Humanists consider that everyone needs compassion and empathy when they’re going through a particularly difficult time whatever their beliefs about life and death. It is enormously valuable to their mental and physical wellbeing. Humanists have been supporting people in hospitals, hospices and prisons when they have requested a need for someone with likeminded beliefs to talk to.
There is a huge shortage in the provision of pastoral support for and by non-religious people in health care, prisons and other institutions. There are about 500 full time equivalent chaplains employed by the NHS hospitals. All are religious. There are thousands of volunteers. 99% of them are religious. About 22% to 45% of hospital patients are non-religious. Of course religious chaplains can support non-religious people, just as Humanist Pastoral Support Volunteers may support religious people. However, data from a major hospital shows only 4% of patient visits by their Spiritual Care Department are to patients of ‘no faith’. Some patients actively reject approaches from religious chaplains. Yet many patients, staff and carers would really benefit from the provision of non-religious pastoral support.
Non-religious patients may face the same fears, hopes, anguish, questions of meaning and purpose, sense of loss and bereavement as religious patients. After all they are part of our common humanity. Non-religious patients may not identify these issues as ‘religious’ or ‘spiritual’. However, they may need and want appropriate care and support. Of course, there is confusion with the existing terminology about the words chaplain and spiritual which makes it all the more difficult for non-religious people to access appropriate pastoral support in the NHS
There has been a recent consultation (not widespread!) about the Chaplaincy Guidelines in England by the NHS and a response from the College of Healthcare Chaplains states in the section Chaplaincy Staffing: ‘In the last paragraph we consider that the word “sometimes” should be omitted in relation to chaplains sometimes requested by patients not identified with a faith. In our experience, this is not sometimes but regularly. Indeed those of no particular faith are visited in equal if not more numbers in many Trusts than those with an active faith. We want to get away from purely identifying chaplains with people of faith alone, as spiritual care is clearly much broader than this. This is extremely important in an age of growing secularisation and declining traditional faith practices, where spirituality itself is not declining but emerging in all sorts of ways and it is chaplains who are at the forefront of caring for people as this spirituality is evolving in society. CHCC response (PDF). (11 Aug 14)
I have been an ad hoc Humanist Pastoral Volunteer at King’s College Hospital and been invited to speak to patients in Trinity and St Christopher’s Hospices. When I have been contacted by the chaplain at Kings he usually prefaces the request with ‘another no dog collar please’. Being a Pastoral support volunteer feels like it is a natural extension of being a Humanist celebrant.
If you, or someone you know, would like to be visited by a non-religious pastoral volunteer please do get in touch or request the Chaplain to find you a Humanist Pastoral Volunteer.