Secular Liturgies Network and Forum

Our mission is to enrich societies with secular ethics and reflective practices, informed by the latest research, and expressed in original creative, scholarly and journalistic publications and events. Our work has strong themes of well-being, sustainability, cultural enrichment and community building.

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My Humanist Christmas by Anastasia Somerville-Wong

As a Humanist, I don’t share the Christian belief that God’s son was born on earth but I do appreciate some of the cultural expressions of Christian belief in music and art, and in popular Christmas traditions such as candlelit services, carol singing and those seasoned performances of Handel’s Messiah. I also empathise with the underlying psychological needs those beliefs, stories and traditions evolved to fulfil, and the sentiments they express, which are after all, universally human.

The Christmas story, for example, has its poignancy and charm in a purely allegorical sense, since the idea that God became incarnate as a baby is powerful imagery to illustrate the truth that strength, greatness and power can be manifest in things that appear to be small, weak and powerless. It’s why the Christmas story can still move people who no longer adhere to religious dogma. It is also true that there is no easier thing to celebrate than a new born baby, and since I’ve become a mother, I’ve met countless people for whom that is what Christmas is about; a celebration of babies and children, of new life and its triumph, even at the darkest, coldest ebb of the year. Christmas is often both literally (with all its candles and fairy lights) and figuratively, a shaft of light in the darkness, which brings with it a renewed sense of hope and gets us through to the spring.

Having said all that, I do hope that the traditions evolve to slowly exclude superstitious, outdated and harmful dogmas. I don’t mean to belittle the prejudice and unpleasantness of some of them. It’s why I feel uncomfortable singing many of the carols now. The implicit and underlying sexism in Christian writing and imagery is so insidious and offensive that I feel I undermine my humanity uttering those words. It has to change but we don’t have to lose everything else in the process. We can have the carols but change the words. We can have candlelit services with a modern humanist liturgy.

As well as appreciating some of the Christian aspects of our December celebrations, celebrations which it must be noted are much older than Christianity, I am also mindful of the fact that the beautiful churches and Cathedrals which so often appear on our Christmas cards are as much my inheritance, to be owned, interpreted and repurposed, as they are the inheritance of any of my believing friends. I often visit the Cathedral near my home to reflect, and while I once felt alienated from such spaces by the dogma taught there, I have grown to view them as my heritage and embrace their potential as places where all of us might one day be inspired to grow spiritually, whether we are religious or not.

Perhaps the best way of summarising what the seeming oxymoron of a Humanist Christmas means to me, would be to say that Advent is all about reflection and Christmas is all about gratitude. During Advent, I take the time to take stock and remind myself of what matters most. I reflect on my personal growth, in terms of my understanding, character and values, and on my sense of identity, purpose and vocation. Importantly, I consider how I might create and nurture more meaningful connections with family, friends and strangers. When Christmas finally arrives, I celebrate all the growth, progress and potential I see in myself, others and the world, and I celebrate the company and qualities of those people closest to me. Even in these regressive, fractious and anxiety-inducing times, it is possible to find plenty to be thankful for.

Christmas is of course a mishmash of all sorts of traditions, some of them pagan and others Christian in origin. It’s worth digging into these from time to time to see what inspiration and insights they might bring of both the philosophical and creative kind. For example, from their use in the winter solstice celebrations of the Egyptians, Romans, Celts and Vikings to their more recent and familiar appearance in the traditional Christmas scenes of Victorian England, the evergreens have always been central to the festive season, and their presence among us now takes on a special significance in the light of deforestation and climate change. Will the (hopefully sustainably sourced) tree in your living room speak to you of the plight of the world’s forests and all their inhabitants? Will it compel you to tread more lightly on the earth in 2020?

After all, there’s a lot to be said for a simple life, and a simple Christmas for that matter. What was wrong with a little stocking each with a few treats inside? What was wrong with a few hand-made decorations and just one indulgent meal on Christmas Day? There is something undeniably grotesque about the rampant materialism at Christmas in the light of the damage humanity has done and continues to do to the planet. It does seem as though many people really have forgotten the true meaning of Christmas but by that I don’t mean they have forgotten about Christian dogma, I mean they have forgotten the importance of attending to the deeper parts of our human selves. They have become blind to our higher needs for meaning, value, culture, empathy and self-actualisation.

Last Christmas, I witnessed something which summed up this spiritual poverty. It was a red-faced middle-aged man having Christmas shopping rage (otherwise known as a tantrum), over an incident so trivial it isn’t even worth describing. He was brandishing one of those long bags containing rolls of wrapping paper, and the absurdity of the spectacle was such, that its impression was at once seared on my memory, possibly forever. It’s fair to say that I do not sympathise with the endless pursuit of goods and excess that some people seem to be gripped by at this time of year. However, that’s not at all to say that I disapprove of festivity and merriment. Quite the contrary, while it needn’t take the form of a shopping spree, gratitude should be shown with wild abandon once a year at the very least!


Photograph from Sarah Moyes’s article ‘How to have a plastic free Christmas’ (Friends of the Earth Scotland blog) Friends of the Earth Scotland

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An Interview with Jacqueline Watson

I am delighted to share with you an interview with Jacqueline Watson, an Honorary Research Fellow at the University of Exeter, on her many years of research on the subject of spirituality in education, including connections between spirituality and Religious Education (RE), and the inclusion of Humanism in RE in the UK.

Jacqueline retired in 2014 and is putting her academic interest in spirituality into practice as a Humanist Celebrant and as a Humanist member of the Royal Devon and Exeter Hospital chaplaincy team. For more information about Jacqueline’s research and publications see Jacqueline Watson University of Exeter Research Profile.


Dr Jacqueline Watson

  1. Who or what inspired you to forge a career in religious education?

Good question!  After 8 years looking after children (around 1989) I thought I’d do a PGCE but didn’t know what subject to choose (I had a philosophy degree) and a friend who was already doing a PGCE suggested RE.  I said I couldn’t teach RE as I wasn’t religious but she said she’d met PGCE RE students who were not religious and I found out that it was a multi-faith subject and it sounded fascinating.  Also, I’d just been reading Rushdie’s Satanic Verses which had sent me to the library to find out about Islam as I didn’t know why Muslims were burning the book in Bradford!

  1. How has the teaching of religion changed over the course of your career?

Sadly, it has become more restrictive because, when I started in 1991, I taught a very multi-faith curriculum and now there tends, I think, to be more of a focus on 2 main religions one of which is Christianity and the other is often Islam.  I don’t know how true that is, and it presumably varies across the country, but that’s the feeling I have.  I actually stopped teaching RE over 15 years ago.  Also, of course, Humanism has been introduced into RE since I stopped teaching, although how much it is actually being taught in schools I don’t know.  I very recently contributed to a multi-faith conference for 3 schools locally – in my case, talking about Humanism – and none of the pupils from the 3 schools had studied Humanism or knew what it was.

  1. What are the challenges faced by those with nonreligious (including humanist) and minority religious world-views in education?

There is no space to properly engage in discussion and exploration of their beliefs and values.  My feeling is that pupils will just switch off as RE will be seen to be irrelevant to them.  This also means they haven’t had the opportunity to consider their own spiritual journey.

  1. In your view, should RE focus on improving objective knowledge of religious and philosophical traditions, beliefs and practices, or should its primary purpose be to nurture children’s spirituality?

Very much both.  We need basic information about religions and beliefs but we also need space to explore meaning and values for ourselves.

  1. How is spirituality (or spiritual development) in children defined by professional bodies and what is your preferred definition?

I’ve written a lot about this.  I think it’s very important to keep any definition for professional purposes simple, broad and open.  There is a constant danger that people try to define it as they see it and not realising this is their particular view.  People’s spirituality is highly diverse today.  I say, spirituality means how a person develops meaning and purpose, beliefs and values, for their life.  It’s essential to listen to an individual because they will have constructed spiritual meaning and beliefs highly individualistically.

  1. In what ways could the spiritual needs of children be better met in schools and at home?

Listening.  Giving space for open discussion.  Making sure RE isn’t just about teaching facts about specific religions.  Making sure Humanism is included as well to explore and challenge atheism and materialism/naturalism.

  1. In what ways could religious and philosophical literacy be improved among children and the population at large?

More space for and respect for a broader RE.  Better media!

  1. What are the most important or surprising things you have learnt from your research on the connections between spirituality and religious education?

That it is important to have a solid subject – currently RE although sometimes given a better name – where this area can be explored.  The idea was that opportunities for spiritual development could be provided in all subjects but I have come to think that it is vital to have a dedicated subject as it is a complicated topic.

  1. What inspired you in more recent times to become a nonreligious pastoral carer and humanist celebrant?

Retirement partly.  And I’d spent about 25 years thinking about spirituality and non-religious spirituality academically, and I wanted to put that study into practice.  I feel that I do have some understanding of the breadth and individualism of contemporary spirituality which prepares me for listening to people who want a ceremony or pastoral care.  Having been a teacher and lecturer I had the confidence to be a celebrant and I love writing ceremonies.  I find it fascinating to take on the role of chaplain/pastoral carer which is a challenge in so many ways and – because we’re breaking new ground as non-religious carers – feels a bit like action research.

  1. What are the main challenges and rewards of your current work?

Being a celebrant is rewarding – it’s wonderful to present a ceremony that engages people and makes them laugh and cry.  It’s frustrating that not enough people know about Humanist ceremonies and that we still can’t conduct weddings legally.  Being a chaplain/pastoral carer is very rewarding when people appear to have benefited from the opportunity to talk about their experiences, although it can be challenging not knowing whether I have been of benefit or not.  It’s very frustrating that Humanists and nonreligious chaplains are still not accepted across the board and the battle for recognition is a slow and frustrating one – but hugely vital as over 50% of the population are now ‘nones’!