The appointment of Redbridge Council’s first Humanist ‘chaplain’ marks an important milestone, says Wanstead resident Paul Kaufman, who was invited to take up the role by the newly elected Mayor of Redbridge
The new Mayor of Redbridge, Councillor Roy Emmett, is an example of the important selfless contribution which many non-religious people make to public life. Roy is a member of East London Humanists, a partner group of Humanists UK. He announced my appointment as his chaplain at his inauguration at the end of April. I start my official duties in June.
The chaplain’s role includes speaking at the beginning of each full council meeting and attending civic events, such as Remembrance Day. The role, which is voluntary and unpaid, is rooted in tradition. ‘Chaplain’ originally described a Christian clergyman attached to a private household. It has long been accepted in Redbridge that the role should reflect the diversity of the borough. For example, in 2012, the then new mayor appointed five chaplains representing respectively the Christian, Sikh, Jewish, Hindu and Islamic faiths.
These appointments were hailed at the time as mirroring the inclusivity and diversity that captured the Olympics, held in London that year. Our group, the East London Humanists, was also founded in 2012. Aims included bringing the non-religious together locally and ensuring we are fairly represented in civic life. A large proportion of the borough is non-religious. It is therefore overdue that Humanists are involved in such civic occasions. It is only with Humanist involvement that they can be said to be truly inclusive.
Of course, as a Humanist, I will open meetings with reflections rather than prayers. These will respect the diverse beliefs in the borough. They will promote community and thoughtfulness. While freedom of religion and belief is a cornerstone of Humanism, so too is the right to freedom from religion. Sitting through prayer sessions can be discomfiting and divisive if you don’t believe in them. We can talk about shared universal values, such as kindness, without bringing religion into it. One value, which should be front and centre to all our thinking, not least in the council, is the importance of acting on threats to our precious environment.
Are moments of reflection at the beginning of meetings out of place in the modern world? Arguably, all workplaces and institutions would benefit from setting aside time to think about what’s important in life. Like it or not, the practice where councils are concerned is now enshrined in an Act passed in 2015 following a legal challenge. This legitimises council provision for events “connected with a religious or philosophical belief.”
I hope my year will demonstrate the important contribution Humanists can make to community cohesion and to making the borough a better place.
Paul is chair of the East London Humanists. For more information, visit wnstd.com/elh
To watch a video of the new mayor’s inauguration, visit wnstd.com/mayor21