Here at the Caledonian Humanist Association (CHA), we see our ceremonies work as the most important work that we do, but it’s not our only focus. While we have limited resources, we are always on the lookout for ways in which we can represent those who share our beliefs.
Armed Forces Chaplaincy is not an obvious issue for us to get involved in but it’s an area where Humanists and the non-religious face discrimination.
The issue we would like to highlight is that of Humanist Chaplains in the UK Armed Forces. Quite simply, there aren’t any! This is despite the growing numbers of non-religious people in the Armed Forces, reflecting the demographics of wider UK society.
Chaplaincy positions in all three of the services (i.e. Royal Navy, Army and Royal Air Force) are reserved for members of what are termed “Sending Churches”.
This link to the Army Chaplaincy page details who these Sending Churches are:
For the sake of brevity, the relevant paragraph states: “You must also have been ordained and had ministerial experience in one of the recognised Sending Churches (Anglican, Roman Catholic, Methodist, Church of Scotland, Presbyterian, Baptist Union, United Reformed, Congregational, Free Church of Scotland, Elim Pentecostal, Assemblies of God, Salvation Army).”
It can clearly be seen from this list, that it’s not only Humanists who are disallowed from applying. There are currently no serving members of the Chaplaincy branch from any non-Christian religion either.
The concession made to non-Christian religions is they have one, civilian “Official Chaplain to the Military” (OCM) for the Buddhist, Hindu, Jewish, Muslim and Sikh faiths. There are currently no such concessions made for Humanists.
Humanism is an internationally recognised belief system and as such is a protected belief under Section 10 of the Equality Act 2010.
From a CHA point of view, the Sending Churches we are most interested in are the Church of Scotland and the Free Church of Scotland.
In Scotland, CHA Celebrants have the same standing in law as their religious counterparts. They conduct the same range of ceremonies, including legal marriages. Yet the Church of Scotland and the Free Church of Scotland can put forward candidates for selection as Armed Forces Chaplains, but the CHA cannot.
To take the example of the British Army alone, there are over 7000 soldiers who have declared that they are atheist. Around 3500 more have declared that they are Agnostic.
You might ask, “why is this an issue other than the obvious discrimination angle?” It’s an issue because in the forces, the Chaplaincy team is part of the overall “Pastoral Care” network. Importantly, they are outside the chain of command.
If, for example, a soldier has a problem that he/she doesn’t want to discuss with their superiors or even the base doctor (for example, something that he/she feels might be taken as a sign of weakness affecting any future promotions etc.), then they can speak to the Chaplain in full confidence. Any discussion with the Chaplain does not necessarily go on record, and the Chaplain can use their position (and senior officer rank in many cases) to sort things out. Often a quiet word in the right ear can make a difference, especially in such a close-knit community that you get in the forces.
The position of the Chaplaincy branches in all three services is that the non-religious can be adequately catered for by the existing team of Christian Chaplains.
Our position is that this is potentially illegal discrimination under the Equality Act 2010.
We are not asking for Christian Chaplains to be abolished, rather we feel there is now a strong case for admitting Humanists to that profession and for all faiths and beliefs to work together to ensure that those who serve in our Armed Forces get the best possible support.
With that in mind, at the turn of the year we contacted the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC).
Since then, the EHRC in Scotland has been investigating and they recently informed us that they have decided to liaise with their colleagues in England and Wales in order to determine a commission-wide position.