Spirituality Defined Broadly

Humanists and progressives do not use the word ‘spirituality’ to refer only or even primarily to what people perceive to be experiences or encounters with a supernatural being, beings or forces, though these experiences do still form an important part of many people’s understanding of what it means to be spiritual. Instead, they use the term in a much broader sense, which applies to those who have no belief in the supernatural as much as it applies to those who do. Humanistic and progressive communities are those which attend to the universal experiences that define human spirituality, and which are common to all humans whether we are religious or nonreligious. 

As some of you may know, I have outlined the various aspects of this kind of spirituality in an article on my blog, so I won’t go into great detail here, but to summarise, your spirituality is your ability to connect with the things that give life meaning, purpose and joy. Growing in spirituality is like learning to play an instrument; the more you practice the better you get. Ultimately, spirituality is the creation and renewal of meaning in life. It is about attending to the inner life; our innermost thoughts and feelings, our personal stories and character, and our collective stories, identities, heritages and cultures. It is about connecting meaningfully with one another using wisdom and empathy. It is about expressing and refining our creativity, ingenuity and art-forms, and taking inspiration from the works of others in turn. It is about appreciating the awe-inspiring beauty and complexity of the universe and understanding our place within it. It is about finding purpose in a vocation, and in causes far greater than ourselves, such as social justice, human rights and environmental repair. It means maintaining fidelity to core beliefs and values while also being willing to question them and allowing them to evolve. Spirituality requires that we maintain a growth mentality, and a life-long commitment to truth-seeking, through open-mindedness, openheartedness, critical scholarship, reflective practice and mindfulness.

These aspects of spirituality, when nurtured and developed, have the potential to help us to address both our personal and global challenges because they inspire compassion and cooperation. They emphasise the importance of critical thinking and truth, the importance of ethical reflection and dialogue, the benefits of character development and a society in which we care for each other. They nurture wonder, curiosity, exploration and creative problem-solving, and they inspire activism, fuelling efforts to save the planet. It is this kind of spiritual leadership that I believe is so essential for societies today.

6.   Secularisation and the Irrelevance of Today’s Spiritual Leaders

However, many of our so-called spiritual leaders, and the institutions they represent, are woefully out-of-date in their ethics and approach, and have been for decades, and yes, I am talking about religious leaders, like these (image on slide), who as you see, are relics from a bygone age, and I’m talking about their ideas, not just their clothes (not to mention that an alarming number of them have been implicated in the cover up of child sexual abuse). The vast majority (with one or two exceptions) would not make it onto my earlier slide of social reformers, and it’s the social reformers, not the clerics, who have always been the real ethical and spiritual leaders.

Consequently, many religious leaders, for example in the UK, are heeded and respected by only a very small and rapidly diminishing proportion of the population, in spite of their continued privileged access to the media. This is especially the case in Europe but secularisation is also continuing at breakneck pace in many other parts of the world. Even in the USA, where we hear a great deal about faith in public life and where Evangelical Christians still hold on to disproportionate wealth, power and privilege, the younger generations are rapidly moving towards more liberal beliefs and secular lifestyles, with generational replacement being a key driver of secularisation. According to Pew Research, Gallup polls and other measures, religious affiliation is very much in decline in the US with churchgoing having dropped from 70% to under 50% since the start of the 21st Century, while atheists, agnostics and the nonreligious now represent at least a quarter of the population.

Even in parts of the Islamic world, where it is still socially unacceptable to be nonreligious, where openly nonreligious people such as Humanists are still imprisoned, tortured and killed under oppressive religious laws and regimes, and where people are in consequence, very rarely open about their lack of faith, there are still signs of increasing numbers of people turning their backs on religion, with more ex-Muslims and liberal or non-traditional Muslims gaining higher profiles and followings online and books by atheist and agnostic authors gaining increasing interest in Islamic countries, including works by ex-Muslims and books by eminent scientists such as Richard Dawkins. Indeed, the unofficial Arabic pdf of Dawkins’ book, ‘The God Delusion’, had been downloaded more than 13m times by 2018, prompting the author to respond with a programme to make free downloads of his books available in Arabic, Urdu, Farsi and Indonesian. These are signs perhaps of private, if not public, doubt and scepticism, or at the very least a curiosity great enough to brave potential punishment or social disapprobation if found or reported to be reading such books.

And so, with the decline of faith and belief affiliations in many parts of the world, with the ever-present threat of fundamentalist, exclusivist and dogmatic forms of religion which still have their strongholds, in addition to the huge burden of global challenges and a worldwide epidemic of loneliness and isolation, our need for dynamic and sustainable models of progressive ethical and spiritual leadership, fit for the 21st Century and beyond, has never been more urgent. While it is true that secular and democratic nations have soared to the top of the pile in terms of equality and happiness measures and have remained there consistently on account of their grounding in human rights and their strong commitment to social welfare – and while they have therefore proven that organised religion is not required for human flourishing – and may even be an obstacle in some respects – they still fall short in terms of being able to avert the existential threats to humanity already outlined here. We can learn a lot from countries like Finland, Denmark and Sweden but we must also aim higher. We need spiritual leaders and communities that actually do lead society on ethical issues rather than outdated religious leaders and communities, which refuse or struggle to keep up!

Let’s have a closer look for a moment at the British context in terms of the decline of religious affiliation. British Social Attitudes Surveys and YouGov polls show that 52% British population have no religious affiliation, and research by leading academics in this field such as Professor Linda Whitehead in Sociology at the University of Lancaster, have revealed that levels of religious practice are even lower. More than 72% of 17-24-year-olds are also without religious affiliation, and like in the US, generational replacement is a key driver of secularisation, in spite of the best efforts of Roman Catholic and Church of England schools to indoctrinate our children with Christian beliefs and practices.

While only 5% of the UK population are Humanists, the movement is now mainstream with many high-profile members and patrons of Humanists UK and a much wider audience than the membership, on account of the organisation’s cutting-edge public lectures, talks, and publications, its widespread network of wedding, funeral and naming celebrants and its highly skilled network of pastoral carers and chaplains in hospitals, prisons and universities. We know that somewhere between 20 and 30% of the population now share the humanistic worldview, indicating that many people are Humanists without affiliation or without awareness that there is a name for their worldview. Additionally, many people, including people in the Sea of Faith network no doubt, are progressive or humanistic in their religious expressions, and will have much more in common with Humanists than with the more conservative wings of their own faiths or denominations. There are certainly signs of a growing ‘coalition of the reasonable’ across many and diverse faith, belief, cultural and ethnic groups and organisations.

There are of course many nuances and complexities hidden within the statistics on faith and belief, and I see this every day in my role as a chaplain. For example, many people who claim a religious affiliation are actually humanistic or universalist in worldview but identify culturally or ethnically with a religion, and conversely, many who claim no religious affiliation still have a various superstitious beliefs and beliefs in supernatural beings or forces. While only a small number of the latter actually engage in religious or religion-like practices, there are some growing movements, including among the young, such as pagan religiosity of various kinds, as we’ve seen with WitchTok and the growth in Witch, Wiccan and other Pagan social media influencers.

It is also important to note that many people these days have layered and multiple faith and belief identities, partly due to an increase in cultural and ethnic diversity and an increase in interfaith-marriage, and partly, or perhaps primarily, because it is now socially acceptable to choose your own independent spiritual path and because communities of faith and belief and information about these is far more accessible now than it used to be. You can now go online and join a community the other side of the world if you don’t find your perfect fit here! Many people simply come across more than one faith, philosophy or belief system which appeals to them, and they often come up with their own interpretation of these that suits their particular cultural context or core values.

Interestingly, the majority of my patients and the staff and students I meet in my work, are open to aspects of all faith and belief traditions, though they almost always add the caveat that they draw the line at elements of those faiths that are explicitly prejudicial in some way (and also elements that are implicitly prejudicial in the case of the more perceptive among them) when it comes to gender, sexuality, race and so forth. They are very aware of the harm done by organised religion and talk about it at length, but while they are reluctant to affiliate as a result, they are nonetheless open to the spiritual insights of all traditions.

I am particularly aware of people’s sceptical and suspicious attitudes towards organised religion because of how often and easily I am dismissed on introduction because people assume a chaplain is a Christian minister with either an overt or covert agenda to proselytise, or at the very least, a tendency to talk about God in an intrusive manner. Hostility towards religion is understandable given the history of oppression and abuse by religious authorities, and religious institutions have been out of step with public opinion on ethical issues (LGBTQ+, women’s rights etc.) for decades, including I might add the majority opinion of their own congregations. In addition to this, there is now little perceived need of religious leaders, since secular welfare states have largely replaced religious charities, science has provided a more complete and evidence-based explanation of how we came to be, and it is now, unusually in the history of humanity, socially acceptable to be progressive or nonreligious. 

We live in an increasingly multi-worldview, multicultural and pluralistic society. Whether we like it or not, the only thing holding us together, and the only thing capable of holding us together, are common values. We are enormously diverse when it comes to culture. This doesn’t mean that with the decline of religion our ethical and spiritual communities have to become blandly uniform or that they will have to take on a sort of global Western liberal culture. On the contrary, we should celebrate and encourage the emergence of multiple progressive and humanistic communities that preserve the distinct cultures, traditions, histories and heritages of their peoples even if in modified, reinterpreted and repurposed forms. The Humanistic Jews I think are a great example of how this can be achieved successfully. While some communities will be very secular in character because they emerge from non-religious populations, others will be very religious in character, and a few, like some Unitarian churches and interfaith centres, will try to incorporate many traditions into their gatherings, calendars and events. We must remember that our common values and universal human rights have been struggled for at different times in almost every culture and part of the world. It is simply not right to claim they are Western values, as some have claimed in order to dismiss or discredit them in the eyes of the West’s political enemies, and in order to promote their own illiberal agendas.

People often don’t realise that secularisation is a change more great and rapid than the Reformation! It has freed millions people from religious oppression, abuse and censorship. However, alongside the move to online communities, which simply aren’t fulfilling human need in the same way as local face-to-face community and which moreover bring out the worst in people rather than supporting them to connect more meaningfully, secularisation may have exacerbated some of the problems we now face, where support that once came from local churches has not yet been fully or adequately replaced by state institutions. Our states are ill equipped, unable and often unwilling to fill this gap. Only inclusive ethical and spiritual communities have the potential to do so.

So let’s start looking at some of the models that these communities might follow and some of the internal and external challenges they face…

7.   An Age of Activism

Firstly, I need to emphasise that we are now living in an age of activism. The vast majority of modern Europeans, and increasingly many more of the world’s peoples, just aren’t interested in old ecclesiastical traditions, denominations, outdated theological dogma and social conservatism. However, they are interested in universal and inclusive understandings of human spirituality and spiritual experiences. They are interested in ethical and philosophical questioning and debate. They are interested in social justice, environmental justice, wellbeing, community-building and activism.

So, if in your community, however progressive its philosophy, there is an expectation for people to spend a lot of time and money learning about your tradition, studying theology and so forth before they can become involved – and I mean fully involved in leading, speaking and contributing in all sorts of creative ways – you really have a problem which is only going to get worse. If your organisations are not reaching out to young people and embracing the interests and technologies of the times, your denomination or movement, however progressive its philosophy, will continue to decline out of existence, probably in the space of only a generation or two. It is the unwillingness of progressive groups to work together, learn from each other and listen to what younger people want and need which is bringing about their decline and which in some cases will leave a vacuum where high-control and fundamentalist groups and cults may even appear more appealing to the youthful and naive.

The leadership of Humanistic and progressive groups must place greater trust in younger generations, let go of all the strings they’ve attached to their buildings and practices and instead welcome young people and the change that they bring. They must refrain from gate-keeping by means of nepotism and by creating endless obstacles and hoops for new people to jump through. Simple competency models that take transferrable skills into account would be a far more effective and fair way of recruiting voluntary and paid participants. They must come to terms with the fact that no one is interested in old ecclesiastical traditions and identities anymore. They are only of interest to niche historians, people who have grown up in your denomination or sect or who happen to have been a member of it for 30 years or so. I understand that there is a process of mourning to be undertaken in some denominations around this, and that is absolutely understandable, but it mustn’t hold them back from moving forward. It is time to accept those depressing statistics, to admit that the current models of faith and belief community are not working and are no longer fit for purpose.

8.   A Declining Congregational Model

When I came to the realisation that religious communities were not modernising enough, or at all in some cases, I became curious about nonreligious and humanistic communities led by agnostic and atheist ministers. I went along to a few of their gatherings and found their creative and thoughtfully choreographed services incredibly refreshing, often deeply moving and more inclusive than anywhere I had been previously. They were a step forward, having managed to free themselves from outdated traditions and even from some of the red tape of their parent denominations. Best of all, there were none of those painful and cringe-worthy moments of Christian exclusivism, or where out of mindless habit, passages of scripture would be read, hymns sung or liturgy reeled off containing implicitly sexist or racist stories, messages and language, in the midst of an otherwise enlightened and progressive framework.

However, I still felt somewhat uncomfortable with the congregational model, especially with its one-man-ministry style of leadership, which depends too much on the charisma and public speaking abilities of one person (and yes, while there are some women doing this, it does still tend to be male dominated even in progressive circles). Even with the checks and balances of their associated institutions, such as the unitarians, universalists or ethical union, it still felt a little too close to the age-old charismatic leader model from which cults and most religions have sprung. It wasn’t so much that I suspected these leaders and congregations would rapidly degenerate into cults and high-control groups, but more that this reliance on one person would make that a real risk for these communities in the longer term, and would also result in a series of ‘flash in the pan’ movements that are not sustainable or capable of real growth and development over generations, since these communities tend to last only as long as their charismatic leaders.

I also started hearing increasingly from colleagues, friends, students, staff and people more widely, in conversations about spirituality and community, that while progressive faith and nonreligious congregations were somewhat intriguing and might make an interesting one-off experience, there was very little interest or enthusiasm for joining such a congregation. This is because of concerns like mine about charismatic men preaching and teaching (even if they are teaching progressive and humanist ethics and philosophy). There was also a perceived lack of openness to people with all sorts of different beliefs including superstitious and supernatural beliefs, and a perceived lack of ethnic and class diversity in their leadership among other things. I’m using the word “perceived” here because even though these communities are open to all, there are inevitably cultural factors which are indirectly excluding of people from, for example, working class and ethnic minority backgrounds, many of which the leadership won’t even be conscious of or able to do much about, and this in addition to self-censorship such as certain groups of people thinking “it’s not for the likes of us”. Progressive faith congregations, in spite of various efforts and drives to increase diversity, are still overwhelmingly white, middle class and elderly.

Some of the nonreligious congregations are doing better in attracting young people and greater cultural and ethnic diversity. The Sunday Assemblies, for example, though passed the height of their appeal, continue to be successful in attracting youth in prime urban centres like London and New York. However, they have experienced considerable decline outside those centres. There were 48 Assemblies in 2019 and now there are only 19 active Assemblies, 13 dormant and 2 starter groups (no doubt having been hit hard by the pandemic it remains to be see whether they can gather momentum again). They are only sustainable where populations are large enough that there will be enough people who like that sort of thing to sustain a community and enough high-profile leaders, speakers, musicians and performers to draw upon to keep those people interested. Many people find them too much like secular versions of evangelical churches, accusing them of superficiality and trendiness, and for the central role played by charismatic musicians and speakers. After all, the Sunday Assemblies were started by former evangelicals, Sanderson Jones, and an old classmate of mine, Pippa Evans, who were glad to be free from religious dogma but were missing aspects of Christian worship such as regular exciting gatherings, with passionate communal singing, rousing talks and lots of youthful social interaction. However, in spite of cynicism from some quarters, they are doing better than many of the progressive congregations.

My overriding feeling was that these congregational set-ups were too limiting. Some will thrive for a time under an appealing minister – especially an attractive one – and then decline with the loss of that person. So, while they may still have a place – even if a transient one – something more sustainable is needed. We need more democratic models, which will outlast any one individual but which still maintain the dynamism and excitement that charismatic speakers can bring. None of the progressive religious or nonreligious organisations seem to have carried out an extensive consultation out in the wider society to ask what people would like as an inclusive solution to the lack of community, community breakdown and endemic loneliness and isolation. However, it seems clear from talking to a wide range of people and groups that the current offering is not meeting the need and therefore not viable in the long term. And as for the Humanist local groups associated with the Humanist national movements, while these are not congregations as such, they are still attempts at building community but they vary enormously in terms of how active they are and what they provide, and they tend to come and go with even greater facility as their leaders come and go.

We need a model that not only provides a life-long local community bigger than each person’s individual friends and family, so that it has some permanence and is there whatever happens to us in our lives, therefore providing a sense of security, but which also continues over generations. With congregations, their strength is their independence from public institutions and their ability to act as critical friends to wider society and the powers that be but this strength is only useful if it is sustainable. They also have the benefit of central, uplifting and dedicated spaces for reflection and gathering, and with the decline of the high street and with the Church of England and other denominations having to sell of their properties due to decline, it seems an opportune moment to secure even more space, but they have not the means to expand within, let alone beyond, their current sites. However, even if a congregation only attracts a few local activists and radicals it can have a disproportionate impact on the wider community by helping to support and empower those key people. We can also benefit from a mixture of models that complement each other since there is no one-size-fits-all model, and I certainly don’t want to downplay the advantages of having Humanist and progressive congregations in large urban centres. However, these congregations must find ways of making sure women and minorities are proportionately represented in their leadership or they will have the same issues with abuse, racism and misogyny that blights the conservative communities. This is something they rarely achieve, and in general, I just don’t think the public will ever really trust the congregational model again. The fact it has failed over a long period to succeed in smaller places bears this out. It simply demands too much of one person. 

Humanist clergyman, James Frey Croft, soon-to-be-stepping-down leader for eight years of The Ethical Society of St Louis, defines the role of clergy as follows…

“1. We represent a tradition to the world. We are, ideally, living embodiments of our religious or spiritual worldview. We are avatars of a particular perspective on life. This is a heavy burden, because it means we are never not working: everything we do may be seen as a reflection on our community and our tradition.

2. We identify the emotional needs within a community and speak to them. We try to figure out what our community needs to feel, and then seek to engender that feeling through our words and deeds. This is very difficult, because what a community needs is often various and tough to discern.

3. We provide opportunities for our members to deepen their relationships with each other and their relationship with the tradition we represent. We succeed when we help them know each other better, and live more in accord with the values of the tradition.

4. We mobilize our members in service of our tradition’s values. We try to get them to take action, collectively, to move the world closer to our vision of how it should be. This is the activism piece.

5. We help people through life. When things are hard, we try to remind people what’s most important and how they can reorient themselves toward their highest values.”

While I much admire James’s work, and while this vision for clergy is admirable, I believe these points also illustrate the impossibility of the task for any one person. This role is based on the role of religious clergy, and so carries forward all their weaknesses as much as their strengths. It requires what I call the ‘priestly’ and ‘prophetic’ talents, the priestly talents being the ability to care sensitively for individuals and build community around rituals, seasons and gatherings and the prophetic talents being the ability to read the times, issue warnings and ‘speak truth to power’. Many people are simply much better at one aspect of this role than another, and very few people are good at both or have time to develop in all these areas, at least not in the particular ways expected by their congregants. So, for example, one clergy-person might be an excellent writer and pastoral carer, thus covering both priestly and prophetic roles to some degree, but they may be a poor public speaker or poor master of ceremonies. Another may be a really inspiring public speaker but lack the emotional intelligence or interpersonal skills to be a good pastoral and spiritual carer. I have certainly known many clergy like this over the years from denominations spanning all the major faith and belief traditions. It is simply a fact that too much was and is expected of them. And furthermore, it is most definitely true that one person cannot themselves provide, or even independently arrange for others to provide, sufficient care for everyone in a community or raise awareness of all the social and ethical issues that need to be raised.

I understand that many churches and organisations have teams and that many ministers think of themselves as working within teams rather than independently, but the reality is that they are expected by congregations to lead in all these areas, and they are held responsible for not doing so adequately. Occasionally, more than one minister or a group of elders in a community get together on an equal footing to run a church or other religious establishment but these mostly end up splitting, with congregations dividing in all sorts of traumatic and acrimonious ways. Meanwhile, churches with rigid hierarchical structures tend to become corrupt and abusive because of the concentration of power at the top, where leaders are too far removed to understand let alone meet the needs and expectations of their congregants.

I would argue that it is because of the failings of this congregational model that most progressive faith and belief organisations are also in decline. Some congregations claim to have a growing influence through an online following, but again, online communities can lull congregations into a false sense of security. Such communities are often very superficial, fickle and changeable, with many members not being engaged regularly and not contributing enough financially to preserve the very services they are enjoying from a distance. And online communities can barely begin to meet people’s needs in comparison to real-life ones.

9.   The Solution

While there is, therefore, still a place for some Unitarian, Universalist, Progressive, Ethical Culture and Sunday Assembly congregations in the world’s largest urban centres, where there is always going to be a large enough pool from which to draw the right kind of charismatic leaders and enough adherents to make it sustainable, I am now convinced that the congregational model is no longer fit for purpose more widely than that and is not even ideal for those urban centres. I’m going to argue that our energies would be far better focused on the following three areas: 

Firstly, we must build, reform and expand upon a multifaith and belief chaplaincy model of spiritual leadership and care, which is embedded within state and private institutions. Secondly, we must combine this model with independent local social enterprises focused on ethics, spirituality, philosophy, wellbeing, community and activism, which have premises central to every town, and which remain outside state institutions. And thirdly, we must create sites and trails of multifaith and belief retreat and pilgrimage, which link ethical and spiritual growth to place, cultural identities and heritages.

10. Independent and Inclusive Social Enterprises

The social enterprise model would largely replace the congregational model and could also field chaplains to institutions. It would take the form of an elected board of directors, possibly a figurehead, such as a President for ceremonial purposes, and many specialist leaders and teachers giving talks, leading workshops and engaging in activism. These enterprises could be charities with ethical commercial arms, or they could be community interest companies.

The social enterprise model would solve the problem of continuity, since a board of directors can be very diverse and many different types of people can be elected to it. It also means that power would no longer be concentrated in one person or a distant elite, and yet, it still allows space for charismatic and inspiring speakers to lead events on a regular basis. It just does not bestow unnecessary power on any one particular person. This model is also extremely adaptable to the talents, skills and resources available in any particular locality, which is crucial for such communities to thrive beyond the world’s major urban centres and for them to proliferate within them. However, rather than just being like a community centre, there would be a strong focus on inclusive spirituality, ethical engagement and activism. They would, importantly, be independent from state institutions, and therefore more able to make constructive criticism of state and society as a critical friend, and freer to offer social commentary and openly discuss controversial ethical issues. They would also keep the spiritual focus on ethics, activism and social reform, inspiring the kinds of leaders I suggested were the truly spiritual ones, and away from the selfish, individualistic and insular forms of piety that so many congregations fall into.

Some might have titles like ‘The Ethical and Philosophical Society of…(Wherever)’ or ‘The (Wherever) Centre for Ethics, Spirituality and Activism’ or perhaps something inspired by local history, and people would be able to access seasonal events and celebrations, reflective gatherings and wellbeing groups without cost, as well as having access to classes in more specialised subjects, which might be low cost or subsidised by donations and grants. Like congregations, they will vary, reflecting the culture and traditions of the people who establish them. 

Further advantages to this model are that many more and diverse minds will be involved in the centres’ direction and strategy. There would also be far more scope to involve experts from multiple fields and therefore to interest and cater for many more people in any given district. For example, while one person might come along every other day to socialise in the hall or café and attend a weekly meditation class, another might choose to attend the occasional public lecture and have a monthly massage. Thus, these centres would take a holistic approach to the person rather than only focusing on a weekly gathering. It would be less likely to become ideological or dogmatic because of its inclusion of a broad, collaborative leadership base, and the reflective experiences available to people would be much more varied, so that no one would have to look elsewhere for ritual or music or for silence and stillness.

These social enterprises can also take full advantage of ideal community sizes to suit different people, since some people might find their need for social connection met in a particular small group or workshop activity and by attending the occasional talk or performance with a friend or two, while the more gregarious among us would be free to form connections across the full range of groups and activities and to attend large reflective gatherings, whole community celebrations and activist demonstrations. Also, international connections and partnerships could be made with overseas communities. There would of course have to be a multifaith and belief approach to the calendar and nature of reflective gatherings and ceremonies, which as I explained requires a humanistic framework of shared values and goals in order for it to work. And in order to lift people’s mood and attention to higher things, founders would need to create beautiful reflective spaces for these centres. Centres like this could also sustain wider communities in more remote or rural areas by offering training and resources for small groups and gatherings.

In terms of weaknesses specific to this model, there is only the issue of a more democratic set up being slower at times to make decisions or change direction when necessary. However, much of this comes down to the rules and regulations people put in place in their particular locality, and in fact, many one-man ministries are hidebound by the rules, regulations and red tape of the organisations they represent. There is also the ever-present challenge of forming connections across the deeply entrenched social divides already existing in wider society. People are always inclined to gravitate to those similar to themselves and since most initiatives like this are started by middle class educated people, they often attract the same sorts which in turn puts off other people from taking part. It’s why equality, diversity and inclusion must be considered right from the start and if possible, it should start with the founding team. It would be a pity for new initiatives to fall into the same trap as the older organisations which have struggled and largely failed to diversify their memberships, but I think the diversity of the offering, and the chance to dip a toe in rather than have to attend a weekly service with the whole community present, could well be exactly the thing to coax the wary and reluctant to take part.

Before I go on to explore the multifaith chaplaincy model, it’s worth considering the continued and expanding role of…

11. Sites of Retreat and Trails of Pilgrimage

There have been significant increases in people going on pilgrimages and attending retreats in recent years, no doubt because of a yearning to connect to the earth in its time of distress and to connect with each other in times when we have felt most disconnected. The interesting thing about this is that it’s not simply because religious people are experiencing a renewal of their faith but that many nonreligious people are taking part in order to reflect for themselves on the meaning and purpose of their lives and on their values, beliefs and priorities. We have seen with the BBC series’ showing groups of celebrities on pilgrimage how pilgrimage can offer people of all faith and belief persuasions the chance to reflect on what’s important to them, to share and discuss this and learn from others who have different perspectives, while enjoying the very bonding experience of traveling, eating and sleeping under the same roof together, and of sharing unusual, often once-in-a-lifetime experiences.

Some of the most profound experiences and vivid memories in my own life were formed in places such as Iona, that have long received pilgrims and been home to spiritual communities, and often spiritual communities that were welcoming in ways that were ahead of their times. The Iona Community, for example, was founded by George MacLeod in ways that were liberal and ecumenical at a time when religious bigotry and sectarian were rife. There is still a place for these ecumenical and interfaith communities with wider followings of associate members and friends, with Iona, Taize and others maintaining their core membership and still attracting large numbers of visitors. They have longevity on account of their association with a place and its history. However, there is also a need for those who have moved beyond ecumenism to a multifaith and belief model to create more up-to-date pilgrimages and retreats. It may well be that the kind of spiritual communities I’m advocating for, might form more easily on retreats and pilgrimages, centred on a particular place or places. It has long been a dream of mine to establish a multifaith and belief pilgrimage in the South West but my earlier plans for one in 2019 were thwarted by the pandemic. The perennial problem of course for endeavours like this, is of course securing funding, and convincing people of the benefits of this kind of work.

12. Multifaith and Belief Chaplaincies

So, we have a vision here for spiritual social enterprises and multifaith pilgrimage trails and retreat sites. The final piece of the puzzle are the multifaith chaplaincies. Social enterprises maintain their independence, but chaplains on the other hand, work in hospitals, mental health, prisons, the military, schools, universities, and for the police, ambulance and other emergency services. They are embedded within (and often employed by) institutions and so are bound by their rules, which is both empowering and limiting. It is empowering in that chaplains come alongside people where they work and live and spend most of their waking lives, and because they can get involved in shaping those institutions on boards of governance, staff networks and ethics committees, with the potential to influence large numbers of people as a result. However, it can be limiting in that chaplains may find it difficult in practice to be a critical friend to their institutions when institutional injustices occur. They may find it harder to call out wrongdoing and advocate for the oppressed and marginalised if their own positions may be threatened by doing so.

This is why it is important to combine multifaith chaplaincies with independent social enterprises, so that plenty of ethical and spiritual leaders remain independent of institutions, and chaplains themselves will benefit also from having more than one allegiance, if they remain formerly accredited by external faith/belief organisations in addition to being employed by the institutions they work for. Many chaplains are still paid by their faith/belief traditions of course, which is not ideal, since it perpetuates inequalities where some faiths or denominations have the means to field chaplains and others do not, often for historical and outdated reasons, which do not reflect levels of affiliation in the wider population.

As a chaplain myself, my particular passion is for making the highest standards of inclusive spiritual care available to all, equally, everywhere. Our institutions are often good at meeting our basic physical needs, but they have less time and fewer resources to address our higher needs for meaning and purpose. The latter are often considered a luxury once our basic needs have been met, but the reality is that it’s our higher needs that motivate us to get out of bed each morning and attend to our basic needs in the first place. Pastoral and spiritual care is about helping people, often when they are in difficult and painful circumstances, to connect to the things that give their lives meaning, purpose and joy, and we facilitate this by listening, by being non-judgmental and compassionate company, by creating space for people to speak and to reflect on their own situations, by offering the perspectives of other minds (our own and perhaps the insights of other thinkers), by signposting and advocacy, and by facilitating a wide range of reflective, creative and therapeutic practices, rituals, gatherings and ceremonies. 

In many settings, chaplains have an educational and awareness-raising role through publications, public speaking and other media. They are well placed to raise ethical issues with management, to facilitate ethical and interfaith/belief engagement and dialogue more widely in an institution, and to speak out publicly about issues of social justice, environment and sustainability, human rights, wellbeing and social issues, corporate social responsibility and issues of faith/belief discrimination, fundamentalism, extremism and radicalisation. They have a responsibility to advocate for marginalised and oppressed groups among staff or service users and for any individuals experiencing bullying, harassment or discrimination, and to promote equality, diversity and inclusion more generally. Chaplains are also called upon to mediate and engage with the media in times of crisis and controversy. Like clergy, therefore, chaplains are often expected to fulfil both ‘priestly’ and ‘prophetic’ roles, and many of the traditional clergy-chaplains like to think they can do this, but again, the reality is that most of them are better at some aspects of the role than others or good at some and poor at others. The benefit of multifaith chaplaincy set-ups is that there can be teams large and diverse enough to provide not just a wide base of faith and belief knowledge and associated cultural content, but also a broad range of talents, skills and ethical knowledge and interests, and the potential for greater specialisation and development in key aspects of the work.

However, the greatest obstacle to overcome in realising this model is that while much lip service is paid to equality, diversity and inclusion at senior levels and in documentation, the overwhelming majority of UK chaplaincies simply are not multifaith in any real or deep sense, and show very little sign of wanting to open up and include people of other faiths and beliefs. In fact, discrimination is widespread, even where it blatantly contravenes the Equality Act, and teams where lead chaplains or chaplaincy coordinators (the vast majority of whom are Christian and indeed Anglican), are inclusive both in word and deed, are very few and far between. I have heard countless stories of discrimination and even abuse from those who have tried to join chaplaincy teams or had to leave them, many from my own nonreligious network but also from minority faith and belief groups, and as a result I am currently leading a working group looking at what can be done to address these issues.

Another critical issue chaplaincies face is that they need to connect service users with communities outside institutions in order to meet their social and spiritual needs in the longer term. There needs to be fully integrated and continuous pastoral and spiritual care throughout the life course. This is very difficult, given the lack of demonstrably safe and inclusive communities. In many parts of the country, it is impossible to suggest or recommend a faith or belief community without concerns about how inclusive, welcoming and even safe those groups are, especially for vulnerable people. Spiritual leadership needs therefore, more than ever, to be a collaborative project among chaplains and leaders of local groups, which is why the inclusive social enterprise model is so crucial to this vision.

Currently, chaplains tend to offer a service only to the small minority of service users who belong to the chaplains’ particular faith denominations, which means a very small number of people disproportionately benefit from resources put into chaplaincy, and chaplains fail to provide an effective service to the wider community. A multifaith approach promises diversity but can lead to chaplaincy becoming further marginalised where the inclusion of conservative chaplains puts chaplaincies at odds with institutional values. The 2019 Church of England report on ‘Chaplaincies on Campus’ suggests this is worsening at university chaplaincies because there is a history of conflict on campuses between religious groups and LGBTQ+ societies and women’s group and there are sensitivities. Chaplains cannot work together without common principles and goals, which are the same or at least compatible with the stated values, usually humanistic, of the institutions they work in. Therefore, most chaplains will increasingly have to be drawn from the humanistic and progressive movements and traditions and the Non-Religious Pastoral Support Network. Conservative, evangelical and fundamentalist chaplains will always struggle to be included, and where they are included, will result in institutions keeping chaplaincies at arm’s length as happens today, because they are understandably seen as a liability. This is a real problem, since on the one hand it is important to have institutional values that protect equality and human rights, especially for women and the LGBTQ+ communities, but on the other hand, inclusivity in faith and belief can help people to work through their differences and can even educate people who would otherwise be pushed perhaps to further extremes. Can a two-tier system work, where only inclusive chaplains are employed by institutions but conservative religious chaplains can be included as volunteers and only serve their particular groups, or does that intolerance of the intolerant entirely undermine the concept of inclusivity itself? Interestingly, where chaplaincies are already led by inclusive chaplains, this separation tends to happen naturally, since more conservative chaplains opt out of fully inclusive and interfaith work.

We certainly need to develop a pluralistic inter-worldview approach, which goes beyond tolerance to shared values and collaboration. My counterpart at Harvard University, Greg Epstein, founded the Pluralism Project, an interfaith/inter-worldview project which has been highly successful and demonstrates how this might be done. An approach which is non-creedal, socially liberal, inclusive and creative, with Lead Chaplains who are employed at least in part by their hosting institutions rather than their faith or belief group, and who have knowledge and take inspiration from the insights and practices of many faith and philosophical traditions, will much better reflect the values and spirituality of service users in 21st century Britain. It is an integrated and more genuine and meaningful multifaith model than I and many of my counterparts have experienced, and one which requires inclusive chaplains who occupy an ‘in between’ space as a critical friend to both their hosting institutions and their sponsoring faith or belief bodies.

While multifaith chaplaincies need to avoid dogmatism, they must also avoid that bland uniformity I mentioned earlier, making it especially important to achieve cultural and ethnic diversity and to include people from as many different faith and belief backgrounds as possible. This provides checks and balances within the teams because there would be plenty of people with different perspectives and affiliations and a wider range of ideas and potential. It means chaplaincies also wouldn’t suffer so much with the decline of a religious or belief group or denomination, and it means that they would be somewhat insulated from any ‘group think’ or other internal problems that go on in a particular sect or denomination.

Currently, most chaplaincies as I said are dominated by the Church of England, which has the resources to field paid chaplains and on account of this and for historical reasons takes a huge majority of Lead Chaplain positions in spite of their small and ever-dwindling congregations and the fact that less than 15% of the population (and less than 3% of under 24s!) still identify as Anglican. Equality, diversity and inclusion in chaplaincy lags far behind other departments because of outdated assumptions that chaplaincy is a religious service and because of sustained prejudice and discrimination against people of other faiths, beliefs and cultures, and a tendency to give lip service to equality, diversity and inclusion but not to take any real action. Many chaplaincies are still completely closed to people of other faiths and beliefs and comprised entirely of Christian chaplains and volunteers, and serving almost exclusively the minority of Christian service users with a budget that should be used for appropriate spiritual care for all. Some have been pushed into accepting chaplains of other faith/beliefs by HR departments and external pressure but have found ways to get around this by accepting people on an unequal basis, so either not including them in any of the actual work once they have been accepted, giving them very little work, or confining them to work only with service users who belong to their particular tradition, while they as Christian chaplains have the audacity to continue to claim they can provide spiritual care for all! They have found all sorts of ways of staying under the radar of equality, diversity and inclusion teams and contravening the letter and/or spirit of the Equality Act, getting away with unjustifiably all-Christian interview panels, appointing Christians to supposedly neutral chaplaincy co-ordination and administrative roles, creating conditions for application which themselves exclude nonreligious professional chaplaincy networks and minority faith groups (for example stating that applicants must have a local sponsoring congregation), advertising jobs only to Christians or a select few faith groups without any real evidence that the job cannot be carried out equally well by people from other faith and belief groups, using historical hangovers as an excuse for discriminatory job advertisements, for example, suggesting that applicants must be Christian clergy because they must carry out e.g. specifically Christian chapel duties which could very easily be made inclusive and carried out by others… and all this before I’ve even started talking about the exclusion and unpleasantness many nonreligious and minority faith chaplains have experienced once they succeed in getting a voluntary role (and I say voluntary because we just don’t get paid roles unless we happen to come across one of the rare inclusive Lead Chaplains) and so the list goes on…

However, in spite of all this, the numbers of chaplains of other faiths and worldviews is slowly increasing, and there are increasing calls for more equal representation and/or representation which better reflects the faith and belief demographics of service users. As interest in chaplaincy grows in more diverse quarters, as inclusive allies across groups work together with HR and ED&I teams to open up chaplaincy and as increasing numbers of people in our majority nonreligious society join the nonreligious network, this will all change, but it will take time!

There are many and various movements within other faith and belief groups which can or could field chaplains but some simply don’t yet have the structures in place for training or assessment of potential paid and volunteer chaplains; they don’t have the money to pay them either and so would be overly reliant on retired volunteers. This is also one of the problems in the nonreligious network. We have a lot of retired volunteers because there is no funding to pay anyone and younger people mostly cannot take the risk of getting into a career where there are so few paid positions and where most of those positions are effectively closed to them. One of my counterparts is working on a promising apprenticeship scheme with the NHS but we are only in the very early stages of making chaplaincy an accessible and attractive career path. Many of the minority faith groups also have a problem in that they lack awareness of what chaplaincy is and what they could therefore contribute. There needs to be intentional outreach to explain what we do and how their involvement might enrich chaplaincy teams.

Chaplaincy budgets at institutions are very small and low priority, which means they are often among the first to be squeezed in times of hardship, and this is in spite of the fact that addressing the mental ill health epidemic is a government priority and a priority for many institutions. Mental health is perhaps the area chaplaincy can be most impactful in, especially given that we are facing unprecedented mental health crises, among both young and old, but we are not seeing funding being poured into chaplaincy, quite the opposite. Clearly, chaplaincy is not seen to be effectual in meeting this need, and this is primarily because it is still commonly perceived to be primarily a fringe religious, and primarily Christian, service, in a time when religious people are a minority, and it is also because chaplains have not been good at measuring their impact and struggle to do so effectively because of the nature of the work. They therefore find it difficult to convince management of their usefulness. They won’t be funded until they have been able to adequately evidence their effectiveness, and to be frank, they won’t be funded until they are fully inclusive and deserving of funds. Looking to the future, the challenges around potentially funding inclusive chaplains from a variety of faith and belief traditions, and doing this fairly, is perhaps the hardest one to solve. 

Yet another issue in chaplaincy is the lack of consistency in quality assurance and safeguarding when it comes to training and assessment across the various institutions and settings. Having a diverse range of training, qualifications, experience and skills is often a strength, especially as many older people enter chaplaincy after other careers and bring with them a wealth of life experience, practical wisdom, knowledge and indeed, patience. Competency models are therefore crucial for finding suitable candidates and remaining open to people from all backgrounds but in practice many people join teams as volunteers without any assessment and sometimes without even an interview. The last thing chaplaincy needs are standardised and expensive qualifications and training that will exclude able candidates, but it remains a problem that some faith and belief groups do not assess their candidates and field potentially unsuitable people. This can have very bad repercussions for the way chaplaincy is viewed by service users, institutions and wider society. I have heard from quite a few people who describe having had a very bad experience with a chaplain who was preachy or judgmental or otherwise inappropriate, which has put them off ever seeing a chaplain again. There is no need for this, when there are many suitable people with relevant qualifications, experience and the right attitudes and people skills, and when a fairly simple system of assessment can filter out people who are not suited to the role. Also, when it comes to supervision and CPD, there should be greater consistency for chaplains working for similar institutions. There is much still under debate when it comes to chaplaincy. Even what we call ourselves is uncertain, with some chaplaincies moving to names that won’t raise so many outdated assumptions and which more explicitly state what we now do, e.g. SPARC (Spiritual, Pastoral and Religious Care) Teams. It remains to be seen whether the word chaplain can be rehabilitated or whether it is even worth the effort of doing so. There is also a lack of awareness among managers of what chaplains provide and therefore a reluctance to promote chaplaincy or involve chaplains in relevant projects and committees. Chaplaincy is undergoing a slow but steady professionalisation and this will hopefully result in more clarity and a more united effort to publicise a progressive approach.

The Church of England has spent considerable time and money on framing chaplaincy from a Christian theological perspective, and trying, with increasingly spurious and insupportable arguments, to persuade themselves and everyone else that they still have a mandate to provide specifically Christian pastoral and spiritual care to all. Their time and resources would have been much better spent on reports evidencing in more detail the measurable difference that chaplaincy support makes in the lives of individuals, groups and communities. There is a strong tendency for Christians chaplains to justify their dominance by claiming that while many people no longer affiliate, they do tend to believe in God. However, this is very misleading because while it is true that many non-religious people do still have beliefs in supernatural forces or agencies, the vast majority don’t believe in the God of Christianity or the bible. Indeed, most of the service users I meet who believe in God actually make the point that their conception of God is different from that of the traditional faiths, siting that it is more universal, inclusive, undefined or mystical.

Many who describe themselves as believing in a god/gods use open and vague expressions like “I believe there’s something out there” or “I believe there’s something more than this” but they do not identify as religious, or Christian or Muslim or Jewish etc., or at least not in anything more than a cultural sense. Even people who both identify as Christian and share some Christian beliefs often have very mixed beliefs and identities, like the service-user I had who had a huge tattoo of a verse from the bible he liked and a large cross around his neck who said he identified as Christian but also didn’t believe in an after-life, believed in the Gods of various other religions, identified as a Buddhist as well, and walked off rolling his eyes when the Christian chaplain started talking about Jesus. People are complex and they need spiritual care from those who fully see, acknowledge and respect this, and from people who understand the complex and changing nature of belief. Diverse teams are far more likely to be objective and sensitive to people’s beliefs in the moment because they don’t have so many common assumptions and biases that become magnified and perpetuated.

Notions of God, therefore, tend to be extremely vague and transient (often only becoming relevant in a person’s life when someone they care about dies or when their own lives are in danger). In other words, when life is so difficult to cope with as it is, that they feel compelled to reach for something beyond their reality. Many of the majority Christian chaplains are therefore simply out of touch and out of step with their service users, and often in denial, because they no doubt fear for their own futures and that of their belief systems. They also get a skewed perspective on people’s views, given that most of their referrals come from the small proportion of people who still have a religious affiliation or other more tenuous religious association. They have too long lived in an isolated bubble of Christian exceptionalism.

So, to gauge how many chaplains may actually support a truly inclusive and multifaith vision, I have started an Inclusive Chaplains Network (currently on LinkedIn and Facebook) for professional and voluntary chaplains and chaplaincy partners* who are committed to opening up and transforming chaplaincy into a fully inclusive multi-faith/belief service supported by similarly inclusive chaplaincy partners in the wider community. This vision includes proactively reaching out to and welcoming chaplains and chaplaincy partners from all faith and belief traditions, ethnicities, genders, cultures, sexual orientations and social backgrounds, and making it possible for those with relevant knowledge, talents and skills from all philosophical/nonreligious and religious traditions to join the profession on an equal standing. This group is committed to more appropriately and more richly serving the needs of an increasingly diverse population, and in doing so, to realise a vision for inclusive, creative, evidence-based, openminded and openhearted pastoral, spiritual and religious care across all the settings in which chaplains work and in the wider community beyond.

*I should just clarify that Chaplaincy partners are belief/faith representatives and professionals in the wider community who support chaplaincy in various ways, especially with regard to meeting the pastoral and spiritual needs of people once they are discharged from (or otherwise leave) chaplaincy care into the wider community.

I’m hoping we will discuss in this group…

  1. How can we promote inclusive pastoral, spiritual and religious care more effectively and creatively in our institutional settings?

    2. How can we promote inclusive pastoral, spiritual and religious care more effectively within our faith/belief organisations and networks?

    3. How can we convince chaplains (especially Chaplaincy Team Leads/Co-ordinators) who are reluctant to be inclusive or who actively discriminate against nonreligious and minority faith chaplains, of the benefits of opening up?

    4. How can chaplains form more effective connections with chaplaincy partners so we can achieve continuity of pastoral, spiritual and religious care throughout the life-course?

    5. How can we reach out to and support faith/belief communities which do not have structures in place for fielding chaplains and who perhaps do not yet know how they can contribute?

    6. How can we address issues of unequal funding for chaplains from different traditions (where chaplains are funded or part-funded by their faith/belief organisations rather than the institutions they work or volunteer in), due to some traditions having more resources and privileges than others for historical and outdated reasons?

    7. How can we address funding issues in general in chaplaincy brought about by the lack of a fully inclusive, evidence-based and progressive vision, and the consequently increasing irrelevance and marginalisation of many chaplaincies within secular institutions?

    8. How can we help with the professionalisation of chaplaincy so that young people from all faith/belief backgrounds can see this as a viable and rewarding career option?

    9. How can we foster open and respectful inter-faith/worldview dialogue within our own teams and community partnerships so that we can build relationships of trust and work more effectively together?

    10. How can we rise above our faith/belief labels to unite in common values and goals, while nonetheless celebrating our diverse stories, cultures and traditions?

So, I clearly – perhaps naively – still see enormous potential for chaplaincy, but unless we overcome the challenges I have described regarding inclusivity and building a robust evidence base for its effectiveness, chaplaincy will be further marginalised and may eventually even be phased out in many institutions for failing to remain relevant and for failing to prove its worth. This would be a terrible shame, given that ethical and spiritual leadership and care is much more effective when it takes place both outside and within our institutions.

13. Conclusions and How You Can Help

I’m aware that there’s a huge elephant in the room which I’ve been so far avoiding, and that comes in the form of a question. Do people really want all the things I’m envisioning here? Apart from the obvious issue of whether people want to be inclusive, do they even really want reasonableness, kindness, peace and sustainability? When they measure the cost to themselves of this struggle, are they really committed? Are you? Are people motivated by ethics and compassion or are money, possessions, power and sexual gratification ultimately more appealing? Is goodness, kindness and peace boring? The truth is that I don’t know the answer to these questions. 

However, I do know that even people who would say they were completely committed to the vision I describe very often, in practice, chose not to behave or prioritise things in the ways necessary to achieve these ends. They may tweak their life-style here and there, enough to keep their consciences quiet, but they aren’t willing to go far enough. Most people won’t risk their reputation, their job, their popularity, their financial nest egg, their possessions, their holidays or other aspects of lifestyle to do what the research says in necessary to meet our global challenges. And it’s not just about abstaining and going without, it’s also about positive action. Many people just don’t take part in community activism or the political process in the numbers and ways needed to force regulation change. 

To some extent we are all hypocrites because none of us behave consistently in ways that live out the values, intentions and goals we express verbally, and this isn’t always because humans are selfish and dishonest. It’s also because all humans struggle to some extent with putting long term goals over short term gains, simply because of the way our brains are wired; because many of us have seen so much suffering around the world in the media that we have empathy fatigue, we can no longer allow ourselves to feel the pain of others when it’s so deep and so extensive that to do so would destroy us; because the number, complexity and gravity of the global challenges we face seems overwhelming and quickly exhausts our limited mental capacity, causing us to retreat into a bubble of familiar pleasures and to employ a level of self-deception as a protective mechanism; and also, because many people genuinely find it hard to actually work out how best we should live and act within the restrictions of our family and societal structures, and even if we do work it out we cannot force others to act in the same ways, we can only lead by example. Thus, we often feel powerless – it often feels like the mountain is too high for us to climb – and current political circumstances have made some of us feel particularly disempowered, as almost everywhere in the world, wealthy state and private elites seem unstoppable in their manipulation of political processes and the media, and their ability to indoctrinate and exploit the masses and control the mob. A huge question mark then looms ominously over both our commitment and our ability to live good lives and build kind and fair societies.

So, the first thing we should do is ask ourselves honestly whether we really are committed to the ideals I have described. Do you really want a just and peaceful world, do your neighbours really want this? If you do, then there are some things we can all do to help us get there…

We can keep talking about this vision and how we might get there, because out of those conversations, if genuine, will come action. We can keep imagining it, holding onto it, even when it’s not well received because people are prejudiced or simply weary and disillusioned. We can tell friends and colleagues in our own groups to stop looking down their noses at other progressive groups, but to instead learn from them and work with them. These groups all have a laughably tiny slice of the population pie. Arrogance and superiority complexes are, therefore, frankly absurd, and I have met a good number of people who have left and are no longer affiliated with any of the progressive faith and humanist groups because they have simply got fed up of arrogance, in-fighting, petty theological or philosophical disputes and small-mindedness. 

However, if you are on the outside looking down your nose at all progressive faith and humanistic communities, I would challenge you to reconsider and join or re-join one, however imperfect and frustrating at times. Your hands are dirtier with what might be called ‘sins of omission’ by not engaging than they would be sullied by engaging with the occasional impossible person or making the occasional mistake! Join and support one of the faith, belief or ethical organisations, which field (or have the potential to field) inclusive chaplains, and from which might emerge the very people who will found those vital social enterprises and other initiatives. If you cannot find a creative community of inclusive and progressive thinkers in your area, who seek to enrich culture, promote wellness, live sustainably and form deeper connections, then perhaps you should start one.

Thank you!

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Why I am Proud to be an Outspoken Woman

I came across Victoria Chandler’s 2015 article, 17 things only outspoken people will understand and decided to write one of my own in response:

Over the years, especially in the faith/belief circles I move in, I have been regularly criticised or belittled for being outspoken, had numerous people try to tell me what I can and can’t say, and I have all too frequently been gaslighted by those who would love to shut me up.

It hasn’t worked. I am prouder than ever to be an outspoken woman, and I reckon more people of all genders should be outspoken too. This is why…

  1. It is only by being outspoken that things can begin to change for the better. Outspoken people are passionate about justice and fairness and making the world a better place for everyone. We are always questioning and challenging things and are the driving force behind activism and progress as a result.
  2. Outspoken people have closer and more meaningful friendships and relationships of all kinds because we are honest about what we think and feel. If this drives away controlling, conformist, cowardly, jealous and prejudiced people, so be it! It is better to have a few meaningful connections than hundreds of superficial ones.
  3. People come to us outspoken types for advice. Yes, privately, I am honoured by just how many people seek my advice because they can rely on me to be kind but also honest. I love that and consider it a great privilege.
  4. Being outspoken is a great leadership characteristic. People often respect the authority of an outspoken person, as long as that person demonstrates awareness of the limits of their knowledge and expertise and maintains a good degree of intellectual humility. You cannot lead a project or movement of any importance without being outspoken and honest about what you think about the problem/deficit you are addressing and how you think things need to change. People follow when there is a winning combination of confidence and outspokenness, even when that confidence is a quiet confidence and the voice is a soft one.
  5. Outspoken people break cultural taboos that really need to be broken. Yes, I’m happy to talk openly about mental illness, sex, death, religious/cultural abuse and pretty much anything else folks, as many of you know. Outspoken people don’t have to be over-sharers though! Even we know when some things are best left unsaid!
  6. We outspoken types don’t just sit there suffering when people treat us or our friends/family badly. Nor do we stand idly by when injustices occur, feeling smug and relieved not to be involved. No, we are the ones who stand up for ourselves and others. We confront, complain and make damned sure the injustice doesn’t go on and ruin our lives or those of the people we care about. Consequently, people soon discover we are really loyal and good friends to have.
  7. Outspoken people are fun and entertaining company because we ask interesting questions others are afraid to ask and bring up subjects that get people to open up and show more sides to themselves. We challenge people who have strong but opposing opinions and engage in lengthy debates that others enjoy listening to. Being outspoken doesn’t mean having fixed opinions though. We can still be as willing as anyone else to learn and grow and change our minds. We just have to swallow humble pie a bit more publicly when we get something wrong, and we must be prepared to do that occasionally!
  8. We are not afraid to call people out when they are spouting lies and misinformation or otherwise causing harm, however famous or powerful they are, because of our fierce warrior spirit. Nothing winds us up more than false and misleading information, cruelty, deviousness and dishonesty. We often call people out for their inappropriate and unpleasant behaviour, and we aren’t embarrassed by that.

The downsides are that being outspoken can get you into hot water. It can get you censored, marginalised and discriminated against. It can even get you bullied and verbally abused by the worst sorts of people, and this can be really stressful at times. It is really important for outspoken people to build emotional resilience because they will need it when people just aren’t ready to hear what they have to say, for when people hurl insults at them or stab them in the back, and for when they just don’t have the power to affect change as soon as they would like. I had a dream the other night that all the people who had been horrid to me for staying true to my values and speaking out came to apologise. I woke up and thought ‘fat chance of that’ ha ha! I am still coming to terms with the fact they never will.

Also, people with low emotional intelligence can mistake genuine outspokenness for bossiness, bitchiness or being a drama queen, and this is in addition to those misogynists and other bigots who accuse you of trouble-making, being “headstrong” (yes, some people still use this sexist term!) and being all sorts of other nasty things as a form of gaslighting. I am frankly passed caring about this kind of crap (yes, outspoken people are prone to swearing, get over it). However, I do sometimes worry about hurting the feelings of genuinely traumatised people who have heightened sensitivities or are easily triggered by a particular subject, or about good people thinking badly of me because of falsehoods and gossip spread by the haters. In spite of this, I wouldn’t change the way I am for the world!

We should all have the moral courage to call out injustices in fair but hard-hitting ways whenever we are able to do so, and not allow ourselves to be gaslighted into a permanent cycle of self-doubt, self-reflection and inaction. The powers that be in this country – political, corporate and ecclesiastical – would love to silence outspoken people by branding us troublemakers and undermining our self-confidence, but I will never be silent.

As someone who was born and raised in a very diverse community where we debated everything heatedly but amicably and indeed with much affection for one another, it hasn’t escaped my notice that openness and outspokenness don’t go down so well in the South West, even when accompanied with much kindness and friendliness. This is especially the case if you are female and/or minority/mixed ethnic, because the underlying currents of sexism, racism and Christian exceptionalism are so much stronger in these parts. In spite of this, one has to persist rather than allow oneself to be manipulated into conformity (and ultimately into complicity), and rather than allow one’s own spirit to be crushed.

Change will come. It is already in fact coming. I know I am on the right side of history in the work that I do. However, progress is also fragile – regressive forces are strong here – and nothing would be changing without the people who are willing to speak out, struggle and suffer for it. That is the reality.

I’ll finish with a few golden nuggets of advice for fellow outspoken women (and men)…

We outspoken types do have a greater responsibility to think things through and question our own assumptions before we speak out. This is because of our tendency to go public and because of the influence we can have on others. Remember what I said above about swallowing humble pie – it’s much harder to do this when you’ve put out your argument all over various media, across your organisations, networks and god knows where else. You don’t have to be at all famous for this to become a major issue!

Another piece of advice; whatever Chandler’s article says, don’t waste your time shouting at the screen during TV debates or engaging in heated arguments on Facebook, Twitter or any other form of social media. The only result will be considerable stress and frustration for you (plus related negative health impacts), and such debates will only harden your ‘opponent’ in their views rather than get them to reflect and question their own assumptions. This is the case even if you have managed to remain utterly charming throughout, not once losing your rag and resorting to aggression, passive aggression or mockery (and I include the passive aggressive use of emojis lol). Social media just isn’t a good forum for engaging in productive debate, and television, well, you aren’t even there are you? Anyway, why waste your time debating with the world’s most bigoted and psycho-toxic people when there is much more important work to be done in the real world, and people of much more consequence to engage in conversation with?! If you have to ban yourself from social media and watching television debates to do this, so be it!

And when you do use social media, feel free to be outspoken on your own page but always remember when you comment on ‘friend’s’ posts that you are speaking to a real human being and you have to take their full context and experiences into account when interpreting their posts. If you haven’t earned the right to comment critically because you don’t know that person well enough to understand the context and correctly interpret the post, or you haven’t made the effort to really get to know them and be their friend, then keep your opinions to yourself. I have a rule never to comment on other people’s posts unless it’s to say something positive or to add something neutral and of relevance to the topic they have raised, which might be of use to them. I often see posts I find offensive in my feeds but I just let them wash by unless it’s someone I know well enough (and engage with on those topics) in real life and so have earned the right to gently challenge. Not commenting says more in itself than commenting negatively, and it’s best not to feed into comment streams under untruthful posts because it only helps publicise them further! Social media is set up to proliferate the controversial as much as possible! Instead, focus on sharing and adding value to the truthful posts.

Therefore, being outspoken is not the same thing as being rude and insensitive, so don’t ever be tempted! I am proud to be a quietly spoken, sensitive and compassionate person, while also being outspoken in gentle-but-firm ways. However, we all make mistakes. If I am ever short on kindness or short on outspokenness (in the areas I work in – I can’t fight every battle!), feel free to let me know. I hope I will always learn from my mistakes.

Love to all the outspoken women (and men) of the world! I am with you!

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Humanism and Me: Celebrating World Humanist Day in the South West of England


My name is Anastasia Somerville-Wong, and I am one of the Chaplains working for Somerset NHS Foundation Trust in Community and Mental Health. I am also a Humanist Chaplain at the University of Exeter, and am accredited with the Non-Religious Pastoral Support Network (NRPSN), a membership organisation of the Network for Pastoral, Spiritual and Religious Care in Health (NPSRCH).

Welcome to this celebration of World Humanist Day here in the South West of England. I have invited some guests to contribute to this article in order to create a collection of personal understandings and approaches to Humanism, and to showcase the broad range of our Humanism-inspired work in the region. We invite you to read and reflect, as we explain what Humanism means to us, both individually and collectively, and share with you the ways in which it inspires us to build a better world.

Before we start, we want to express our solidarity with Humanists and the nonreligious around the world, especially with those who are persecuted for their beliefs or the lack of certain beliefs, and with all those of minority faith or belief around the world who face oppression, discrimination and violence. We want to express our shared hope for kinder and more reasonable societies, for stable and accountable governments, and for peace and cooperation between nations.

Humanism and Me

Anastasia Somerville-Wong

NHS and University Chaplain, Devon Faith and Belief Forum Executive and Trustee, Member of the Humanist Dialogue Network and Humanist Climate Action

For me, Humanism means having eyes wide open to the beauties and horrors of the world and facing this reality with honesty and courage. It means having the humility to accept that we cannot claim to know more than can be proven or demonstrated with reason and science. It means striving to live an ethical life driven by empathy and compassion for all. It means championing human rights, human flourishing and the wellbeing of the earth and all its creatures. Humanism means engaging in a life-time of responsible free-thinking, critical scholarship and the examination of our own assumptions and unconscious bias. It means engaging in the messy reality of human affairs with the determination to build a kinder, more reasonable society.

As a Humanist Chaplain, my particular passion is for making the highest standards of inclusive spiritual care available to all, equally, everywhere. Our institutions are often good at meeting our basic physical needs, but they have less time and fewer resources to address our higher needs for meaning and purpose. The latter are often considered a luxury once our basic needs have been met, but the reality is that it’s our higher needs that motivate us to get out of bed each morning and attend to our basic needs in the first place. Spiritual care is about helping people, often when they are in difficult and painful circumstances, to connect to the things that give their lives meaning, purpose and joy, and we facilitate this by listening, by being non-judgmental and compassionate company, by creating space for people to speak and to reflect on their own situations, by offering the perspectives of other minds (our own and the insights of other thinkers), by signposting and advocacy, and by facilitating reflective, creative and therapeutic practices, rituals and ceremonies.

The humanistic spiritual care I provide looks at the universal aspects of spirituality that are common to all humans whether we are religious or nonreligious. It is about attending to the inner life; our innermost thoughts and feelings, our personal stories and character, and our collective stories, identities, heritages and cultures. It is about connecting meaningfully with one another using wisdom and empathy. It is about expressing and refining our creativity, ingenuity and art-forms, and taking inspiration from the works of others in turn. It is about appreciating the awe-inspiring beauty and complexity of the universe and understanding our place within it. It is about finding purpose in a vocation, and in causes far greater than ourselves, such as social justice, human rights and environmental repair. It means maintaining fidelity to core beliefs and values while also being willing to question them and allowing them to evolve. Indeed, spiritual care is about harmonising our beliefs, values, behaviours and experiences so that we can live with integrity. It’s about maintaining a growth mentality, and a life-long commitment to truth-seeking, through open-mindedness, openheartedness, critical scholarship, reflective practice and mindfulness.

In addition to inclusive spiritual care, I am also passionate about equality, diversity and inclusion, and building relationships of understanding and respect across faith and belief groups based on common values. This is an important part of my work, not only as a Chaplain, but also as an Executive and Trustee of the Devon Faith and Belief Forum, and as a member of the University of Exeter’s Faith and Belief Equality Group and the Humanists UK Dialogue Network. I am also helping to set up NHS Humanists, a network to stand alongside the existing Humanists UK networks for defence, teachers, students, youth, LGBT Humanists, the Humanist Climate Action network and the Faith to Faithless initiative, which provides support for apostates. Many Humanists get involved with political campaigning in order to defend and promote equality and human rights. It is common to find Humanists sitting on a variety of Ethics Committees, and we are increasingly included on Standing Advisory Councils on Religious Education (known as SACREs), where we promote understanding and respect for nonreligious, as well as religious worldviews, in schools.

Let’s hear now from some other Humanists in the South West about what drew them to Humanism, and about what motivates them to work for Humanist causes.

Tim Purches

Humanist Schools Speaker, Plymouth Humanists Organiser, Member of the Humanist Dialogue Network and Humanist Climate Action

I have been a Humanist for around 20 years now. Before that, I fell into the non-religious category, but in a rather vague sort of way – I had never really thought through what I believed. Then, at around 40, for the first time in my life, I did start to think seriously about those big questions that both Humanism and religion try to answer – questions about how we understand the world around us, how we find meaning in our lives, how we work out what’s right and wrong. For me, Humanism gave the best answers, it made the most sense to me. Whatever ideas about the existence of god and life after death that I had had in my childhood had faded away over the years, so religion was never really an option.

I get a lot from being a Humanist, but if you were to ask what the most important thing is, I would say that it makes me think. It makes me examine what I believe and make sure I can really justify holding those beliefs. Of course, what I have ended up with is a very Humanist worldview but it is one I have thought about very carefully, and I like to think I am always open to alternate points of view.

It is fundamental for me that being a Humanist must be more than sitting around debating the existence of god or whatever. It must be about actively trying to make the world a better place. A lot of what I do to try and achieve that does not fall directly under the banner of Humanism, although there is often a lot of overlap between my concerns as a Humanist, and broader issues that I and many other people, Humanist or not, campaign about. The most obvious of those is climate change. It’s such a significant issue that Humanists UK have a specific network of volunteers, which I am part of, that supports and encourages Humanists to take action in this area.

As for specifically Humanist activism, there are a couple of things that, over the last ten years, I’ve been involved in in Plymouth. We have a local group here that I help organise, and we put on a variety of events – talks, a book club and various social events. These are always open to all, regardless of their beliefs. That is particularly important to me – I believe we should be as open and inclusive as possible. By doing all this we are trying to provide a community for local Humanists, something which, I have to be honest, Humanism tends to be poor at.

I have also been a volunteer school speaker for five years. That has been a really rewarding experience.  Of course, for the children, having a real live Humanist in front of them who they can talk to and ask questions of is a great way to help them better understand what Humanism is, what Humanists believe and how they live their lives. But I also gain a lot from it.  The children ask such insightful and demanding questions, and that makes me think more deeply and broadly about my beliefs and how to best to communicate them.

Jacqueline Watson

Humanist Celebrant, NHS Chaplain, Healthcare-volunteer Trainer, NRPSN Regional Coordinator, NPSRCH Representative

For me, Humanism is a way of giving identity to non-religious people and joining us together, to share and debate our views about humanity and our place in the world.  Humanists take a naturalistic approach to life, celebrating humanity’s achievements, especially in science and medicine, while recognising our weaknesses and using reason to try to address these.  The notion of a ‘life after death’ does not offer comfort to me, but rather the acceptance of life and death, and the importance of living the best life we can, offers a solace and optimism that works for me.

Humanists UK enables non-religious people to hold essential ceremonies – for weddings, funerals, and namings – that reflect their own personal spiritual beliefs and feelings, and their ethical values, giving meaning to their journey through life.  As a Humanist celebrant, I am hugely privileged to carry out such ceremonies, giving families the opportunity to have as meaningful a ceremony as religious people.  We often hold weddings outdoors to recognise and celebrate the natural world and our place in it.

More recently, Humanists UK, through the Non-Religious Pastoral Support Network, has championed non-religious volunteers in chaplaincy teams, in hospitals and prisons.  The Network trains non-religious volunteers and some of us have gone on now to become NHS employees, as non-religious chaplains working alongside our religious colleagues.  As a chaplain myself, I find that patients and staff see a value in having non-religious members of chaplaincy teams to give support to people who are struggling with their experiences in healthcare settings.  We will support religious as well as non-religious patients and staff, but always hand over to religious chaplains where there is a specific need.

As well as being a Humanist celebrant and a non-religious hospital chaplain, I am also the coordinator of the Non-Religious Pastoral Support Network (NRPSN) in the South West, and I am also a member of the national Network for Pastoral, Spiritual and Religious Care in Health (NPSRCH).  This organisation seeks to increase diversity in healthcare chaplaincies, to include more people from minority religions and beliefs.  I am also the lead tutor on this Network’s course for volunteers, called ‘Exploring Healthcare Chaplaincy’, as well as a trainer on the Non-Religious Network’s training programme.

Keith Denby

Independent Advisor to Devon & Cornwall Police and Humanist Representative on Devon SACRE

Humanism is a positive worldview. If everyone used reason, evidence, experience and above all empathy to guide them then the world would be a much better place. But people do harm to one another, to other creatures and to the planet itself. A Humanist cannot ignore this harm and has a duty to engage and to bring a Humanist approach to bear on these problems. My own particular engagement has been in the area of harms that humans do to their fellows. People commit crimes and the rational response of society that has evolved over many centuries is to create a police force and to provide its members with strong powers to gather evidence about crime and to detain those that the evidence shows to be responsible. Giving people strong powers risks abuse and discrimination so those powers need to be carefully monitored. Police forces in the UK invite independent members of the public to advise them, to scrutinise their activities and to act as ‘critical friends’.

I have been an Independent Advisor to Devon and Cornwall Police for 14 years. The role has been very demanding at times but also very rewarding. At the outset I said to myself that if I didn’t see any change as a result of my advice then I would resign … and years later I’m still an advisor. I have been upskilled in understanding a wide range of police activities and been granted remarkably open access to many aspects of police work. I work mostly around equality and diversity and have specialised in helping to combat Hate Crime and latterly with the considerable effort to eliminate violence by men against women and girls. I have also joined the force Ethics Committee which debates ethical dilemmas submitted by any member of the police officers and staff.

In all my work I try to just be a Humanist. I think that is much appreciated by the police, who themselves have long valued reason and evidence but nowadays also strongly value empathy and emotional intelligence. The personal experiences of police officers and academic research has shown that mental health problems and early life trauma lie at the root of the majority of criminal acts. Policing is evolving to take account of this more and more and the involvement of independent advisors in helping them to understand the communities they police is a vital part of this process.

Graham Kennedy

Chair of Taunton and Somerset Humanists

I was brought up in a Christian family in Northern Ireland during the community strife there. It’s fair to say that the societal and religious environment was several decades behind that of England. Homosexuality was illegal. Racial discrimination was the norm. All religious pictures showed white Europeans and the “curse of Ham” justified the commonly held view that black people were an inferior race. All my extended family were practising Christians. I attended the Methodist College Belfast. However, during my teenage years I became disillusioned with the Christian god. I’m a logical thinker and I couldn’t subscribe to the view that (religious) faith superseded reason.

Unusually, my school taught us about other religions. Even atheism was – briefly – examined. The question of morals in atheism was discussed and I was enlightened by the concept of humans developing their own laws based on what is best for the human race. My life progressed incrementally from Christian to non-religious to anti-religious to agnostic.

One day, while browsing on the internet, I came upon a quiz entitled “How Humanist Are You?” I took the quiz and was informed that I was 100% Humanist. So I was a Humanist without wanting to be one! After more research, I could see that, yes, I’m a Humanist. And now I wanted to become an activist. I sought out my local Humanists group and found a small group who met monthly in a Taunton pub. I felt that the group could become larger and more outward looking and found wide agreement. In particular, our group felt that living a non-religious life was a topic rarely discussed in Somerset education establishments and this needed addressing. We used social media to raise awareness of our existence and our membership is steadily increasing. When our group leader decided to retire, I was elected chairman. Since then our group has become affiliated to Humanists UK.

There is an a generally accepted assumption that Humanists have no beliefs. This is untrue. Humanists believe that the world can become a better place through the actions of humans. It can become more empathetic, more equal in opportunities, more harmonious; a happier place with ethics based on reason. It is this vision which inspires me as a Humanist.

Closing Reflections

It’s really inspiring to hear how much my fellow Humanists are doing to improve and enrich society here in the UK!

While Humanism has no creed, there are several manifestos and declarations outlining the values and principles which the majority of Humanists have in common, and these are useful for explaining, reflecting on, and developing the humanistic worldview. The most famous is the Amsterdam Declaration of 1952, updated in 2002. Humanism has a long and rich history dating back to the early ethical societies of the nineteenth century, with threads going back to the agnostic, atheist and other progressive movements of the Enlightenment, and even further back, through the scholarship of the Renaissance Humanists, to the sceptical and secular philosophies of ancient Greece, Rome, China and India. Humanist thinkers and activists have always been at the forefront of progressive social movements, including the abolition of slavery, women’s suffrage, the civil rights movement, the first anti-racism movement (indeed Humanists organised the first global races congress in 1911), anti-colonialism, the drafting of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and much, much more.

Humanists come in many shapes and forms, including members of Secular, Sceptical, Humanist and Free-Thinking groups, non-affiliated individuals identifying as Humanist, and members of humanistic ‘religious’ or ethnic groups such as the Humanistic Jews, Secular Buddhists, and Non-Theistic Christians. It is possible to have a Humanist worldview while remaining culturally religious. A significant number of Unitarians, Unitarian Universalists, Quakers, Quaker Universalists, Religious Naturalists and others also identify as Humanists. Therefore, Humanism embraces a range of individuals and groups whose approach to knowledge is based on reason and science, who live ethical lives based on empathy and compassion, and who strive to build kinder, fairer and more reasonable societies. Many people today are Humanists without even knowing it. Maybe you’re reading this article right now and are surprised to find that Humanism describes your worldview!

While Humanism does stand in stark contrast to conservative religious and fundamentalist worldviews, the reality is that in many cases, especially in liberal democratic societies, secular and religious worldviews have a lot of overlap in terms of values and goals. Humanism can learn a lot from the reflective practices and rituals of the religions, in order to build cohesive community, while religious communities can learn a lot from humanistic philosophy and practice, in order to overcome tribalism, dogmatism and superstition. It is vital we build bridges in these times of division and polarisation, and Humanists are keen to work as part of a progressive alliance, in order to address our global challenges and ensure a better future for us all. Prominent religious leaders have acknowledged that it is ‘practical humanism’ that has enabled the various faiths and denominations to begin to see past their differences and come together to celebrate common values grounded in our common humanity. It is practical humanism, which can bring an end to religious rivalry and sectarian violence, and which supports ecumenical and interfaith initiatives.

We acknowledge that humanity has some serious weaknesses and flaws, but humans are also capable of great empathy and compassion, and this capacity for kindness, combined with our ingenuity, will help us to create a peaceful and sustainable future. Whether members of a faith or belief group or not, we all have a responsibility to develop our better natures. All humans start out with an innate capacity for empathy, compassion and reasonableness, which can either be stifled or nurtured by the cultures and traditions in which we are raised. The only way our species can survive and flourish, and prevent political and environmental catastrophe, is to make continual efforts to grow and develop our finer feelings and nobler aspirations, and to nurture them in our children and young people. With this in mind, I would like to share a quotation from Mengzhi (better known by the Latinised version of his name, Mencius), who was a philosopher and political adviser in China in the 4th Century BCE:

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


Frog and Toad, 20 stories written and illustrated by Arnold Lobel: These are some of the greatest stories of empathy and friendship ever written for children (and their parents!).

“I am happy. I am very happy. This morning when I woke up I felt good because the sun was shining. I felt good because I was a frog. And I felt good because I have you as a friend. I wanted to be alone. I wanted to think about how fine everything is.” 
― Arnold Lobel, Days with Frog and Toad


Paganism: An Interview with Steve Davies

It is really important in these times of political and religious polarisation, to fully understand and appreciate the full range of liberal, progressive and humanistic expressions of spirituality, from the more secular and atheistic, to those that embrace a lot of ritual, devotion, imagery and mythology but nonetheless stop short of the harmful forms of dogmatism and superstition that are all about control and exploitation. It is why I started Secular Liturgies back in 2018 as a network for progressives of all sorts, rather than just as a blog representing one particular group. I felt there was a real need for this because there is so much tribalism, group-think and a lack of mutual appreciation and understanding among religion/belief groups, even where there is a lot of overlap between values and goals. Indeed, even where groups have almost identical worldviews, they seem often to be mired in mutual suspicion and competition, rather than cooperating in the most effective ways to meet our spiritual needs and global challenges. This must surely change if we are to succeed in repairing our planet and ourselves!

So, in a spirit of cooperation, and in glorious celebration of the diversity among free-thinkers and progressives, I am delighted to be able to share another Secular Liturgies Network interview, this time with Steve Davies, a “Non-Theistic” or “Less-Theistic” Pagan and NHS Psychotherapist…

Anastasia Somerville-Wong

Paganism: An Interview with Steve Davies

Steve Davies

1. What does it mean to you, to be a “non-theistic Pagan”, in terms of both belief and practice?

This is a great question! I’m not sure whether I class myself as fully non-theistic but I am certainly a “less-theistic Pagan” if that doesn’t sound too pedantic. Because many Pagans tend to have more animistic or polytheistic world views, we are already into the realm of questioning what we mean by the word “god” and how my valuing of certain mythic figures or archetypes may fall outside easy categorisation.

My own current perspective is that I am largely agnostic about the objective existence of either God or Gods. Rather, as a Pagan, I tend to see them as principles that have been given form throughout human history in an attempt to embody an aspiration or ideal. Such expressions can be archetypal in their mythic expression of human longing and are also subject to change and evolution via the communities creating them. Like great art they are expressions of human wonder in encountering the mystery of existence.

I think that these symbols have a reality and psychological potency but that this doesn’t rely on them creating or upholding the universe or directing human existence. My own practice has many parallels to some schools of Buddhism in which the images engaged with can become lenses for considering an issue or attaining a goal in my life. Any ritual drama enacted doesn’t for me rely on such a being objectively acting on my behalf, rather it calls forth those principles from within myself.

My own path makes overt use of Buddhist forms of meditation practice, but I choose to describe myself as a Pagan because I centralise my reverence for the natural world and the profound lessons learnt via its cycles, evolution and impermanence.

2. What was the ‘journey’ that led you to non-theistic Paganism? 

Well my earliest spiritual explorations (about aged 11) involved experimentation with Hatha Yoga and Buddhist forms of meditation that tended to focus more on practice rather than metaphysics. I then became very involved in some fairly Evangelical forms of Christianity during my mid-teenage years and eventually undertook an undergraduate degree in Theology with a view to entering the Anglican Priesthood. I had a major crisis of faith over a couple of years during my mid-20’s as I struggled with both the exclusivity claims of Christianity and the Churches’ overall attitude towards LGBT+ people. My yearning for spiritual meaning eventually led me to explore more earth focused traditions such as the Druid and Wiccan traditions as well as reconnecting to Buddhist forms of meditation practice.

In engaging with these paths I found myself feeling increasingly uncomfortable with depictions of deity that often seemed little more than the transference of forms of monotheism that relied on sentimentality and a view of direct divine involvement that didn’t feel congruent with my own experience. Over the past 20 years I have been involved in working together with a small group of friends in Pagan meditation group that tends to use non-theistic ritual and meditation practice during the 8 major festivals that most Pagan traditions tend to celebrate in acknowledging the movement of the seasons.

3. Which thinkers, writers or other figures have inspired you most and why?

I really like the work of the historian Dr Ronald Hutton who has helped understand the very human origins of contemporary Paganism (Triumph of the Moon especially), I love the work of Matthew Fox and how his Creation Spirituality centralised the Cosmos across religious traditions. I find great value in theologians from the Sea of Faith and Process theology movements such as Don Cupitt and Alfred Whitehead in that they emphasise the place of reason and emergence in our creation of religion.

I still spend time reading primary texts from the Gnostic tradition such as the Nag Hammadi Library as they tend to emphasise the way in which the religious journey can become a means of greater personal and psychological freedom in a way that resonates strongly with Buddhist practice. I really enjoy the works of Buddhist teacher Pema Chodron such as When Things Fall Apart and my favourite book on Zen is Most Intimate by Pat Enkyo O’Hara.

4. How compatible is the humanistic/non-theist worldview with the broader stream of Paganism (or how does it fit in)?

I think it would be very much down to the individual humanist and how able they feel to tolerate much of the theistic and potentially magical imagery of many Pagan paths. Personally I am happy reframing much of the ritual drama and practices as being potentially valuable and life enhancing psychological processes but I might also have difficulty participating deeply in a community where folks are conceptualising very literally about the metaphysical dynamics at work.

Groups vary greatly and while many non-theists may find the amount of God-talk restricts their involvement, networks such as Green Spirit   focus on Eco-spirituality and the cycle of the year while using very little theological or esoteric language.

5. What are the greatest highlights and opportunities for Paganism in Britain today (or what do you think Paganism has to offer secular and multi-faith/multicultural societies like ours more widely)?

For me Paganism is a path that honours and values the Earth, the material realm and the human body. In contrast to many theistic paths it seeks to work with our joyous experience of these things rather than trying to view them as corrupted or needing to be escaped from. I believe that this is both appealing and something we desperately need.

Many of us are involved in activism around climate change, racial equality and inclusion more generally and in that work many of us struggle with potential burn out and compassion fatigue. I would argue that we need creative, ritual and psychological tools for nourishing and sustaining this work and that the deep, dynamic and playful approach embodied in many Pagan paths is a potential means of accessing such sustenance.

6. What are the greatest internal and external challenges for Paganism in Britain today?

From my perspective the very individualistic and broad-umbrella approach of Paganism as a religious descriptor means that we are taking about potentially everything from a very gentle non-theistic creation spirituality group to a culturally focused form of “hard” Polytheism where the Gods are viewed as very real beings. It asks us to be adults in discerning what we want from our potential involvement and also listening to our own needs regarding boundaries and consent and how vital political consistency is in participating in a community.

Because many Earth-focused traditions have their roots in specific cultural/historic and even ethnic contexts, the Pagan community is having to think hard about maximising inclusion while at the same time listening to concerns about cultural appropriation and ensuring that the (often White) people exploring indigenous traditions are doing so respectfully and seeking the counsel of those communities from which these traditions are emerging. The way that much of the New Age community has co-opted Native American spiritual traditions is a cautionary tale in how not to do it!

7. Do you use liturgical forms / scripts in your religious practice, and if so, can you give me (or link to) any examples? 

Here’s something that I wrote that we use at the beginning of our Pagan Meditation Group:

We come seeking gnosis
And the wisdom to apply it.
We come seeking the Old Ways
That we might truly live now
And become the future.

We come seeking the three realms
And the three treasures
Sky, Earth and Sea
The transcendent, the immanent and the Ancestors.
We seek the World Tree as the realm of practice:

Our Minds, our Bodies, our Lives.
We seek to take up the Runes 
Fragments of mystery
As we see sense and nonsense
On the road we travel.

We give thanks to the heroes of practice
We give thanks for the complex Web of Truth
We give thanks to those who sit like mountains together.

Steve Davies

8. As you are interested in chaplaincy, how do you think the inclusion of Pagan Chaplains might enrich the work of chaplaincies at institutions?

Many forms of Chaplaincy are still dominated by a Christian perspective that no longer reflects the diversity of our society or its spiritual needs. We need a more diverse perspective that also prioritises the people we are seeking to support rather than evangelisation or the imposition of moralistic positions. 

Personally I think that humanist, Pagan and Liberal theistic traditions are vital in promoting spiritual curiosity and also ensuring that issues around equality, diversity and access are seen as central rather than merely paid lip-service to. Like you, I am interested in supporting young people as they face the major transitions of their life and I think that intellectually informed spiritual exploration can provide them with highly helpful resources and community.

9. What are your plans for the future in terms of religion/belief related matters?

I continue to write and think about all these things, and as I work as a Psychotherapist within the NHS, I am always interested in how issues around belief and spirituality are explored and supported in my work with both individuals and families. I think that the tools of analysis and deconstruction that an open humanism promotes are also helpful in ensuring that we use the best of evidence based medicine in our work.

I also enjoy teaching and am hopefully delivering some mental health awareness training for a cohort of trainee Pagan Chaplains this year. This is a really exciting opportunity, and I hope to continue helping the Pagan community think about how it develops its Chaplaincy and pastoral ministries.


What does it mean to be ‘spiritual’?

1. Connecting with my inner self

Becoming self-aware, especially of one’s inner life, is a spiritual practice. We can only achieve personal growth, and heal from past trauma, if we understand our thoughts, feelings and behaviours, and face up to our personal histories (warts and all) and how they have affected us. Once we learn to observe and understand our own innermost thoughts and emotions, we become more aware of why we behave in the ways that we do, and we become more understanding of others.

Adverse life events have a huge impact on our confidence. We have to keep building and rebuilding our confidence in who we are by practising self-forgiveness, self-compassion and self-care. As well as healing from past wounds, we need to test our characters in community. It is only when we live in community that we can put our best intentions into practice, and demonstrate – to ourselves as much as to others – any growth in courage, wisdom, kindness, compassion and taking personal responsibility – all indicators of a thriving inner spiritual life!

Take time to write about yourself and your story in a journal, so you can gain perspective and see patterns in your behaviour and their repercussions. Notice too, just how many things in life are out of your control, and how you have managed to cope in spite of the difficulties life has thrown at you. We all have a well of strength and resources that runs broader and deeper than we think! Celebrate your achievements, however small. Think about how you could act more kindly, wisely or courageously next time you face a challenge. Share your story with others and listen to theirs in turn. Notice how other people view you and how you view them. Very often, we are harsher towards ourselves for our mistakes and failings than we are towards others, but it is only when we learn to be compassionate towards ourselves, that we become truly compassionate towards others.

2. Connecting with my family and community identities

Our spirituality is closely linked to our sense of identity. We can enrich our sense of identity through exploring our heritage and culture; our family and community histories, myths, legends and traditions. This may or may not involve an exploration religious teachings and practices, cultural and philosophical teachings and practices, or a mixture of the two. You can be discerning, choosing from your heritage that which reflects current scholarly and ethical understandings, while still honouring your ancestors – that is after all how we progress!

Family and community rituals mark out time and life-cycles with seasons, special days, feasts, festivities and ceremonies. They give us predictable rhythms in life, and anchors in time and place, which help us to feel secure. They also hugely enrich our cultural experience, remind us of our core values, and bond communities and families together. Collective identities give us our sense of belonging. This is healthy as long as we don’t start to feel superior and judge other people’s families and communities unfairly and unfavourably. We want to enjoy our tribes without becoming tribal! Our interdependence, after all, is global, so we need to appreciate that what we do affects people around the world and what or how they do affects us. Understanding the oneness of humanity, that we are part of a global community, is an important part of human spirituality; when one prospers, all prosper, when one suffers, so do we all!

Try making a family tree or creating some new family traditions. If they are inspired by old ones, all the better! Make an effort to connect with your local community and those friendly networks you might have neglected. By preserving what is good in the legacy of our ancestors, we help them to have a positive impact far beyond the grave, and we secure the cultural health and wellbeing of future generations. When we have a strong sense of our place in the human world, in our ‘society’ or ‘tribe’, we feel calm, confident and purposeful, and help others to be so.

3. Connecting with others

We humans are social animals. We feel spiritually fulfilled when we have friendly and meaningful encounters and relationships with others, other humans and indeed other animals. Many people experience emotional and physical intimacy as a spiritual experience. Unconditional love, moments of empathy and understanding, kindness, forgiveness and hospitality, jovial companionship or loyal friendship, shared humour, fun and laughter; these can all be spiritual experiences that bring us a profound sense of comfort, joy and wellbeing. When we feel heard and understood, and those around us feel the same, we know we belong.

The key to growing this aspect of our spirituality is the regular practice of empathy; imagining and understanding the situations, needs and feelings of others, and the practice of kindness; treating others as you would want to be treated yourself in their situation. Practical wisdom is also essential for connecting with others. This comes with experience but the young can also speed up their learning by reading about the lives of others and the lessons they have learnt (e.g. in novels, biographies, myths and legends), by reading literature specifically written to pass down wisdom in the form of sayings, stories and proverbs, and by having older and more experienced mentors and role models. Learning about other people’s lives, either real or fictional, can also help us to develop our empathy skills, especially when we have not yet (or may never) experience the same things as them.

Carry out at least two very conscious acts of kindness each day; one for a complete stranger and one for a friend, relative or acquaintance, and watch your spirituality and sense of wellbeing grow, along with that of those you are kind to! We are happiest when we are making others happy; when we are sharing each other’s burdens and celebrating each other’s joys.

4. Connecting with art and culture

Spiritual experiences are often those we have when we encounter the things that other people have made; when we look upon a beautiful painting with awe and wonder, or listen to a powerful piece of music and feel inspired. These things lift us beyond the mundane and ordinary, and beyond the self (self-transcendence), showing us just how diverse the range of human minds is, and how great the powers of the human imagination. They are a revelation of human genius, but more importantly, they are a revelation of various perspectives on the world which may be new to us, opening up the world of other people’s experiences in new and exciting ways. As mentioned above, reading fictional novels, for example, or watching a drama on television, provides an important schooling in empathy as we consider various kinds of people and situations we may or may not encounter in our own lives.

Thus, watching or listening to art forms can hone those all important empathy skills and give us a sense of connection and belonging to others. Through a shared love, for example, of poetry, we can even experience a kind of fellowship or affinity with someone who may be worlds away from us in time or space, for example, someone who was once alive hundreds of years ago on other side of the world but who wrote a poem that seems to capture exactly how we think or feel. We can see humanity and the world in new and diverse ways through engaging with the arts and cultures, and we will grow spiritually, enriching our inner lives, by doing so.

Try taking some time at least once a week to look at art works or museum artefacts, or take time to listen to music and go to an artistic or cultural event without any distractions. You can choose any form of art or cultural experience but try to choose something you aren’t already in a habit of doing regularly. Reflect on it afterwards and write down how it made you feel and think. What messages were the artists trying to convey, and why? You could choose an art-form that is a part of your own heritage, but with which you are not yet familiar, thus connecting with family and communities identities at the same time!

5. Connecting with nature

Many people feel awe and wonder when they encounter the beauty of the natural world. Its vastness and complexity put ourselves and our concerns into perspective. We are also comforted by the sights, sounds and smells of nature. Nature engages all our senses, distracting us from anxious thoughts, and arousing feelings of peace and happiness.

We feel a sense of belonging when we understand our place in the natural world and connect meaningfully with our environment. The chemicals, sounds, patterns, textures and light we are exposed to in natural settings can bring both physical and mental health benefits and healing – too numerous to detail here! You will no doubt have heard or read about various forms of ecotherapy, ‘green therapy’ or biophilia therapies, such as forest bathing, wild swimming (blue therapy!) and other forms of sensory immersion in natural settings which have proven or likely benefits for mental and physical health.

We can also increase our contact with the natural world by bringing nature inside our houses using potted houseplants, indoor herb and fruit gardens and images of plants, animals and land/seascapes. Those of us who have gardens or allotments can cultivate them by growing plants that attract a greater variety of insects, by providing shelter and food for animals and birds and by growing our own produce – a process which is especially good for connecting us more directly with our environment and reminding us just how much we depend on its wellbeing. Connecting with nature can also mean becoming more aware and responsive to our own bodies, through closer attention to our physical needs and through creative and meditative forms of movement such as dance, yoga or tai chi.

Try to spend at least half an hour a day walking or just ‘being’ in a natural setting, preferably a wild setting (or as wild as possible) rather than a manicured garden. Integrate nature into your work and living spaces and cultivate any natural area you have access to, however small. Also, when the weather allows, try carrying out your usual activities outside in the natural light and fresh air, and watch your spiritual life grow alongside the flora and fauna!

We are physical beings and our spirituality is closely tied to our health and wellbeing. It is much harder to grow spiritually when we are struggling just to survive from moment to moment, and yet it is precisely a fulfilling spiritual life that is what we strive so hard to survive and live for. Therefore, our physical and spiritual selves, while we can make some distinctions between them, are inextricably bound up together, mutually dependent and of equally importance. If our spiritual life suffers, our physical health deteriorates, and if our physical health suffers, it can have profound affects on our spiritual life. On the other hand, good physical health supports a thriving spiritual life, and a healthy spiritual life promotes sensible lifestyle choices, lower stress levels and physical wellbeing.

6. Connecting with the supernatural (for some)

For some people, an encounter or relationship with what they believe to be a supernatural force or supernatural being/beings is an important part of their spiritual life. This could include God/s, ghosts, visions, dreams, prophecy and so forth. Others may view these experiences in a materialistic sense, as psycho-spiritual events, but still speak meaningfully of God as a complex metaphor for concepts and experiences such as the heights of human aspiration, unconditional love, mystery or self-transcendence and so forth. They might speak of certain experiences as being divine, such as those awe-inspiring experiences of nature or the arts I mentioned above. God may be thought of as a mysterious life-force moving in or through the world, rather than an external ruler who created and now governs and intervenes in the world. Thus, it is important to note the variety when it comes to what is meant by God and the supernatural.

Do you believe in the supernatural, or are these intense spiritual experiences natural experiences which are nonetheless meaningful and transformative of people’s lives? Whether you are religious or not, this may be an important aspect of your spirituality to explore further. Sometimes, spiritual direction or spiritual accompaniment can help you to develop your thinking and practice around such beliefs.

It is important to ask yourself the following: Are your beliefs compassionate, comforting and empowering, and have they motivated you to be and do better? Or, do your beliefs make you feel confused, internally conflicted, angry, fearful or hostile/superior to those who are of a different gender, culture, belief, ethnicity, sexual orientation or age to you? If the latter, you may be the victim of a high control religious group and harmful ideology.

7. Connecting with a greater cause

For some people, their spiritual journey is heavily connected with a cause they are particularly passionate about, often because of the impact it has had on their own lives or the lives of their loved ones. This usually takes the form of awareness-raising and fundraising for a charity, or activism for a social and/or environmental justice cause. Being a pioneer, social reformer, human rights activist and standing up for those who are oppressed, or who don’t have a voice, can be a great vocation. It is very fulfilling, spiritually, because it means one’s work aligns with one’s core values, making life feel very purposeful and worthwhile. It can also leave a tangible a legacy for future generations if it forces a government to take action, results in new legislation, brings an end to a stigma or stereotype, or significantly changes culture.

Activism is an important contribution to a good society, and as we’ve already discussed, doing good to others is one of the things that brings most satisfaction and happiness to ourselves. For some, their vocation very directly furthers the causes they are most passionate about, as well as aligning with core values. For others, their vocation supports those causes and expresses those values indirectly, though not necessarily less effectively! Either way, we achieve most growth spiritually when we take actions that are compatible with, and indeed promote, our core values, as we shall see when we look at core values and beliefs below.

Is there a cause you are passionate about? Perhaps you or a loved one has suffered an illness or injustice that needs to be addressed and prevented from harming others in the future. Perhaps you want to tackle one of our global social and environmental challenges alongside likeminded people. Even if you are never going to be the world’s next Martin Luther King or Susan B. Anthony, it still does yourself and others a lot of good to support at least one cause or charity as much as you are able, through raising awareness, resources and funds, through ethical shopping, banking and voting choices, and by making changes to your lifestyle to reduce your negative impact on the environment and on humans and other animals around the world. Everyone has an important part to play in bringing kindness, wellness and peace to the world, and in leaving it a little better than they found it.

8. Connecting with my vocation

For many people, their passion for an art-form, craft or other vocation provides them with spiritual depth and fulfilment. When people are so engrossed in their creative/inventive work that they temporarily forget themselves and anything else, they are said to have entered a ‘flow state’, and these can be very profound spiritual experiences. They often involve vivid imaginings, intense creativity and invention, and are an essential part of how we create meaning in our lives. However, it is the satisfaction we get from being able to devote ourselves to the work we love in the longer term, along with the achievement that brings, which gives us the greatest sense of fulfilment.

Many people think spirituality means finding a meaning and purpose that is somehow ‘out there’, preordained, and waiting for us, but usually the meaning in our lives, is the meaning we create for ourselves as we pursue our vocation and the goals contained within that. Our vocations, whether they involve composing music, creating more efficient administrative systems, designing products which solve problems or educating the next generation, can all contribute to a good and rich society, and we each derive a great deal of spiritual fulfilment from this.

Think about what productive and creative activities you have lost yourself in. What are you passionate about and also good at? Have you already discovered your vocation? Are you able to make a living from it, or are you still waiting for the perfect role that will allow you to fulfil it? Whether you feel you are doing what you were ‘born to do’, or not, never give up trying to find a way of fulfilling your vocation. It isn’t always possible all of the time. In fact, it’s very likely to be impossible at various times in your life, but you never know when an opportunity might arise, so be as ready for it as you can. There may also be surprising ways and roles in which you can fulfil your vocation, which you may not have thought of, so always be open to trying new things.

You can reach flow states through hobbies and activities in your own time, and this can be a way of honing your skills ready for any paid opportunities that come your way, as well as an enjoyable and rewarding experience in itself. Don’t always work for a pre-prescribed result, however, and don’t be too easily put off by thinking you aren’t talented enough or that the product of your labours won’t be perfect. It is the act of getting lost in the activity and enjoying the activity that is important. Let other people be the judge of the outcome, or keep the product to yourself until you feel you have created something good enough to share.

9. Connecting with my core values and beliefs

Our core values and beliefs are an essential part of our spirituality. We cannot grow in character, identity or anything else unless we have some core universal values, which we can always aspire to alongside others.  What are the things that matter most to you – honesty, kindness, certain freedoms or responsibilities? Are these values adequately captured in human rights legislation and properly protected through its enforcement? What actions and behaviours are most abhorrent to you? What is good? What is evil? Where are the grey areas? Are there ethical questions and controversies you aren’t sure how to respond to or even whether you should?

Try to have integrity by being faithful to your values, and by being fair-minded towards others, remembering that you will sometimes fall short of your own values yourself! Reflect on your own life to discern how well you are committing to your core values and how much you are living at odds with them. Harmony between your core values, your core beliefs, your experience of reality and your actions brings peace of mind. Disharmony between your core values, core beliefs, your experience of reality and your actions, results in internal conflict, cognitive dissonance, hypocrisy and dishonesty with yourself and others. These things make it impossible to live a spiritual life. Honesty and integrity are essential for spiritual growth and fulfilment.

Sometimes, having a faith or worldview can help you to stick to your core values, if those values align with those of your worldview/faith community. This is because a faith/belief community engages in practices which reinforce those values and the behaviours which live them out. Regular teachings can also serve as reminders of core values. However, having a worldview/faith can also just as easily get in the way of you living out your core values, for example, if there are elements of that faith/belief – in its scriptures, teachings, traditions or community practices – that are incompatible with your core values. It is important to be part of a community where you can live with integrity and are not pressured to be or do things you are uncomfortable with because they are at odds with your core values and beliefs. You cannot build a good society if you cannot even live a good life according to your own values! Even being in a position where you could be seen to be condoning or tolerating something unethical is problematic, though of course, no community is perfect, and compromises will have to be made on more minor things.

While core values of freedom, responsibility or equality can be very general, universally accepted, and permanent, they can also be very vague, and understood and interpreted in very different ways, depending on the subject or circumstances. Therefore, it is also very important to think critically about your values and beliefs from time to time, and to allow new evidence and reliable information to open and change your mind about what is right or wrong. Our core values and beliefs should be steady but they should also evolve with growth in our experience, knowledge and understanding. They should neither bend with every breeze nor be written in stone. We should never stop asking questions and remembering all the many things that we could not possibly know with any certainty. An evolution of our personal ethics is a sure sign of a healthy spiritual life. The alternative is dogmatism, self-righteousness and a distinct lack of spirituality.

Your values and beliefs give your life meaning. They help you to understand the world and your place and purpose within it. How well do you live out your core values and beliefs in an authentic way? Think of a few of your most deeply held values and why they are so important to you. The values we treasure most are often the universal human rights that we feel are most threatened, or which have already been abused in ways that have personally affected us or our loved ones. Now think of a motto, mantra or favourite quotation to remember one of them by, and then memorise it. It will keep coming to mind and will serve as a helpful reminder and motivation when you most need it!

10. Connecting with reality and the present

For many people, truth seeking and connecting with reality are an essential part of our spiritual life. We can achieve this, with certain limitations, through reason and science, but reflective practices are also helpful, such as mindfulness meditation and forms of contemplation which anchor us in the present moment. Connecting with the here and now is also very helpful for mental wellbeing, as we humans have a consciousness which often leads to us living in the future, with fear, or in the past, with regret. Our anxieties, visions and predictions about the future are rarely accurate. Troubles might well befall us, but rarely the ones we happen to fear or obsess about the most. Equally, our shame, regret or nostalgia about the past is rarely an accurate reflection of what actually happened and how it was viewed by others. This is because our anxieties and regrets are often not very rational or objective. Focusing on what we can see, hear, taste, touch and smell in the present, helps to break the cycle of lamenting the past and worrying about the future. It helps us to connect with the truth of what’s happening in the world and with ourselves in the here and now. This truth-seeking gives us a sense of integrity, not to mention sanity.

Many people experience moments of epiphany, enlightenment, realisation, self-transcendence, or so called ‘lightbulb moments’, as spiritual, and these are very often moments of mindfulness, when we connect more viscerally with reality, and with those things we had overlooked before because our minds were cluttered or clouded with delusions. These moments come unbidden and cannot be forced. However, we can create conditions that make them more likely, by cultivating a growth mentality, through an open questioning attitude, a commitment to life-long learning, and through fine-tuning your ability to think critically and be honest with yourself.

Try to spend at least fifteen minutes a day doing nothing but sitting comfortably and observing the world around you using each of your senses in turn. Then, after a two-minute break, take another 15 minutes to observe your own thoughts and feelings without interfering or trying to control them. Combine these meditations with your half-hour in nature perhaps! If you are on a roll and have time, spend another 15 minutes visualising someone or something loving, good or beautiful, or visualise a positive future you would like to aim for, whether it be a special place you want to go to, a success at work or regained health and vitality. The first meditation brings you back into the reality of the present moment and your immediate surroundings, while the second helps you to gain perspective on your thoughts and feelings. The third meditation, the visualisation, can help to motivate, inspire and re-orientate you towards the good things in the world, and towards the things you can control and make good yourself. It draws you away from doom-wallowing and catastrophising about all the unfortunate things that are out of your control. Having a strong mental image of something good happening or of yourself doing something good, can give you greater confidence that it can be achieved.

Another reflective practice with a good evidence-base behind its efficacy is gratitude journaling, in which you commit to writing down at least 5 things you are grateful for each day. This isn’t a way of denying the difficulties and tragedies of life. It is a way of countering our tendency to over-saturate ourselves with repetitious reports of bad news, heart-rending witness accounts, doom-scrolling and so forth, and our tendency to worry about all the many things we hear about but cannot possibly change (certainly not by worrying anyway!). We didn’t adapt and evolve over millions of years to flourish in an environment where news of all the world’s problems is broadcast to us twenty-four hours a day! The human brain also tends to focus more on negative things or experiences, perceiving them as more intense. This makes evolutionary sense as negative experiences can indicate possible threats to survival, but it also means we have a skewed perspective on the world. Gratitude journaling is a way of bringing positive things into greater focus, to address this existing imbalance, and a way of gaining a more reasonable perspective on how things are going in the world of our own immediate experience on one particular day. Reminding ourselves of all the brilliant and noble things people are doing, especially in our own locality but also globally, and developing a daily sense of gratitude for these, can inspire us to take action – instead of giving up – and can help us to see where we really can make a difference.

These are just a few examples of many reflective practices and rituals that can help us to connect with reality and live a rich and fulfilling spiritual life.

Tea Ceremony: A young child engages in this mindfulness ritual while also exploring his mixed heritage.

When do I need spiritual care?

Spiritual care is helpful when we face physical or mental illness, bereavement, injury, our own death, or when we face any other adverse, traumatic or life-changing events.

We can also benefit from spiritual care and nourishment in the good times, not only to shore us up for when troubles come, but also to improve and enrich our quality of life and enable us to fulfil our potential.

Spiritual care is important during our formative years; in childhood, adolescence and young adulthood, when we are more vulnerable and lack the experience to grow spiritually without guidance.

Spiritual care from a Chaplain, Spiritual Care Specialist or Pastoral Carer helps us to broaden, deepen and mend our spiritual life by facilitating growth and healing in the ten areas outlined above.

What will spiritual care involve?

Therapeutic Listening

Spiritual care professionals provide a quiet and non-judgmental space for you to talk out, reflect on, and gain understanding and perspective on your thoughts, feelings, circumstances, experiences, ethical dilemmas, existential questions, hopes and dreams. We provide compassionate and supportive accompaniment, as you navigate through difficult and complex times in your lives. We help you to pause, take stock of where you are in your life’s journey, work out where you want to be, and explore how you might get there. We maintain unconditional positive regard for those who see us, whatever you may have done in the past.

We will often use ‘counselling-type conversation skills’ to help you to reflect, including active listening, asking open questions, summarising what you have shared (which also confirms mutual understanding), occasionally providing insights that will give you further perspectives on your situation, occasionally making open practical suggestions, and when appropriate, signposting you to other services that might be helpful to you. Some of us have more specific training in things like psychological first aid, suicide and bereavement support and mediation. We can also offer confidentiality, apart from in instances where crimes are disclosed or safeguarding concerns are raised (where what is disclosed suggests the person may pose a risk to themselves or others) and we are obliged to inform our managers and safeguarding teams. We often work on inter-disciplinary teams sharing notes, so it is worth stating clearing in conversation when you wish something you are sharing with us to remain confidential.

Reflective Practices and Rituals

Spiritual care professionals lead, teach or facilitate a variety of reflective and creative practices and rituals, inspired by cultural, philosophical and/or religious traditions. We build community through spiritual wellbeing groups, reflective gatherings, seasonal or special gatherings, hospitality and socials, and life-cycle ceremonies.

Chaplains offer meditation, prayer, and therapeutic activities involving music, art, poetry, writing, crafts, dance and other forms of creativity. For example, I personally use literature therapies in my work, including poetry prescribing, journaling, creative writing and shared reading. I also use mindfulness and visualisation meditations, contemplative forms of singing, and evidenced-based biophilia (nature) therapies. Chaplains have different backgrounds and expertise, so the reflective practices, rituals and events they offer will vary widely. If you require support to take part in specific rituals or practices, such as those of a religious tradition or denomination, we can put you in touch with the appropriate chaplain or local faith leader who can provide this.

Advocacy and Mediation

Spiritual care professionals are very willing advocates for those individuals or groups who need someone to speak or write on their behalf to ensure their spiritual, cultural and religious needs are being respected and met. We also support and advocate for those individuals and groups in situations of injustice, such as bullying, discrimination, harassment and inequality. Some of us are trained or experienced in mediation and are happy to assist in resolving conflicts between individuals and groups where appropriate.

Many of us endeavour to be champions of human rights, ethics, equality, diversity and inclusion in our institutions, engaging with management and policy makers, and speaking out regarding ethical complexities, spiritual wellbeing concerns and matters of religion/belief, especially in times of crisis or controversy. We subscribe to the stated values of the institutions where we work, but we can also be a critical friend to our institutions, in ways that are reasonable and constructive and which are in that institution’s best long term interests. Many of us also promote understanding of the full range of religious and nonreligious worldviews, fostering greater worldview literacy, and facilitating constructive dialogue between people of different persuasion and backgrounds.

How can I contact a spiritual care specialist or chaplain?

Spiritual care specialists, chaplains or pastoral carers are available at most hospitals, hospices, prisons, universities, schools and many other institutions. Ask a member of staff to give you the contact details for the Spiritual Care Team or Chaplaincy Team where you are based, or ask them to contact the Spiritual Care Team on your behalf. Spiritual care is available to all staff members as well as service users, so please do not hesitate to contact us if you are a member of staff!

Which chaplain should I ask for?

If you have a specific faith/belief and would prefer to speak to someone who shares that belief, you can ask if there is a chaplain who represents that faith/belief on the team. However, it is worth remembering that you may not necessarily have more in common, or a greater understanding, with someone of the same religion/belief group or denomination/sect. Often, other considerations are more important, such as personality type, shared values, professionalism, impartiality, and how liberal and open or conservative and dogmatic a worldview you have. For example, if you identify as a Christian and have liberal social values, you might well have more in common with a liberal minded Hindu Chaplain, than with a conservative Christian one. As a Humanist Chaplain, I have certainly cared for people who have openly stated they are more comfortable with me than with conservative chaplains of their own faith, and there will of course be people with more conservative or traditional views, who prefer to see like-minded chaplains.

We are living in a complex globalised world. Therefore, it is unsurprising that in most cases these days, we do not fit perfectly into the traditional religion/belief categories. The majority of people in the UK no longer have religious affiliations or memberships at all – a majority that increases dramatically down the generations – and many people now identify with a number of different faith, belief or philosophical movements/groups at the same time, whether with or without any formal affiliation. This is the natural result of individuals having much greater access to diverse ideas and communities both locally and online, and the increasing number of culturally and religiously mixed marriages/partnerships. People can more easily follow the ideas, groups and movements, which best align with their values, and which best meet their evolving spiritual needs at particular stages of life. Part of a chaplain’s role is to help you to discern which groups or movements are the best fit for you, thereby helping you to meet your spiritual needs in the longer term, once you are no longer in our care.

However, many chaplaincy teams in the UK are still predominantly or exclusively Christian. They have been very slow to diversify in spite of an increasingly diverse population, increasing requests from service users to see chaplains of other faiths/beliefs and the fact that the majority of UK citizens no longer identify as Christian. If you are nonreligious or of a faith/belief other than Christian, it is worth asking to speak to a nonreligious/Humanist chaplain or a chaplain of your particular faith to raise awareness of the need for diversity. Religiously and culturally diverse teams can far better meet the range of needs and expectations of service users and staff, and importantly, they are much more likely to treat everyone equally and represent a wider range of social and ethical views, since the act of diversifying in itself demonstrates greater openness and a real commitment to equality and inclusion. If you feel your spiritual needs have not been met by a Chaplaincy or Spiritual Care Team due to a lack of diverse representation, do raise this with a member of staff and the Equality, Diversity and Inclusion Team at your institution. With your help we can more easily improve our service!

© All images, text and photography by Dr. Anastasia E. Somerville-Wong

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International Women’s Day and Women’s History Month Message

We are very proud to share with you our video celebrating International Women’s Day and Women’s History Month.

It was an honour and privilege to write this script and stand alongside my NHS colleagues to deliver our message of solidarity with the world’s women and girls.

Anastasia Somerville-Wong (Humanist Chaplain, Somerset NHS Foundation Trust)

Please ‘like’ and leave positive comments on our video, and don’t forget to share it across the NHS and all your other networks!

The Script

Opening Music

May it be, Enya

(Music fades into background…)

Hello, my name’s Anastasia Somerville-Wong and I’m one of the Chaplains working for Somerset NHS Foundation Trust.

In this video, for International Women’s Day and Women’s History Month, we’re taking time to celebrate the world’s women and girls, so many of whom have excelled in their spheres of work and influence across every area of human endeavour; women and girls who have shown great courage in demanding their rights and pursuing their vocations in spite of enduring prejudice, discrimination, gender inequality and gender-based violence.

Lighting the Candle

Alongside some of my Somerset NHS colleagues, I’m going to light a candle as a symbol of our solidarity with all the world’s women and girls. Wherever you are, please join me in lighting a candle of your own if it’s safe to do so.

(Transition to Eniron, Enya, as background music)


Let’s take some time now to celebrate women and girls around the world for everything they do for us and everything they have achieved, remembering that we are all connected, connected through international chains of production, supply and demand, through our impact on the wider environment, through international media and social networks, but even more deeply, we are connected by our common humanity, knowing that whatever we may be experiencing, we are not alone.

Vicky’s name and title appear on screen with her (Vicky Hanna, Domestic Abuse Co-ordinator)

We celebrate women in the medical and caring professions and in the emergency services, whose dedication throughout the coronavirus pandemic, has been exemplary, and who continue to put themselves at risk for the benefit of others.

Emma’s name and title appear on screen with her (Emma Symonds, Equality, Diversity and Inclusion Lead)

We celebrate women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, whose world-leading research is helping us to address our global health, environmental and technological challenges.

Kate Greenwood’s name and title appear on screen with her (Kate Greenwood, Safeguarding, Learning and Development Lead.)

We celebrate all the women in politics, economics, and in the civil and legal professions, who strive to create and uphold strong, stable and democratic institutions that protect human rights and freedoms, and who strive to secure peaceful, responsible and productive relationships within and between nations.

We celebrate all women in the humanities and social sciences, who reveal the true nature of humanity, both its strengths and its weaknesses, reminding us of who we have been, and helping us to decide who we want to be and how we might get there.

We celebrate all women in the arts, crafts, creative and culture sectors, who enrich our lives, identities and heritages, and challenge us to look at the world and ourselves from new perspectives.

We celebrate all women in broadcasting and journalism who seek to uncover the truth of what’s happening in the world, shining a light into the darkest places, in order to inform and empower us to bring about change where it is needed.

We celebrate all women activists and reformers who speak truth to the powerful, and rally us to bring an end to the social and environmental injustices of our time.

We celebrate the women who are bringing ethics and human need to the forefront of business modelling and financial services, who take up space in boardrooms and are willing to challenge models that favour profiteering and short-term gain at the expense of humanity, other animals and the environment.

We celebrate women in farming, fishing, and land and water management, who are working to create greener, more efficient, and more humane methods for meeting our basic needs.

We celebrate all women in manual and administrative work, without whom, all our essential services would grind to a halt and none of us would survive.

We celebrate women in the armed forces, who strive to create the conditions for peace, while being prepared, in the face of an aggressor, to defend with their lives, the lives of others, and to defend the cultures and values they treasure.

We celebrate all women educators, from school and nursery teachers, to university and college lecturers, who tirelessly invest their lives in nurturing the minds and talents of the young.

We celebrate all women who are members of ethnic minorities within their nations, and who have therefore, not only had to struggle against gender inequality but who have also had to swim against a tide of racial, cultural and/or religious prejudice.

We celebrate women everywhere, not only those who juggle motherhood with work and career, but also those women who choose motherhood and childrearing as their vocation.

Background music fades away…

Musial Performance:

Something Inside So Strong by Labi Siffre (Lewisham & Greenwich NHS Choir version)

Using images of the triumphs of women in various fields and historic milestones for women’s rights and freedoms…

(Change of mood and music!)

Background music: Emotional Piano Song Instrumental

Message/Reflection: #METOO

Unfortunately, our story as women and girls has two sides, one of great triumph and achievement in the face of adversity, and one of heart-rending tragedy and injustice. Therefore, we also cherish and honour the incredible strength of all the women who are, and have been, victims and survivors of the crimes and injustices so often committed against women by men: crimes of murder, rape, trafficking, domestic and sexual enslavement, coercive control, physical, emotional, financial or sexual abuse, bullying, harassment, stalking, belittlement, humiliation, oppression, objectification, censorship, dehumanisation, stereotyping, discrimination, misogynistic slander and also neglect, such as the neglect of issues mainly affecting women’s health and wellbeing. I’m certain that every women of the world can say to one or more of these injustices: me too, me too, me too!

Those of us who haven’t been victims of violent crime or severe abuse, still endure the everyday sexism of unwanted sexual attention, including personal comments, staring, crude remarks, invasions of personal space, inappropriate touching and other offenses, which are used to belittle, objectify and intimidate us.

Many of us have had ideas stolen or work taken credit for by a man, and been labelled emotional or a trouble maker when we rightly protest. I suspect all of us have experienced men who use their larger physical size and strength to dominate our public spaces and intrude into our private ones, squeezing us into a corner.

Most of us will have been mocked by men who call us emotional and complicated, while failing to recognise how angry they are a lot of the time, and how anger is not only an emotion but a far more destructive one than the sadness women may show in tears.

Many women will have experienced men celebrating their beauty, then turning and blaming women for their own lust or the lust and bad behaviour of other men.

Many women will have been made to feel ashamed of their natural bodies and desires, and pressured to augment or change their bodies to suit the tastes of others, while suppressing their own desires.

Many will have known men who fail to take equal responsibility for the next generation, expecting women to shoulder the responsibility and do most of the hard work of childrearing due to underlying sexist assumptions that it is a woman’s job. Mothers then often find themselves unfairly blamed for problems with children and youth, that fathers, including absent fathers, should be equally held responsible for.

Many of us have experienced male doctors who dismiss our physical pain and suffering as emotional or imagined and deny us the research and treatment we deserve. And, almost all of us will have come up against patriarchal gate-keepers, men who carefully guard their privileges and their positions of power and influence, even down the generations, and exclude us from their social networks, ‘old boys clubs’, and insider knowledge and dealings… 

(We all say together)

me too, me too, me too!

We women are rational, moral, thoughtful, intelligent, resilient, brave and more besides, and yet still, almost everywhere in the world, we have to endure the preaching, teaching and dictates of men who are constantly trying to indoctrinate our daughters and sons with religious, philosophical or political ideologies that conveniently make women and girls inferior, even subhuman, while portraying men and boys as god-like beings. Such men lay exclusive claim to qualities, which they then call divine, calling themselves rational, inventive, moral, and placing the animal nature on us: intuitive, instinctual, emotional, in order to undermine our self-worth and control us; we who so often show them what it means to care for humanity and the earth, what it means to nurture and heal rather than make war and destroy, we who so often create ways of living peacefully with one another and who strive to build more progressive civilisations, we who therefore do by far the most rational and ethical things, so that if anything can be called divine, womankind is surely loser to it!

Menfolk, we want you to abandon the stories and myths you have invented both to blame us for the evils of the world and to exonerate yourselves for evils of which you are so often primarily responsible. We need new stories and creative works which are filled with inspiration and role models to empower our women and girls rather than to subdue them. We will continue to write our mothers and grandmothers and our great, great, greats back into our histories and our children’s inheritance, so our sons and daughters will no longer be denied half their heritage. You will continue to be astounded by the extent of your lost heritage, by the strength and ingenuity of the women who secured your existence – all those your forefathers mean-spiritedly censored, slandered and erased from record and memory; all those your forefathers wrote into history with, as the great poet, Maya Angelou, put it  their “bitter twisted lies”, reducing women to nothing but villains, virgins, prostitutes and mothers, without even their names.

Men of the past thought themselves cleverer than us, but it was always mere fantasy, for in spite of our millennia of oppression and subjugation, the huge burden of domestic work laid on us, the enormous physical strain of pregnancy and childbirth and the all-consuming nature of childrearing, we have always proven ourselves your equals in everything, deserving of every right and honour you enjoy. We will no longer pay the price for man’s great pride and his even greater fear, which makes him so insecure. We simply don’t owe you anything. You’re not entitled to our admiration, our bodies, our “yes”. Smiling isn’t flirting and friend-zoning you is our right. Being loved by us is a privilege and our respect must be earnt. People who feel loved are rarely mean, but the greatest of all are those who don’t feel loved but are kind all the same. So, we want you to recognise that cruelty to women and girls comes from your own need, and we ask you to find a healthy way to address that need, which doesn’t involve unfairly blaming or taking out your anger on us. Yes, there are angry, violent and cruel women, but that doesn’t make it any less true that men are responsible for a far greater portion of the world’s violence. You tell us you’re not all bad, and that’s true, but it’s no excuse and it’s no repair, unless you stand with us against those who give your sex a bad name. 

So here we stand, together with our male allies, to claim our human rights, including those rights specific to us because of the special role we play in nurturing the next generation in our wombs and in infancy. Together we will create the conditions for women and girls to take up their rightful space in our streets, classrooms, playgrounds, offices, stages and boardrooms. Together we will demand equal pay, equal recognition, and equal opportunities wherever we are in the world. We stand together as the most fully conscious and inventive beings to walk the earth, potentially even the universe, and though females are smaller, leaving us more vulnerable to physical threats and coercion, no one can crush our spirit or take away our understanding of who we really are, of who you really are.

It isn’t hopeless; the gender wars, the long slow march towards gender equality that seems to be set back again and again… We complain not because we want to rub your noses in your weaknesses or because we seek vengeance, but because we suffer, we are in pain, and we believe you can do better, that we can all do better, we have to, in spite of the darker side of human nature.

Don’t fool for the misandry myth spread by those who hate us. We love you. We know that if we had been the larger, more muscular sex, filled with testosterone as you are, we’d be the same, we know that. Many men are already doing far better than their forefathers, and we watch on with hope. All we ask for, are brothers, fathers, sons and partners who stand with us as fellow humans, sharing this incredible but ever-challenging journey of life as we circumnavigate a star each year on a beautiful blue planet; all we want are friends and equals who will make this life easier and more wonderful for us, while we make it easier and more wonderful for you. 

We humans are far stronger together than we are when we’re at war or when we’re segregated and taught to fear each other. We are far happier when we work side by side and simply treat each other as we’d want to be treated ourselves in whatever situation the other is in. Or, put another way, when we refrain from doing to others what we wouldn’t want to have done to us. This ancient and timeless bit of wisdom, sometimes called the golden rule, appears in writings across numerous cultures throughout human history, with written forms dating back more than two and a half thousand years to the philosophical traditions of ancient India, China and Greece. It’s really time we put this principle into practice between genders, so that those of all gender identities: male, female, transgender, non-binary and genderqueer, enjoy the dignity and respect they deserve as human beings and equals. To paraphrase Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani girl’s education activist, let’s ‘raise up our voices—not so that we can shout, but so that those without a voice can be heard’, and I would add, that none of us can truly succeed, when more than half of us are held back.

(Change of mood and music again…)

Background music: Eniron, Enya

Emma Symonds’ name and work title (Emma Symonds, Equality, Diversity & Inclusion Lead) appear on screen with her, music fades into background

Still I Rise by Maya Angelou

You may write me down in history

With your bitter, twisted lies,

You may trod me in the very dirt

But still, like dust, I’ll rise.

Does my sassiness upset you?

Why are you beset with gloom?

’Cause I walk like I’ve got oil wells

Pumping in my living room.

Just like moons and like suns,

With the certainty of tides,

Just like hopes springing high,

Still I’ll rise.

Did you want to see me broken?

Bowed head and lowered eyes?

Shoulders falling down like teardrops,

Weakened by my soulful cries?

Does my haughtiness offend you?

Don’t you take it awful hard

’Cause I laugh like I’ve got gold mines

Diggin’ in my own backyard.

You may shoot me with your words,

You may cut me with your eyes,

You may kill me with your hatefulness,

But still, like air, I’ll rise.

Does my sexiness upset you?

Does it come as a surprise

That I dance like I’ve got diamonds

At the meeting of my thighs?

Out of the huts of history’s shame

I rise

Up from a past that’s rooted in pain

I rise

I’m a black ocean, leaping and wide,

Welling and swelling I bear in the tide.

Leaving behind nights of terror and fear

I rise

Into a daybreak that’s wondrously clear

I rise

Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,

I am the dream and the hope of the slave.

I rise

I rise

I rise.

Closing Music

May it be, Enya

Music tails off… camera remains only on the candle on its own which is snuffed out at the end.


Scriptwriter: Anastasia Somerville-Wong, Humanist Chaplain at NHS Somerset Foundation Trust and the University of Exeter

Videographer: Rosie Wright, Assistant Learning Advisor, Somerset NHS Foundation Trust


Kate Greenwood, Safeguarding Learning and Development Lead, Somerset NHS Foundation Trust

Vicky Hanna, Domestic Abuse Coordinator, Somerset NHS Foundation Trust

Emma Symonds, Equality, Diversity & Inclusion Lead at Yeovil Hospital, Somerset NHS Foundation Trust

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The Role of Prayer in Humanist Chaplaincy

Some of you will read this title and think, “Prayer, are you serious? How can prayer have any role in Humanist Chaplaincy?” However, the reality is that patients, prisoners and other service users sometimes expect a chaplain to pray for them, and this can include nonreligious and agnostic patients as well as theistic and religious ones. It is a mistake to always assume prayer has to be about pleading with a heavenly king for various mercies, or that it has to have a theistic basis at all.  In fact, prayer is often directed towards anyone who will hear and care; at those who it is shared with (such as the chaplain and anyone else present), at the universe in some general sense, at a god in case there happens to be one, or simply at oneself, as an act of self-reflection. People are often very open and agnostic about what they are in fact praying to!

As an agnostic myself, I find prayer essentially mysterious, in that, as well as being a form of personal and collective reflective practice, it is a creative address to the universe – or to some indefinable creative life-force within the universe in the deepest and most poetic sense – an address to something that may or may not even exist but for poetry, and which one may or may not choose to call ‘God’. I often imagine that while the universe speaks in one form – a language which we can understand through our sensory experiences and the use of reason and the scientific method – we reply in the only way we know how, using our own languages, through prayer. We humans have, as far as we know, made the universe more conscious of itself than it has ever been (assuming there hasn’t been more advanced intelligent life on other planets), and as social creatures, it is only natural that we would want to communicate how we feel about that by addressing this great entity we call the natural world, which has given us life. It’s little wonder that we want to express how we feel about the ‘blessing’ and the ‘curse’ of a human consciousness, with all its scope for ethics and ingenuity on the one hand, and suffering and loneliness on the other. We want to write both a love letter filled with gratitude for the richness of our experience, and at the same time, a letter of bitter complaint about how much we fear the future, lament the past and find ourselves alone, fragile and disturbingly brief!

Whatever prayer is directed towards, it is an outward projection of inward angst, intense desire and relentless questioning, of thoughts we struggle to pin down and feelings we struggle to name, and as such, it can be powerfully relieving, clarifying and restorative. As a chaplain, we are here to facilitate reflection and spiritual expression, and prayer is a familiar and powerful means of doing this for many people, even for those who do not pray routinely in a church, temple or other religious building, or who no longer pray unless they are in extremis. Indeed, we often meet people precisely where they might pray as an exception; outside religious institutions and when they are in desperate situations. While some Humanist Chaplains immediately respond to prayer requests by saying they don’t do prayer, and by referring such patients to a religious chaplain or external minister of religion, I personally do not feel it appropriate to do this, as someone who is there as a spiritual care specialist. I find I cannot reject a patient’s request for what is essentially a moment of spiritual connection with another human and with something greater than themselves; I cannot reject an expressed need for both a moment of quiet reflection and an opportunity to express want, suffering, fear, longing and hope, in simple words spoken aloud or in the mind. This is particularly true in crisis situations, where a patient needs support there and then. I do not feel it right to make them wait for an appointment with a religious chaplain or local clergy-person. If we cannot facilitate people’s spiritual expression in the moments when they really require it, what are we doing there?

For me, it doesn’t matter if the patient believes one thing about prayer and you another. After all, many religious people think differently about prayer. While some imagine they are speaking to a person described in a religious text, and expect this being to intervene and ‘answer’ the prayer somehow, many acknowledge instead that prayer is more about changing and molding the self, by allowing an outlet for powerful emotion and encouraging the articulation of thoughts and feelings, which allows for better reflection upon them. Thus, prayer can therefore be a form of mindfulness meditation, which is why you will sometimes hear religious people talking about doing things “prayerfully” or living all of life “as a prayer”. Prayer is also a way of sharing an intimate and sincere moment of human connection at a deeper level than ordinary conversation. It is a way of cutting through all the awkwardness and superficiality of an acquaintanceship – or even the built-up defences within a friendship – to a deeper channel where something raw and more authentic can be shared. Some nonreligious chaplains may offer to read a poem or share a reflection when a prayer request is made, but this is often inadequate on its own because it doesn’t hold quite the same meaning. Some poems and reflections are, after all, nothing like prayers at all, while others may be indistinguishable from prayers. Poetry might suggest something more formal, more remote and less intimate or expansive. It will immediately alienate anyone who hasn’t got on with poetry and feels they can’t understand it, or who has only come across poetry that doesn’t appeal to them. On the other hand, a poem might have the benefit of being more visual and more musical given its careful construction, fine tuning and colourful use of metaphor, so the best compromise is to have some prepared prayers to hand, which are also poetry.

If the patient wishes to pray using religious terminology, religious imagery or statements of creed/dogma, invite them to do so for themselves after you have offered your own prayer, politely explaining that you only offer humanistic or universalist prayers that include everyone. This way you maintain your integrity by making clear that you do not tacitly agree with anything at all that is prayed, but that you respect each person’s right to believe what they choose and to speak it. Patients/service-users are usually more than satisfied with humanistic or universalist prayers but occasionally they pray in their own words too. In circumstances where it really isn’t possible to pray with a patient in a way that both maintains your integrity and meets their need, for example, because they insist you say a specific prayer you are uncomfortable with, it is best simply to say, “I’m a Humanist Chaplain, so I don’t pray in that way but I can share a reflection instead, would you like that?” This is just the same as when a religious chaplain declines to say a prayer belonging to another tradition or denomination. Failing that, you can arrange for them to see a religious minister of their choosing.

Even where one doesn’t approve of the attitude and/or belief of the patient regarding his/her prayer, there are greater considerations to be had. Enabling prayer is still, most often, better for the patient in that moment than passing on a request, and it may also prove to be better for the staff working with that patient once you are gone. One has to be flexible and able to make compromises for a greater good. After all, when you are at work, it’s not primarily about you and your beliefs as a chaplain. It’s about the patient and staff and their wellbeing first and foremost. Also, it’s worth noting here that the beliefs of those in difficulties are often confused and ephemeral, not set in stone. We hear all kinds of things we may disagree with but which it would not be appropriate to challenge under the circumstances, and throughout, we always maintain an unconditional positive regard for our patients. As long as you can maintain your integrity by being true to yourself in what you say and do, then all is well. It’s also worth remembering that you are not alone in using your own words. Chaplains of different traditions and denominations will use different words anyway, and patients understand this. Even while they expect prayer, their expectations about what form that prayer will take are very open! Out of courtesy, however, if a patient states they are religious, I will always ask them just before I leave whether they would like to see a faith minister from their particular tradition, in case they would benefit from prayer with someone who uses forms of words with which they are more familiar and might like to join in with reciting. Such familiar rituals can bring people comfort, especially when they have memory problems or are (or feel) far from home.

Patients and service users in other settings – even very religious ones – are generally very grateful and positive about universalist and humanistic prayers. I haven’t yet had a complaint! If they ask for or mention enjoying a specific prayer from a specific religion or denomination, it’s easy just to say it’s not one you know/use, and to ask if it’s okay to say a general, universal, or nondenominational prayer instead. They almost always say yes – quibbling over prayers, theology or doctrine is about the last thing on people’s minds when they are ill or in prison or in other challenging situations – and again, you can always put them in touch with a minister of that religion afterwards, if you really feel they would benefit from it.

Thus, prayer, as a kind of love letter from human to human and from human to universe, and as a particularly intimate form of poetry, can be a powerful means of connection with other human beings, with nature, with our culture and heritage and anything else beyond the self, as well as a powerful form of reflection and creative expression. This is why prayer remains at the heart of spiritual practice the world over, in spite of all its frailties and misuses. While some Humanist Chaplains may remain uncomfortable with prayer in any form, others may choose, like me, to take it up and make it their own. When appropriate, I even offer universalist prayer if it isn’t requested but only as one of several choices of reflective practice. For example, I’d say, “Would you like me to share a reflection, poem or prayer with you that’s spiritual but not religious?”

Interestingly, I can appreciate prayer even more now, as a Humanist, than I could when I was a Christian. Humanistic and universalist prayer has the great advantage of being fully inclusive and transparent. It contrasts with prayer that is clouded by religious jargon and which has overtly or underlyingly exclusive, elitist, psychologically unhealthy or prejudiced (sexist, racist, homophobic…) dogma, stories and imagery within it. We also avoid the tendency of religious people to use forms of scripted or extemporaneous prayers as means of sharing private information or stories about people (‘holy gossip’), as a way of showing off and trying to convey superior spiritual status (the ‘holiness hierarchy’), or as a covert way of judging, correcting and manipulating others. However, all that said, Humanists are by no means immune to the excesses of human pride, so it is important still to remember at all times that prayer is about the patient, and it must always be sincere. It is not about showing off how lovely and kind you are or how clever you are with words!

Whatever you decide to do as a Humanist Chaplain, or as any other kind of Chaplain, it should always be your own decision, with which you are comfortable. If someone in your faith/belief group or a member of your chaplaincy team (of a different faith/belief) tells you that you should not or cannot do a certain thing, such as offering prayer, always think for yourself about whether the practice really is incompatible with your beliefs and values, or whether it can in fact be re-framed, reinterpreted, modified or re-purposed in ways that not only make it compatible but actually make it really helpful. Many aspects of religiosity, including reflective and ritualistic practice, are, after all, compatible with nonreligious worldviews, especially with a little bit of tweaking! After all, they evolved out of universally human physical and psychological needs and traits. It is always best to assess the situation for yourself. After all, when it comes to team members of other faiths/beliefs especially, you are much more familiar with your own beliefs and values, and with the range of beliefs and values in your own faith/belief group, than they are!

Likewise, if someone tells you that you must do something – such as always referring religious patients who request prayer immediately to faith chaplains – and it isn’t a hard and fast rule with good reasons behind it (such as the safeguarding rules in your code of conduct), then it’s worth thinking it through for yourself once again. After all, religious chaplains feel very free to provide spiritual care for nonreligious patients/service-users, and these days, the nonreligious are often in a sizeable majority in British institutions, especially among the young, and one could argue that Humanist spiritual care is actually more appropriate and will increasingly be a better fit across the board as the older, more religious generations, pass away. While it’s true that some nonreligious people will have one or two religious beliefs (e.g. a vague belief in a friendly god or a heaven for their deceased relatives – both of these being more an occasional hope than a steady belief), many religiously affiliated people also have very few religious beliefs these days and are much closer to agnosticism than the traditional theism that was once common. Open-hearted spirituality and inclusive forms of religiosity, however, are unsurprisingly, as popular as they ever were.

In the vast majority of cases, Humanist Chaplains can provide spiritual care for religious patients in ways that meet their need as much as any religious chaplain. In fact, we have the advantage of being universal and nondenominational in our approach. We do not come with any creedal or doctrinal baggage but instead move straight towards the universally human, emotional, psychological and spiritual elements of that person’s need and respond appropriately. We don’t come with a great weight of traditional practice either, so we are able to more freely experiment with a much wider variety of forms of spiritual expression, some of which may be more suited to that person as an individual than those few they would normally have access to in their religious community.

However, in my view – before we get ahead of ourselves – the strongest form of chaplaincy takes a multi-faith, multi-cultural approach. After all, much of my own work is inspired by a wide range of religious, philosophical and cultural traditions. While the humanism of our institutions and the added presence of Humanist Chaplains will help chaplaincies to agree and uphold important values and human rights – and consequently become better trusted and integrated into the institutions where we are based – both the chaplaincies and institutions themselves are much richer for the cultural diversity that religious inclusion brings. And moreover, no one, after all, can possibly be an expert in every beneficial philosophical, reflective and ritual practice that humanity ever produced and refined. We all have our specialisms within chaplaincy, both in terms of knowledge and skill. We are most definitely stronger together.

While it goes without saying that all scripted prayers or poems may need adapting for specific people and circumstances, below are a couple of examples of near-universal forms of words I use when asked to pray with a patient. They are helpful for expressing empathy, compassion and goodwill, and the desire to see a patient or other service-user (and their carers and family), have all the things we might want if we were them, and in their situation.

A Universal Prayer

To the universe, to God, or from humankind to humankind, we pray…

May we know wellness and the easing of pain.

May we have hope in the light and also in the dark.

May we have courage to face the sunrise each morning,

And may we find solace, even joy, in the small and the fleeting; 

In the things that are lovely but often overlooked, 

Whose sum is a beautiful world.

May we know peace of mind and peace of heart.

May we have wisdom for the crossroads, for choices that are hard.

May our homes be filled with love, laughter and friendship,

And when our minds are breaking and our legs are weak,

May the kindness of others lift us, and hold us in the storm, 

As they carry us through to a calmer shore.

And from an Irish Blessing…

May the road rise up to meet us.

May the wind be always at our back.

May the sun shine warm upon our faces;

And may the rains fall soft upon our fields,

Until we meet again.

May it be so / Amen

Note I usually use ‘we’ instead of ‘you’ etc., when there are staff members, other patients or members of the community present. This acknowledges the challenges the staff, families and others also face in their roles caring for the patient or service user. It acknowledges their need to be held lovingly ‘in the light’ of our attention, thought and care as well. It also includes ourselves, acknowledging that we too are human and require the same compassion as we go about our day. In certain circumstances, however, it may be more appropriate to say this prayer in the ‘second person’ using ‘you’ and ‘your’ etc. I also use this prayer in my university chaplaincy role.

Here’s an example of a prayer more appropriate for someone who is dying:

A Universal Prayer for the Dying

To the universe, to God, or from humankind to humankind, we pray…

May you know rest, and the easing of pain.

May you know the comfort of those you love near.

May you see yourself in your relations and smile;

And smile at the thought that some-day hence, 

They’ll see echoes of you, in a child yet unmade.

May you see your story arc, from its beginning until now.

May you count all the joys and measure all the laughter.

May you know you have a legacy of creation, wisdom, kindness…

As the ripples of your being and doing in this world,

Outlast the body, and grow rich your claim on eternity.

May you know you are unique, as the stars in the heavens.

May you know you’re rarer than they, and even more precious.

May you reach for your ancestors, who passed this way before;

Each life, though brief, existing in unbroken chain,

Imprinted on the timeline of the universe forever.

May you find comfort in forgiving, and in being forgiven.

May you know the peace of a conscience clear.

May you have hope in the light and also in the dark;

With wonder, not fear, at the mystery of life’s end,

And strength for the solitude of journeying ahead.

As the trees grow,

As the rivers run,

All is change, beneath the sun.

So, the comings, the growings,

The dyings, the goings,

Are symphonies, that merge to one.

One rock, one cry,

One earth, one eye,

The dust of stars, beneath the sky,

Through matter, space

And conscious time, 

Performing endless dance and rhyme,

So take the oar,

And onward go,

For all of life to be, to know.

And you shall find,

We close behind,

Shall cheer you, as you pause, and go.

May it be so / Amen

Prayer is a wild thing. It can be shaped but it cannot be tamed. The same can be said of poetry, and prayer is a kind of poetry.

Isles of Scilly at Dusk

© Article, poetry, prayers and photography by Dr Anastasia E. Somerville-Wong.

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What is Inclusive Spiritual Care?

Spirituality is about a journey in which we create and renew meaning in our lives. It is about taking a step back from daily practicalities to reflect on the bigger picture of our lives and the world we live in. It is about developing an enduring sense of identity and purpose, which can buoy us through the good times and the bad. When people experience problems or crises, they, and those who care for them, often find themselves seeking spiritual nourishment and support, and this is where Spiritual Care Specialists or Spiritual Care Leads have a vital role to play in providing professional and inclusive spiritual care. In this article, I take a closer look at the role of the Spiritual Care Specialist/Lead and the various aspects of care they can provide.

In my own spiritual care work, I have observed a large gap between the need (and sometimes the demand) for spiritual care and its provision. This has also been noted by many of my peers, and consequently, spiritual care is an area of increasing interest and attention. I believe that professional spiritual care should, and will, be a priority area of growth and development in the future across all our institutions and services. For many service users in hospitals, prisons and other institutions, it is often very difficult in practice simply to access a reflective space or garden, let alone to access appropriate and regular spiritual care from a specialist practitioner.

With a large body of research demonstrating the benefits of many aspects of spiritual care for psychological and physical wellbeing and healing, it is important that practitioners make a determined case for greater investment in this area. This investment will entail the recruitment of highly trained and/or experienced Spiritual Care Specialists and the provision of sufficient space and resources for them to flourish in the role. While there will be scope for offering more specific training in spiritual care, I should note here that there are many people who already have relevant qualifications and experience to excel in this role, and entry barriers which require people to undergo a specific training would be counterproductive. This is exactly the sort of role that would benefit from diversely experienced and educated candidates from all walks of life, so a competency model of recruitment would work far better. They would no doubt apply in good numbers, should such positions become available with a rate of pay that adequately reflects the responsibility, creative ingenuity and beneficial impact of the work.

It is important to note here that spiritual care should be provided by everyone in an institution to everyone in an institution, though to different degrees and in different ways of course. This is especially important considering that staff often don’t feel supported enough themselves. This kind of care can take many forms: a nurse who is known for listening attentively to patient’s stories even when she/he is busy, or someone who serves food but also makes it her/his business to know what individuals like down to the fine details and who lovingly makes sure they get it – this is all spiritual care! However, while medical and other professionals occasionally cover spiritual care in training modules, it is chaplaincy that is best placed to be the driving force and inspiration behind spiritual care, promoting spiritual care throughout an organisation.

Sometimes the work of chaplains does overlap with the work, for example, of Activities Co-ordinators. Both provide wellness groups with arts, crafts, music, literature, mindfulness and other therapies. This duplication or similar groups that often don’t know about each other, can lead to a struggle to maintain numbers and funding and/or to retain leadership of any of the groups. Better communications between groups and collaboration between chaplains and other professionals in settings could make these groups more successful and efficient. Where I work, we also have many nurses who are Chaplaincy Champions on the wards and we are always trying to find better ways of connecting with them and supporting them in their provision of spiritual care while also giving them spiritual support themselves. Our hope is for spiritual care to be like the chocolate powder that is mixed into the dough and runs throughout a cake rather than the icing on the top which can easily be left off!

Spiritual need in troubled times

When life brings pain, anxiety, grief, sorrow, or trauma, people require the times and spaces for reflection and contemplation. They may seek self-transcendence, that is, connection with those things that are greater than the self, to the point where they can gain perspective and may even temporarily forget themselves. This is often achieved through appreciation of the natural world, entering creative ‘flow states’, and experiencing music and other art forms. Awe and wonder in the greatest things the universe has to offer can often bring a degree of relief, and with it, emotional healing, a sense of peace, and sometimes feelings of happiness and content.

Difficult life events often lead people to greater truth-seeking and integrity, as they reflect on and question their life choices and beliefs, think and talk things through, and learn from their past. They may look to others to help them consider life’s big questions or come to terms with uncertainties. They often seek to deepen their sense of identity and heritage, and may ask for help in uncovering and/or sharing their personal, family and community histories, heritages and legacy. They may want to connect more deeply (or reconnect with) their religious identity, community and heritage, or simply with their place as human beings in the natural world.

Many people look first to relationships and intimacy in difficult times. They want to affirm and reaffirm bonds with family and friends, and experience a deeper degree of empathy and love in the presence of those people. They may be keen to accept hospitality, seek companionship, engage with their community in new ways, and develop a greater sense of belonging. They may look to humour, fun and friendship for comfort and solace. Often, people in trouble or crisis will seek to forgive or be forgiven for past wrongs, and occasionally this will require third party mediation. Others will reflect deeply on their own character and legacy, and may focus their attention on personal growth and development in areas such as wisdom, courage, kindness, empathy, compassion and personal responsibility. They may reassess their values, goals and contributions to family and society. They may examine their priorities and the ways in which they pursue fulfilment.

These needs and more, are very difficult for many professionals to address because of limited time and resources. Meeting these needs may also require attitudes, skills and experiences which many people do not have, or do not have the time to develop. The Spiritual Care Specialist, however, can focus entirely on these needs, and on addressing them in a variety of creative ways. In the following sections, I discuss some of the key ways that Spiritual Care professionals can help meet these most fundamental human needs.

Spiritual care is a personalised and community service

Inclusive spiritual care is a personalised service, celebrating what brings comfort and happiness to each individual. It is also a community service, celebrating what is meaningful and precious to communities, or subgroups within communities. A Spiritual Care Specialist or Spiritual Care Team serves a whole community, for example in a healthcare context, it serves patients, staff, carers, families and volunteers working in specialist settings but also in the wider community.

Spiritual care is tailored to specific individuals and groups, for example, patients or staff, and groups which cut across those categories such as people of a specific culture, religion or belief. It builds community and strengthens community cohesion through hospitality, collaborative projects, groups activities, personal connections, befriending, mediation and mentoring.

Spiritual care is a professional care service

Spiritual Care Specialists should be assessed and accredited with professional faith/belief or secular organisations, such as in my case, the Non-Religious Pastoral Support Network, which is a membership organisation of the Network for Pastoral, Spiritual and Religious Care in Health. The NRPSN ensures regular access to supervisions and CPD, and all members are provided with, and required to abide by, a comprehensive Code of Conduct. All networks and bodies fielding chaplains should maintain such standards of assessment, training and accountability. Given the varied nature of skills that are used in the role, a wide variety of trainings and accreditations can be considered relevant prior to assessment, and appointments are best made according to whether the competencies outlined in this article are met, rather than based on particular qualifications which would unnecessarily exclude many excellent candidates. This is especially true considering that many people come to spiritual care or chaplaincy as a second career, and the role is especially suited to the already highly qualified, and those who have a great deal of life experience. Thus the selection process with the NRPSN in more of an assessment of already highly skilled applicants than a training in spiritual care. Spiritual Care Specialists are already qualified and experienced enough to immediately provide in-house training and external training opportunities for assistants and volunteers once in post, as well as providing one-to-one pastoral support and CPD for their Spiritual Care Teams. There are also relevant mandatory and optional trainings available in-house provided by hospitals, prisons and other hosting institutions.

Spiritual Care Specialists provide pastoral care, using active listening and counselling-type conversation skills, signposting and advocacy, all in a context of confidentiality and unconditional positive regard. They also provide existential care, using philosophical approaches to existential questions of meaning and purpose, and psychological/emotional care, using specialist skills they have in areas such as psychological first aid, suicide and bereavement support, and training in mediation and emotional literacy. They also promote wellbeing more generally through publications and events, articles, reports, online resources, public speaking engagements and leading/facilitating group activities and ceremonies.

Spiritual Care Specialists normally lead a Spiritual Care Team, which may include salaried chaplains and paid assistants, and is also comprised of a number of volunteers who have skills which complement those of the Spiritual Care Specialist. For example, where a Spiritual Care Specialist is working in an environment with a significant number of people of a culture that is not their own, it is wise to recruit volunteers from that community so that the needs of those service users are adequately met and there are no unintentional oversights. A good Spiritual Care Specialist/Lead will ensure that the diversity of the team reflects the diversity of the staff and service users within their institution.

While Multifaith Chaplaincies can provide a high standard of spiritual care, the experience, training and accreditation of chaplains varies greatly. Some paid and volunteer chaplains are able to offer inclusive spiritual care to a professional standard, while others provide an untrained listening and befriending service in addition to the religious mentoring or leadership of staff and service users who belong to their specific faith or denomination. Some chaplains are very highly qualified for the role and/or very experienced but there is no standard competencies model or agreed assessment for recruitment, which means the quality of chaplaincy can be very varied. This raises concerns in some institutions about whether chaplains can be fully relied upon to keep to professional standards. It makes it essential that relationships of trust are built between lead chaplains and medical/other professionals so that chaplaincy services can be best utilised, even while they are working on these areas of weaknesses. Lead/paid chaplains are generally very highly qualified and experienced. They are experienced at managing new chaplains and volunteers, and will not assign difficult or sensitive cases with complexities or safeguarding concerns to unqualified chaplains or volunteers.

Spiritual care is a creative, therapeutic and cultural enrichment service

Spiritual Care Specialists should have expertise in leading creative and reflective practices such as mindfulness exercises, meditations, gratitude practices, readings, prayer and/or other activities such as forms of art/music therapy. As a keen writer and poet, for example, I am currently pioneering literature therapies, such as bibliotherapy, poetry prescribing and shared reading with both with individuals and groups at the institutions where I work. I am also an advocate and practitioner of biophilia therapies, which can be as simple as giving people regular access to a garden, walking with someone in nature, forest bathing or bringing nature inside using indoor plants, environmental art and recordings of natural sounds and images. To bring together the benefits of both literature and nature, we hold our shared reading sessions in a community garden on our university campus, retreating to the chapel – another uplifting space – when it rains!

All Spiritual Care Specialists should have proven creative skills but these will vary widely. Whether they have skills in gardening, music, knitting, yoga or any other art form, they can make use of these in their work in all sorts of therapeutic ways, and they can recruit volunteers and hire external practitioners where they see a demand for a creative practice they are not able to provide or facilitate themselves. They should make every effort to foster the creative arts in spiritual expression among service users and staff, and to encourage the sharing of personal, cultural and worldview narratives – and storytelling in general – in order to enrich identities, deepen relationships and increase community cohesion.

Spiritual Care Specialists can use many written and online resources in order to creatively apply philosophical approaches to questions of meaning and purpose. These may be taken from sources such as the School of Life, which already apply philosophy to life circumstances and troubles, or they can be adapted from materials on stoicism, existentialism and many other philosophical schools from both East and West. In doing this, they should always bear in mind the special role of a Spiritual Care Specialist or Chaplain, in raising morale and bringing hope, especially in environments where there can be considerable distress, sorrow and grief.

In many settings, Spiritual Care Specialists have an important role in preserving and creatively re-using cultural heritage content, such as religious, spiritual or cultural symbols, rituals, artefacts, art works and traditions. An important aspect of this is that they must create and manage beautiful and engaging spaces for reflection and gatherings.

Spiritual care is a religion/belief care service

Religions and philosophies are an important aspect of spirituality for many people. For some, one or more particular religions or philosophies provide a comprehensive framework and structure for their spiritual life. Therefore, while religious care is only one aspect of spiritual care, and one that is diminishing in some respects due to continuing secularisation, it is still an important part.

A Spiritual Care Specialist works with a person’s line management or their care team to raise awareness of aspects of their faith and culture that need to be considered, such as dietary requirements, festivals, clothing, rituals and last rites. They also create and lead reflective events, such as seasonal, annual and special services which are sometimes linked to, or inspired by, religion/belief calendars. These will be inter-faith/inter-worldview or secular events in order to be fully inclusive. Where particular orthodox religious services and rituals are required, it is necessary to ask suitable volunteers or local faith leaders to officiate.

Spiritual Care Specialists also have an important role in providing or arranging for lifecycle ceremonies, such as funerals, memorials, weddings and naming ceremonies. They will sometimes take these themselves where they are trained and/or experienced celebrants. Additionally, in certain critical settings such as hospices, they will need to ensure twenty-four hour access to members of the Spiritual Care Team and/or local faith groups and leaders.

Spiritual Care Specialists should also endeavour to promote worldview literacy and dialogue among staff and leadership at their institutions, addressing areas of sensitivity and potential conflict in order to promote diversity and understanding, and in order to achieve peaceful relationships between groups with differing beliefs and agendas. They should also be well connected locally with interfaith and faith/belief leaders and communities, as these provide a valuable resource and a means of fostering mutual understanding. I am myself a member of a professional inter-worldview dialogue network. I am also an executive and trustee of my regional faith and belief forum, which affords many opportunities for interfaith dialogue and speaking publicly on topical issues, such as faith and belief perspectives on racism and prejudice, humanism, progressive faith, human rights, and the causes, consequences and how to prevent genocide (a talk I gave on Holocaust Memorial Day).

While religious care is only one part of spiritual care, it is unfortunate that many people who would benefit from spiritual care are not referred to chaplains because. in many settings, we are still seen as only or primarily a religious care service. It is important that medical staff know they can trust us with spiritual care much more broadly. Chaplains sign agreements to say they will not proselytise but people remain suspicious of chaplaincy because they are worried that chaplains might impose their beliefs on vulnerable patients/services users. They can’t, for example, guarantee an LGBTQ+ patient or a patient who has had an abortion won’t be harmed by a chaplain who does not agree with LGBTQ+ lifestyles or a pro-life chaplain. They can’t guarantee that a chaplain won’t cause distress to a mental health patient by sharing beliefs about spiritual beings, demons, possession and so forth. This is a real problem chaplains have to grapple with because although many of us are liberal, progressive or humanistic (like the institutions themselves) and are supportive of LGBTQ+ and other groups, some teams do have conservative/evangelical members who may not honour their promise not to proselytise and who may not be able to be trusted with certain patients. Relationships of trust need to be built between lead chaplains and medical and other professionals so that chaplaincy services can be best utilised even while they are working on these areas of weakness. Lead and paid chaplains are experienced at managing teams carefully, and in general can be trusted not to assign sensitive and complex cases to volunteers or new chaplains who may not be able to provide appropriate pastoral and spiritual care.

Spiritual care is a strategic policy advice and review service

Spiritual Care Specialists advise management on ethical and religious matters and consult staff, service-users, the wider community and external networks on such issues where necessary. They are also on hand when it comes to crisis management in the event of a serious incident or controversy, and should undergo training in order to engage effectively with the media when necessary. We are often required to join other professionals in managing on-site challenges concerning religious discrimination, religious extremism, freedom of speech and privacy and human rights controversies, framed by legal obligations issued in, for example, the Equality Act 2010, the Counter-Terrorism and Security Act 2015 and the Data Protection Act 2018.

It is also important for the Spiritual Care Specialist/Lead to contribute to strategy and policy development in areas including Equality Diversity and Inclusion, health, safety and wellbeing, environment and sustainability, corporate social responsibility, and all other areas of ethical/religious relevance, by joining and leading governance or steering groups and contributing to formal agreements, tools and best practice guidelines. In my own settings, I have had the privilege of leading policy change which has made these institutions more aware and inclusive of progressive, nonreligious and humanistic worldviews and those who hold them. I hope I have also succeeded in dispelling common misconceptions and misunderstandings and building trust, such that our chaplaincy teams and wider networks are more cognisant of what we have in common (in spite of the different language we use and stories we tell) and are better able to work collaboratively.

Spiritual Care Specialists and Chaplains have a duty to advocate for vulnerable or marginalised individuals, peoples or groups, for example, in support of those with protected characteristics of age, disability, gender reassignment, marriage and civil partnership, pregnancy and maternity, race, religion or belief, sex/gender and sexual orientation. They also have an overarching responsibility for increasing ethical engagement across an organisation, and for promoting critical and ethical thought and policy review among staff and/or service users by facilitating ethical discussion of subjects of concern to them and the wider community.

Spiritual Care Specialists and Chaplains act as both representatives and critical friends of their institutions. They should maintain their ethical integrity at all times, by carefully balancing their responsibility to bring benefit to their organisation and promote its strengths, with their duty to call out injustices and be a voice for the vulnerable, oppressed and marginalised. They must therefore be skilled in the diplomatic resolution of conflicts of interests and conflicts of personality, and they must have the ability to recognise unconscious bias in themselves and to mitigate against it where it is likely to be in play.

Where do we go from here?

I hope that in this short article, I have gone some way towards demonstrating the varied, highly skilled and essential role that Spiritual Care Specialists can play within institutions. I recognise that a full discussion of all the evidence for the benefits of this work is necessary, but this would require a much longer paper, and additionally, there is already abundant research accessible online and in literature which supports the benefits of various aspects of the work, such as the biophilia practices, literature therapies, art therapies, meditation, reflective practice and much more.

Many people no longer need convincing that this work is vital and effective, and indeed, some institutions already have Spiritual Care Specialists and Spiritual Care Teams. However, some employers do still need convincing that investing in professional spiritual care will prove economical in their particular institution; that it will bring financial benefits due to staff taking fewer days sick leave, patients recovering more quickly and going home and so forth. This is the case, even though many existing studies already demonstrate such advantages (e.g. access to nature and post-operative recovery times).

It is important going forward, therefore, that we continue to present the case for professional and inclusive spiritual care in the institutions where we are based, and that we do so not only by emphasising the ethical reasons we may be personally motivated by, but by stressing the financial benefits that institutions have to gain, since this is of utmost importance to the success of their leadership teams. Our moral and spiritual motivations must include a sensitivity and responsiveness to the necessity for administrators to run efficient and sustainable organisations.

It is also urgent that chaplaincies develop agreed standards for recruitment using a competencies model, and additionally, that they demonstrate to institutions that their agreed values are aligned with those of the secular democratic institutions where they are based, and that any chaplains who are at odds with those institutions when it comes to scientific or ethical consensus and who may cause offence, distress or injury to service-users or staff, are only permitted to ‘minister to’ those belonging to their own faith/belief group. This can be achieved while still maintaining the chaplain’s role as a critical friend to their institution; one who can advocate on behalf of victims of injustice and challenge unethical practices wherever they find them. Greater professionalisation of the work of chaplains will lay the foundations of trust that are necessary to bring chaplaincies out of the margins and into the heart of their institutions, so that they can truly become the inspiration and driver of spiritual leadership and care that they have such potential to be.

This article is based on a presentation I gave to Hospiscare Staff in March 2021.

Dr Anastasia Somerville-Wong


Easter 2021 at St Luke’s

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

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

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

Wishing you all a very Happy Easter!

Easter is a Story which Never Dies

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


What do people mean when they talk about God?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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