Old dogs and new tricks

When I finally retired from my career as a consultant radiologist in Leeds, I didn’t imagine for a moment that three years later, I’d be going back in to the hospital as a volunteer, and especially not as the Trust’s first humanist chaplain.  I didn’t even realise that I was a humanist until I was in my early forties – I won’t bore you with the details of my reverse Damascus road experience now, but if you’re interested, you’ll find an account here. Discovering humanism made a big difference to my life, but not much to anyone else’s, so when I retired and had more time, I looked around for ways to give practical expression to my beliefs.

I suppose before I go any further, I should define humanism, because until I saw the light, I knew very little about it, except that it was a non-theistic view of the world and our place in it. There are two basic beliefs inherent in the humanist world view. The first is that we can explain the world around us using scientific method, evidence, and reason to discover truths about the universe without invoking the existence of a supreme being. Secondly, we believe that we only have the one life to live, and that we should make that life a worthwhile and fulfilling one by placing human welfare and happiness at the centre of our ethical decision making.

So anyway, when I retired, the first thing I did was to enrol on the British Humanist Association’s (BHA) training course to be come a funeral celebrant, accredited to officiate at non-religious humanist funerals. I had naively assumed that I would find it fairly undemanding, because I’d done a lot of public speaking in the course of my career – not just conference presentations and lecturing, but after-dinner speaking as well – and I didn’t think that the actual presentation of the ceremony would be a problem. So when, during the first training session, the speaker emphasised the importance of careful preparation of your script, ensuring it was printed double-spaced in large font to ensure that you could keep your place and maintain regular eye contact with the mourners, I thought ‘what do I need with scripts? – if I can wing it in front of three hundred drunk doctors at a conference dinner, I can manage without a script at a funeral service’.

I  was quite wrong, of course and, you might think, even a bit arrogant. A funeral is much more important than any of the other public speaking I had done – after all, if you mess up a conference presentation, another one will be along in a couple of months, and there’s a good chance no-one’s listening anyway. A funeral, on the other hand, is the family’s only chance to get it right, and it matters. With only a couple of days to meet with them, write the service, including a eulogy which says everything the family and friends want to say while keeping within the strict time limits applying at crematoria, you can’t leave anything to chance. In fact, from being over-confident, I rapidly began to think that I’d bitten off more than I could chew, and came close to baling out of the training. I’m glad I didn’t, because working with bereaved families over the past few years has been one of the most challenging and rewarding experiences of my life so far.

Then, having gained that experience, my thoughts turned to hospital chaplaincy services. I’d had very little contact with chaplains during my long career in medicine, largely because I was a radiologist by trade, and radiologists are not involved in the long-term care of patients; we do the interesting bit – making the diagnosis – and then let the referring clinician worry about prognosis and treatment. So my ideas about chaplains were the same as those of most patients: I assumed that anyone styled ‘chaplain’ was a vicar (or priest, or imam or rabbi etc. in these multi-faith times), and I would have been right. Which means that the 40% or so of patients who tick the ‘no religion’ box on their admission form are effectively disenfranchised when it comes to accessing pastoral care in hospital

It occurred to me that there was a parallel here with my funeral work: twenty or thirty years ago, you would have been hard-pushed to find anyone offering non-religious funerals. In fact, I suspect that many funeral directors would have told you that there was no demand for them, and yet now that they are widely available, around one third of services fall into the non-religious category, and fewer than half of all funerals are conducted by the Church of England, Catholic and Methodist churches combined. Pastoral care is ripe for a similar revolution, because while it is true that many chaplains practise what is called ‘generic chaplaincy’ – meaning that they make themselves available to patients of all religions and none – the patients themselves are not necessarily aware of that.

Consequently, if a patient with no religious belief is troubled, anxious or scared and wants to talk to someone who is neither a member of the family or one of the medical and nursing team caring for them, they may well hesitate to ask for the chaplain, fearing that he or she would approach things from a religious point of view which had no meaning for them. This didn’t seem right, and I had been considering a direct approach to my old hospital to see if they felt that there was a place for a humanist in their pastoral care team, but wasn’t sure what sort of reception I’d get.

Then serendipity (or fate or the hand of God, depending on your point of view) stepped in. I clearly hadn’t been the only one thinking about this issue, and out of the blue I received an email from the BHA offering training in pastoral care to humanists wishing to work as volunteers in the hospital and prison services. To cut a long story short, I did the training, and was able to approach the chaplains in Leeds with a bit more credibility than would otherwise have been the case. It turned out that I was pushing at an open door, and Chris Swift, the Head Chaplain and a C of E vicar, welcomed the opportunity to include me on their team. I’m based on the teenage cancer unit, but make myself available to any patient in the Trust who specifically requests pastoral care from a non-religious chaplain.

It’s still early days, and of course, and as I said earlier, patients won’t ask for a non-religious chaplain unless they know that such an exotic creature exists. Still, I’m managing to publicise my presence using internal bulletins and social media, and I’m slowly becoming recognised in my new role, and receiving referrals from other chaplains and chaplaincy volunteers. Incidentally, should you be unfortunate enough to find yourself, or a family member, in hospital and in need of a bit of support, and if you are not religious, you might want to ask if there are any non-religious chaplains available. There probably won’t be, in which case you could ask why not, and just remind them of the equality agenda, because not all of those seeking to do this work have been as lucky as me, and are often rebuffed when they approach chaplaincy departments offering to get involved.

Why am I telling you all this – is it just to make myself sound like a really good person? Well, when I retired, my daughter, who has inherited my rather dry sense of humour, asked me ‘what will you do with yourself, now that you no longer serve any useful purpose’. OK, she was joking (I think), but there’s an underlying kernel of truth in her question, and while I’d like to think that altruism is the chief motivation for my voluntary work, I guess that whenever we undertake something that makes us feel good, there’s invariably an element of selfishness involved as well.  I don’t miss going to work every day, but after a busy career, and particularly in a profession like medicine, I do miss the feeling that, no matter how frustrating the job might have been, I did occasionally make myself useful to someone. The chaplaincy work has given me that feeling again, and I’m unashamed to admit that I enjoy it.

But no, that’s not the reason I’m telling you all this. I’m telling you because you might imagine that spending a significant chunk of my retirement (but not enough to interfere with the fishing) officiating at funerals and working with young victims of cancer would be fairly depressing. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth – my funeral and pastoral care work has shown me, more vividly even than forty years of medical practice did, that human beings are pretty bloody amazing, if you’ll pardon the expression.

When I meet families to arrange a funeral, I’m repeatedly struck by the extraordinary lives that have been lived by outwardly very unexceptional people. There was, for example, the elderly gentleman who had lived in Bradford for seventy years despite an eastern european name, and whose life had seemingly been a pretty mundane one, working in a factory, enjoying a weekend pint in the working men’s club and not doing anything remarkable. It turned out that at the age of seven, he had, with his parents, walked pretty much the length of Europe, fleeing first the Russians, then the Germans. Then there was the elderly lady who had been living a quiet life in her neat little house since her husband died a few years previously.  While talking to her family to get material for her eulogy, I discovered that she had been a stalwart of the early trade union movement, and a friend and colleague of the Labour Party leaders of the fifties and sixties. Singing The Red Flag at her funeral was a first for this ageing small ‘c’ conservative. I could give many other examples.

More importantly perhaps, I’ve been impressed by the amazing resilience that people demonstrate in dealing with the most distressing events, and here I think of the young couple, barely out of childhood themselves, who had just suffered the loss of their first baby at fourteen weeks gestation and wanted me to conduct a funeral service. They were just the most together and composed pair you could imagine; tears had been, and continued to be shed of course, but they were determined to provide a service that would mark their child’s all too brief life and establish her place in their family unit, and had very clear ideas on how to go about it. When I met their relatives and friends at the service, I realised where some of that strength came from. I’ve seen the same thing again in my early dealings with the patients and families on the teenage oncology unit. Their lives have been turned upside down by a disease which highlights the random unfairness of life, but they are just getting on with it and coping.

So here’s the take away message, and I’m sorry I’ve rambled on so long in getting to it, but I thought you needed a bit of background.  I have belatedly realised what humanism is all about:  my experience over the past few years has convinced me that when it comes to human behaviour, belief in a supreme being is an irrelevance. If you feel inspired by the example of Jesus (or any other prophet or teacher) to live your life in a certain way, that’s fine, but we can take responsibility for our own lives and the lives of those around us without ascribing any good we do to God, and blaming all the bad stuff on estrangement from Him, or, worse, to the Devil’s promptings. We are gradually chipping away at the apparently mysterious workings of the universe, using rational processes of enquiry without resorting to the cop-out that ‘God did it’ every time we get to the difficult stuff like dark matter or quantum entanglement (sorry, showing off a bit there – I don’t actually know what they are either, but I’m delighted that someone, somewhere is getting to the bottom of it all).

Everywhere, I see ‘ordinary’ people living as if this was their only life, getting on with things under the most adverse circumstances, and enriching the lives of those around them in the process. They do this because they think they should, and because it makes life better for everyone, not because they are told to do it by supposedly sacred texts written at a time when the sun was still thought to be hauled into the eastern sky behind Helios’s chariot every morning.

Meeting people like this at critical stages in their lives has been a privilege, and is the polar opposite of depressing, so I just wanted to say this. If anyone ever tells you (and they probably will) that a sense of awe and wonder, feelings of joy, and hope for the future can only be experienced in the context of religious faith and a belief in the world to come, politely tell them they are wrong. Tell them Bob said so.


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