Advancing Spiritual Care Through Research

Book review: Savage, Non-religious pastoral care

By Carmen Schuhmann, University of Humanistic Studies, Utrecht:

David Savage, Non-Religious Pastoral Care: A Practical Guide (Routledge, 2018).

     David Savage addresses a timely issue in chaplaincy. Part of the book is – as the title suggests – a practical guide for non-religious pastoral caregivers concerning skills, competencies, rituals, and ethical behavior. Here the focus is on humanist pastoral care, as humanist pastoral caregivers have been pioneers in practicing and developing non-religious pastoral care. Another, substantial part of the book is devoted to setting out a wider, critical perspective on the current situation in the UK concerning pastoral, spiritual, and religious care. The aim here is to point to the possibility of building a more inclusive pastoral, spiritual, and religious care service in the UK. This service should be accessible and recognizable for all people, irrespective of their worldview.

      About half of the population in the UK call themselves non-religious. Savage argues that these people do not have the same opportunities to access non-religious pastoral care as religious people do. He identifies several impediments: the use of the terms ‘chaplaincy’ and ‘spiritual care’, for instance, which are strongly associated with Christian religion by people in the UK. Another impediment is the widespread perception of non-religious people as ‘nones’, as people without (religious) beliefs and values, instead of as people with positive and meaningful (non-religious) beliefs and values. This obscures the ‘pastoral care needs’ of non-religious people, which correspond to those of religious people: to have their beliefs and values be taken seriously and to be empathically supported in grappling with existential issues (often in disturbing situations) – for instance by means of rituals that affirm these beliefs and values.

      In the book, chaplains, policy makers, and researchers are urged to step up their efforts to gain insight into the pastoral, spiritual, and religious care needs of both religious and non-religious people. This is necessary to develop a more inclusive pastoral care service that is attuned to the needs of all people. This plea resonates with my own experiences as a former humanist chaplain in the Netherlands and with my hopes for the future of chaplaincy. In the Netherlands, over the last few decades, non-religious chaplaincy has become firmly integrated in healthcare institutions, prisons, and the military. This allows Dutch humanist chaplains to focus their energy primarily on cooperating with religious chaplains in providing people with good chaplaincy care, rather than on highlighting their difference from religious chaplains. Obviously, this does not imply that all is harmony, in particular at a policy level. For one, it took a serious struggle until the notion that humanist chaplains can provide existential and moral support was widely accepted by religious chaplains in the Netherlands.

     Still, I would argue that what unites chaplains – both religious and non-religious – is more important than what divides them. They share a concern for providing pastoral care to every person for whom this may be beneficial. I would also argue that, with a view to the future of chaplaincy, the question of how to provide pastoral care to ‘the non-religious’ is not the central question. It is an aspect of a broader question: how to provide pastoral care when we cannot draw sharp distinctions between ‘people with religious beliefs’ and ‘people with non-religious beliefs’, when religion and worldview are fluid terms, and when people increasingly draw from various worldview traditions simultaneously? Everyone may face situations where, to quote Savage, “it can be helpful to talk to someone who is compassionate, empathic, confidential, and like-minded”. How ‘like-minded’ does the chaplain have to be in order to be experienced as supportive and helpful? I think that this is a crucial question that requires both solid research and an open dialogue among all chaplains.

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