We need fully inclusive chaplaincies

By Andrew Copson
October 17, 2007

The state does not fund clergy to go about their business in the community at large and so the obvious question is why should it fund them in prisons, hospitals, or the armed forces? The obvious answer is that the provision of chaplaincy in these circumstances reflects the particular needs that are thought to exist at these points: prisoners, patients, service personnel, and their families have distinctive needs. This is reflected in what chaplaincy in these sectors is said to be for.

In the National Health Service (NHS) chaplains 'offer a service of spiritual care to all patients, their carers, friends and family as well as the staff of the NHS' and the work of the chaplain is defined as that which 'enables individuals and groups in a healthcare setting to respond to spiritual and emotional need and to the experiences of life and death, illness and injury'.

The Anglican Diocese of Worcester gives the role of prison chaplains as to 'support [prisoners] in their spiritual needs and in times of crisis' because their 'lives are . . . complicated by the loss of freedom and control over their own lives not to mention the feelings of guilt, hopelessness and helplessness that many experience' and further that prison chaplains 'act as a reminder of the community's responsibilities toward those held in prison'.

These worthy aims can clearly be fulfilled by dedicated and compassionate people regardless of religion or belief and, in a society as diverse as ours, should be. The presumption that the individual fulfilling the role of a chaplain will be Christian, or an Anglican specifically, or religious at all, cannot be sustained.

Even if these chaplaincy systems become multi-faith, that would not be sufficient since the non-religious are the second largest group in the population. But in spite of the fact that the non-religious make up a larger proportion of the population than the adherents of all the non-Christian religions combined, it is the non-Christian religions that benefit from the extension of services that have in the past had a Christian character - not the non-religious.

At the moment, chaplaincy teams in hospitals do not include the non-religious, save in one or two places as volunteers, and there are no non-religious chaplains in the armed forces or in prisons. The Ministry of Defence now has chaplains for Sikhs, Hindus, Buddhists and Muslims in the armed services and the Minister at the time that this innovation was made (John Reid MP) was quoted as saying that they would provide 'spiritual, moral and pastoral support' to forces personnel of a non-Christian religion. 'One of the important things about service men and women,' he said, 'is the importance that is attached to morale. It is not just a matter of being happy, it is not just a matter of trust and comradeship, it is also a matter of spiritual fulfilment... We want to make sure that people of all faiths in this country recognise that the British Armed Forces really truly are the Armed Forces of Britain.'

The spiritual, moral and pastoral needs of the non-religious received no mention, but a Sikh chaplain has been employed to cater to the needs of just 85 Sikh servicemen. The Ministry of Defence's Religious Advisory Panel includes a Muslim (representing 3.0% of the population), a Hindu (1.1%), a Sikh (0.6%), a Jew (0.5%), and a Buddhist (0.3%) but no non-religious representative.

It would be wrong to say that those who do not have a religion do not need spiritual care, or that their needs are not distinctive. Those members of the British Humanist Association (BHA) who visit hospices as part of the teams that help meet the needs of people who are terminally ill, or who otherwise work with the terminally ill, attest that this is not the case.

Humanist funeral officiants, who are sometimes involved in assisting terminally ill people in planning their own funerals, often find themselves providing much needed general support and spiritual care. This work suggests to us that a humanist approach for some patients is very much needed, and likewise for prisoners and service personnel.

It is quite wrong for the state to rely on the Church of England, or on the Christian churches generally, to meet the wide chaplaincy role indicated in the quotations cited. Even the multi-faith chaplaincies often fail to meet the requirements of the non-religious and use public institutions and finance to bolster the idea that the non-religious are delinquents lacking their own resources who therefore at times of crisis may be expected to turn to religion.

As with schools, specifically religious support should ideally be the role of the churches, not the state; it should certainly not be the default position.


This article is adapted with permission from a BHA statement on Church and State, authored by Andrew Copson and David Pollock The British Humanist Association seeks to present the views and values of the growing number of ethically concerned but non-religious people in the UK, working for a society "where people are free to live good lives on the basis of reason, experience and shared human values." It opposes privilege for religious groups, but seeks to work with religious people on common concerns.

(c) BHA. Andrew Copson heads up Education and Public Affairs for the British Humanist Association. See also on Ekklesia Why education should not divide on faith.

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