Health: First non-religious Leeds chaplain to open doors for patients in need

Dr Bob Bury, Leeds Teaching Hospitals NHS Trust's first humanist chaplain, with trust chief executive Julian Hartley.
Dr Bob Bury, Leeds Teaching Hospitals NHS Trust's first humanist chaplain, with trust chief executive Julian Hartley.
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Having someone non-medical and sympathetic to talk to in your hour of need can be a lifeline – but what if you feel nobody shares your beliefs?

Hospital chaplaincy services provide seriously ill patients and their families with emotional and spiritual support in some of the deepest, darkest hours of bereavement and diagnosis.

In Leeds there are a handful of chaplains covering all faiths from differing schools of Christianity to Hinduism and Judaism, but not everyone identifies with a religion.

In fact, according to NatCen’s annual British Social Attitudes survey, around half of the UK population do not associate with a set religion, potentially leaving thousands of Leeds patients feeling as though they can’t access support in hospital.

Retired consultant radiologist Dr Bob Bury, who spent 22 years at Leeds Teaching Hospitals NHS Trust (LTH), is now hoping to ensure patients who don’t associate with a religion have a source of support as the trust’s first humanist chaplain.

“At present all spiritual care comes from religious people. They are good people and practice general chaplaincy and see and help and talk to people of all religions and none,” he said. “But because it’s seen as a religious thing many patients wont ask for a chaplain and would assume they would get a vicar to pray with them. There needs to be other options.”

The 66-year-old, from Oakwood, started out as a medical student working with the Royal Air Force, eventually serving as a field surgeon in Oman in 1976, before moving to Leeds to specialise in radiology in 1988.

Having been a practicing Church of England Christian he later converted to humanism – a non-religious set of beliefs based on living ethical lives on the basis of equal treatment and shared humanity.

After retiring in 2010, he was first trained by the British Humanist Association as a celebrant, allowing him to perform non-religious funeral ceremonies four years ago.

Dr Bury said: “You don’t go in talking to patients with solutions, you go in empty handed and sit down and listen and talk to them and help with whatever’s worrying them. It’s a privilege for people to invite you into their lives.”

Set to start working voluntarily in the hospital imminently, he will serve a day’s worth of hours each week and has already started work on a project to cater better to non-religious parents who experience still birth.

Rev Chris Swift, head of chaplaincy at LTH, believes the move to appoint a humanist chaplain is the next stage of the “evolution” of the service. He added: “Hospitals have a duty to provide pastoral and spiritual support for all patients who seek it, not just to those with an identified religious affiliation.”


Humanism is an approach to life based on reason and our common humanity, recognising that moral values are founded on human nature and experience alone.

While atheism is the absence of belief, humanism is said to be a positive attitude to the world, centred on human experience, thought and hopes.

Most humanists do not believe in god-like figures and feel that humans can live ethical, fulfilling lives without religious beliefs.