New NHS guidelines mandate equality in non-religious and religious pastoral care

New guidelines from NHS England for the first time make clear that hospitals should make equitable and inclusive provision for non-religious pastoral care alongside religious chaplaincy. Humanists UK has welcomed the Guidelines, as most NHS trusts still don’t provide non-religious care, and almost all only provide it through volunteers. It is hoped that the Guidelines will mean that open recruitment of chaplaincy and pastoral care staff becomes the norm.

The NHS Chaplaincy Guidelines for NHS managers on pastoral, spiritual and religious care say that ‘All care, including chaplaincy, should be made available equally and without discrimination to all patients, families and carers, and staff, regardless of any protected characteristic an individual may have (such as religion or belief)… It should be made clear that the service is for everyone, whatever their belief or religion.’

Progress on recruitment

Further, when recruiting new chaplains or pastoral carers, ‘Unless there is a demonstrable “occupational requirement”, NHS organisations must not set out to recruit chaplains of a particular religion or belief: chaplaincy must be provided as an inclusive service.’

Humanists UK has long monitored recruitment of healthcare chaplains in England, and often exposed poor practice. Frequently, when someone of a particular religion leaves, a trust will decide to recruit someone of that same religion, even if that religion is already overrepresented among the chaplaincy team. This overrepresentation is typically for historic reasons which do not reflect present realities. Trusts therefore need close support in order to recruit lawfully and in a way that reflects patients’ needs. The Guidelines are a significant step towards achieving this.

Use of the term ‘chaplain’

However, Humanists UK is disappointed that NHS England has retained its use of the terms ‘chaplain’ and ‘chaplaincy’ rather than recognising that those terms are widely misunderstood. In the Guidelines the NHS says ‘For some, this has the connotation of the Christian tradition on which it was at one time based: however, by using this term in these Guidelines we intend it to encompass care and support available to individuals of all religions and beliefs. For clarity, where reference is made in these Guidelines to “all religions and beliefs”, this encompasses non-religious beliefs and the absence of a religion or belief.’ This is implausible as research shows that the public perception of these terms is overwhelmingly that they are Christian, and are likely to put off non-Christians, and particularly people with non-religious beliefs, from making use of the service. Humanists UK uses the term ‘pastoral carer’ as a result.

About chaplaincy and pastoral care

Chaplains and pastoral carers are highly trained individuals who provide care that offers understanding and empathy to people at some of the most challenging times of their lives. They provide a more holistic approach to healthcare, providing pastoral, spiritual and religious care and support, as recommended by the World Health Organisation.

Humanists UK provides non-religious pastoral care through the Non-Religious Pastoral Support Network (NRPSN). It has campaigned for many years for non-religious people to have equal access to pastoral care in prisons, hospitals, and the armed forces. People in need of support should be able to choose to speak to someone who shares their worldview. However, provisions for chaplaincy have been dominated and almost exclusively provided by religious communities. It has acted as a barrier to non-religious patients from using the service.

Director of Humanist Care Clare Elcombe Webber commented: 

‘We have been working hard with NHS England to help produce guidelines that are inclusive of all – and we’re really pleased to see it pay off in large part.

‘If NHS Trusts are properly supported and motivated to implement them, these Guidelines will provide a pathway for pastoral care to be a valuable service for all NHS patients, regardless of their religion or belief. We hope NHS Wales and Health and Social Care in Northern Ireland will take note and follow suit.

‘We look forward to helping trusts deliver truly inclusive, equal, and person-centred support.’