Understanding Humanism

April 3rd, 2014

by John White – Chair of Oxford Humanists

Over the past several years – and unlike some other local Humanist Groups – Oxford Humanists [= OxHums, for short] have had little if any contact with all but a couple of the dozen or more BHA-approved celebrants who offer their services to the “OX” postcode area.  Further, since I was first elected OxHums Chair, almost 8 years ago, I have repeatedly been disappointed that, with just one major exception [and from someone whose personal postcode isn’t even “OX”], none of my attempts at involving local celebrants has generated much interest.

Despite this:

  • OxHums membership has more than quintupled [to over 100];
  • Every letter from OxHums to The Oxford Times* since 2010 has been published;
  • Half a dozen city councillors congratulated us for persuading the local Church of England officials to allow a humanist to lay a wreath – and read out our alternative to a prayer – during last November’s Remembrance Sunday service;
  • We now regularly send out e-circulars to the several hundred local people [= “friends”] who have given us their email addresses, whilst visiting the stand we regularly put up in Oxford’s main shopping precinct.

More recently, we’ve been letting members and friends know that we’re keen to give talks about Humanism to organisations that might be interested in hearing more about it from the local people who are currently practising it.

As a result, we are increasingly being approached by Primary as well as Secondary Schools, Children’s social groups [such as the Scouts] and caring organisations for patients approaching the ends of their lives . . .  all of whom want to know more about humanism, etc.  We’ve also been asked if we could help organise humanist-style morning assemblies in both Primary and Secondary Schools.

These latter enquiries weren’t something I could find any of our members were ready to offer – but fortunately, the BHA member, humanist Mum and one of those who’ve most recently approached us, is nothing if not determined.  So, with help from Sara Passmore at the BHA, she approached local celebrants, got amazingly positive responses, selected one particular offering, and the event took place last month [January 2014] in a little village primary school in a delightfully rural part of Oxfordshire.

Further, the Head Teacher allowed me to come along as an observer – and I was bowled over by the performance [for that’s what it was] of one of Oxon’s BHA-celebrants.  I’d first met her when she read out some of her poems during the local University students’ annual Think-Week Symposium [see www.thinkweek.co.uk] – and felt we were on the same wavelength.  But, I didn’t previously know that her CV also includes being a ‘wandering’ actor who’d toured schools giving impromptu performances.

Thus, and without realising it, I’d suddenly found myself working harmoniously with a local BHA-approved celebrant – and in a way that brings benefits to both sets of locally active Humanists!

This was, indeed, an opportunity not to be missed!  So, over the last few weeks I’ve been interacting with over half the OX-focused celebrants within the BHA’s own website, working out how best to take a joint approach to persuading local people not to ignore or even shy away from us non-religious people but to look dispassionately at our lifestyles and services to the community.

Which, if you think about it, is exactly how all of us humanists want to be accepted within our communities, isn’t it?  Not for us, the unjustified pre-eminence accorded to the Church of England within our country, nor even less the possibility of the gentle speaking Richard Dawkins being adulated as the world’s anti-religious Pope!

So I’m now thinking of mounting – serially rather than in parallel – a test run approach to the [up to] half-dozen secondary schools near to where a trial celebrant lives, offering to give talks about humanism [from OxHums] and/or a humanist morning assembly [from the local celebrant].

This, I’m hoping, will result in an increasing local appreciation of the breadth of humanism as a life stance, together with the greater awareness within local families, of the alternative approach to life’s key moments now available via their own nearby celebrant.

Clearly, it’s early days yet, but I’m increasingly confident that, though success can never be guaranteed, it should be odds on that celebrants and ordinary practitioners, working together, can establish a mutually co-operating infrastructure.

Anyone like to be the first celebrant “guinea pig”?


*Oxford’s prestigious local weekly newspaper.