Let’s toast humanist activist Denis Cobell
From Speakers’ Corner to President of the National Secular Society, Denis Cobell, has been a leading humanist figure since the 1960s.
Writer, editor, speaker, Humanist ceremonies officiant and chaplain, his contributions are legion, and on October 16 members of the South East London Humanist Group (SELHuG) will celebrate his 40 years as Honorary Secretary of the group. Everyone is welcome, and there will be cake at the event, which takes place at Catford Constitutional Club, Catford Broadway, London SE6 4SP, starting at 7.30 pm.
Cobell was born in 1938 into a strict evangelical family in Hove; his father was a lay preacher. In his late teens, he spent time at Hove Public Library reading a variety of books including works by Bertrand Russell, who he was to meet at his North Wales home in 1959.
Cobell started writing for secular humanist and socialist publications from the late 1950s and also spoke at Speakers’ Corner in Hyde Park during the 1960s and 1970s. He co-edited the Hyde Park Socialist quarterly paper from 1968 to 1984, and was a regular contributor to the Freethinker.
In 1998, when he was President of the National Secular Society, Cobell became embroiled in a row after he was appointed chaplain for the Labour-run borough of Lewisham. The appointment, according to the BBC, immediately drew fire from the Catholic Church, which described it as “offensive”.
Father Kieran Conry, a Catholic Church spokesman, said:
This sends out completely the wrong message to people – especially if they are going to call him chaplain.
I might not believe in God but I am very honoured to accept the post. I don’t know what the fuss is about.
A spokesman for the council defended the appointment. He said:
The chaplain provides a strong moral framework. We have Hindus, Sikhs, Muslims, Christians and non-believers in the borough and we have had no complaints about Mr Cobell so far.
A spokeswoman for the Association for London Government said it was an unusual appointment.
I would have thought believing in God was a prerequisite. The chaplain is basically spiritual adviser to the mayor.
Cobell is a pacifist and is currently Chair of the Right to Refuse to Kill (RKK) Group for recognition of conscientious objectors. He was a signatory to the “Manifesto of the Third Camp Against US Militarism and Islamic Terrorism“.
I first got to know Denis when I became a member of the National Secular Society in the 1970s, and later served on its Council of Management. On January 9, 1997, he conducted a humanist funeral for my late partner of 21 years, Brian Parry, at Golders Green Crematorium in London.