Let’s toast humanist activist Denis Cobell

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.

Cobell retorted:

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.

8 responses to “Let’s toast humanist activist Denis Cobell”

  1. Trevor Blake says:

    Three cheers and a tiger for Chaplain Cobell from the exotic distant land of Portland Oregon USA.

  2. EJ says:

    It is with considerable forehead-wrinkling that I congratulate Chaplain Denis Cobell on his new leadership role, as the word “chaplain” sounds a bit off, and doesn’t seem like the proper English word at all, but there it is and I hope he does enjoy it all very much, and has lots of fun into the bargain, as it seems he will, as the fun has already started! 😀

  3. Stephen Mynett says:

    Congrats to a fantastic person.

    For a long time I was ambivalent about humanist chaplains, on one hand being quite cynical and thinking it was dressing up a religious position in secular/atheist clothing while, on the other, thinking one could be of use as they, unlike any religionist, would be inclusive of all and carry no discriminatory baggage, which religionists have to possess if they follow their chosen brand properly.

    However, my first experience of a humanist funeral swayed me a lot in favour. It was not only the inclusive nature of the humanist officiating, in one part of the service he invited people to remember the deceased during a piece of her favourite music and said that those who wished were welcome to pray, but also his general attitude of caring and trying to provide a service that helped us remember a lovely person and honoured her without the need to try to push any brand of belief or non-belief.

    He was welcoming to all who spoke to him but again did not try to push his views, whereas I have been to several religious funerals which have seemed little more than an advert for god and the deceased was nothing more than a sideshow.

    I realise this is a one-off experience and others could be different but, having chatted to a few humanists since, think this is probably the norm for a humanist service.

  4. Barry Duke says:

    “… religious funerals which have seemed little more than an advert for god and the deceased was nothing more than a sideshow …

    Spot on Stephen, they are absolutely dire. Shortly before Brian’s death I attended a ghastly textbook send-off for a director of a company I worked with at an Anglican service just off of Fleet Street – St Bride’s if I remember correctly. The deceased got just one mention in amongst the preaching and the dreary organ music, and then the priest got his name wrong!

    Brian’s funeral was a celebration of his life, short – (he was only 47 when he died) – but packed with achievement. Denis Cobell went to great lengths to get to know all he could about Brian and his life as a gay atheist activist and he did a magnificent job of conducting a ceremony which was marked by two pieces of Brian’s favourite music: Mood Indigo, from the Cotton Club film score, and Don’t Fence Me In, by Bing Crosby and the Andrew Sisters.

    It was a truly uplifting ceremony, and, I can assure you Stephen, that this is typical of non-religious ceremonies conducted by by the likes of Denis.

    Seven years ago it was reported that 30,000 godless funerals had taken place in the UK; I imagine that this figure will have risen dramatically since then.

    The British Humanist Association has more information here.

  5. Broga says:

    Denis Cobell is a worthy recipient of recognition. I wonder if Denis, and others like him, realise the impact they often have on the lives of people looking for a non religious perspective.

    My hero, in my youth, was David Tribe. I used to read and re read his front page articles on The Freethinker. They helped me realise that there was a vigorous, combative and expert challenge to religion. Until a colleague gave me a copy of The Freethinker I had no idea that such exciting opinions, expressed cogently and clearly, existed.

  6. George Broadhead says:

    Warm congratulations to Denis!

    I became friendly with him when, as secretary of the gay Humanist charity the Pink Triangle Trust (, during the years when I was arranging Humanist “affirmation” ceremonies of love and commitment for lesbian and gay couples. Denis conducted many of these on behalf of the Trust in the Greater London area, including those held at Civic Hall when Ken Livingstone was Mayor.

  7. Paul Cook says:

    Congratulations and well done to Denis, spending a lifetime for as a true human being. I hope the evening is a good one. Full of logic, reason and free-thought!

  8. […] Cobell. our Secretary for 40 years, has been featured in the Freethinker. Please go here to read the story! Search […]