First humanist chaplain appointed to a Northern Ireland rugby club

A Belfast rugby club is thought to be the first in the sport in Northern Ireland to appoint a humanist chaplain.

Friday, 25th June 2021, 6:30 am

Ciarán McWilliams has been appointed to the position with the trailblazing Ophir Rugby Football Club in Mallusk. The Azlans – the region’s first predominantly gay team – joined the club in 2018, and Ophir launched a girls’ and women’s section last year.

Ciarán has been a member for over 30 years as a player, referee, coach, youth convenor and committee member.

Now 48, he was brought up in a Catholic home in north Belfast to “lovely” believing parents, but believes his convictions about atheism solidified when he was 12.

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Ciarán McWilliams has been appointed as the first humanist pastoral carer to a rugby team in Northern Ireland. He will provide emotional support to players, coaches, and fans at Ophir Rugby Football Club based in Mallusk.
Ciarán McWilliams has been appointed as the first humanist pastoral carer to a rugby team in Northern Ireland. He will provide emotional support to players, coaches, and fans at Ophir Rugby Football Club based in Mallusk.

Describing himself as “quite an aggressive atheist” in his teens, a turning point came when he found himself seriously ill in hospital for a prolonged spell.

“I had this wonderful conversation with a humanist [chaplain] who put me on to the NI Humanists,” he said.

He trained as a humanist pastoral carer in 2018 and since then, he has become the pastoral care lead for NI Ireland Humanists and NI Coordinator for the Non-Religious Pastoral Support Network.

The transition from atheist to humanist was not difficult. “In atheism you don’t believe in God and it is against all religions. But humanism is a belief system in which you live the best life you can and help others to live the best life they can,” he said

As a youth coach and trade union representative in a large manufacturing company, he was used to handling sensitive pastoral care issues.

He notes that many rugby clubs across NI have Christian chaplains; two weeks ago his club asked him to step into the same role for them, in a humanist capacity.

While other faiths bring religious texts and prayer to encourage and guide followers, Ciarán says he offers a different approach: “No religion and no God”.

Pressed further, he explains that he brings “a non-judgmental, listening ear, mindfulness and being in the moment” to situations.

One of his most inspiring experiences was as a chaplain in Maghaberry prison, where he helped a prisoner who had some bad experiences with clerics and was on hunger strike.

“I was the first person he interacted with for three months and then supported him for another six weeks.”

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