Army Chaplains' Blog

[Army chaplains are imbued with a wandering inner being, constantly on the move to the next exercise, next deployment, next posting. Here the Rev’d Justin Bradbury reflects on an exercise in Latvia.]

The gospel lectionary reading for the day I arrived in Latvia was bemusing. Matthew 10:5-15 encouraged me to travel light (leaving behind gold, silver or coins.) In fact, I forgot to pack a bank card and thought 100 Euros to be enough money as I would be living in the field for the next seven days. I deliberately overlooked the encouragement from Jesus not to take an extra shirt and had packed in line with the kit list. I also ignored the warning not to take a walking stick; I go everywhere – as far as is practicable – with my trusty shepherd’s crook.

So, I arrived at the airport to be charged an excess on baggage, as the system failed to register two pieces of baggage, so my grip bag cost 55 euros. The airline refused to let me take my crook on board as hand luggage, cost: 60 euros. My budget was blown, but thankfully I was travelling with the Commanding Officer and he had packed his credit card!

Travelling light is an impossibility in the Army. It might seem that my crook is an unnecessary affectation, but God made it very clear before I joined the Army that I needed it. In a sea of green uniform … I was easily spotted. For me, the crook is a daily reminder that I am called to walk alongside soldiers. Wandering with my crook means that I am liable to be either actively avoided or stopped…

As we all know, being away with the lads brings many opportunities for the random conversation. The most extraordinary one came late at night as I was wandering back from having had a shower. A soldier stopped me to share his experience in having taken Holy Communion for the first time earlier that day. He received the invitation to come and eat. He said, falteringly, that he felt different, new and clean. He was trying to make sense of it all. What an opener for a gospel conversation, while just wearing a towel!

Wandering with Jesus always changes things. We are often told that the padre is good for morale. On a very basic level we do this by enabling a different kind and quality of conversation. I am cautious in being seen as some kind of mood-enhancing personality. My mood and energy levels ebb and flow; only Jesus is consistently, lovingly for us. As I prayed that I would be led by Him in my wandering, I encountered the painful and precious stories in the lives of soldiers from many nations. The fact that i forgot to take certain proscribed items, and wilfully carried others, did not stop the Great Shepherd from having His say.

[The Army has a long tradition of generating theological students and ordinands, often sponsored by the Royal Army Chaplains’ Department. Here, the Rev’d Sheila Moreton reflects on a journey that began in the British Army of the Rhine (BAOR) some thirty years ago.]

Sponsored by the Royal Army Chaplains’ Department thirty years ago in what was then BAOR, the Reverend Sheila Moreton went on to train as a Deaconess in the Church of England. On the eve of retirement she came back to Germany to provide some respite for  a serving chaplain looking after the Rear Operations Group in Fallingbostel, by taking a Sunday service.

Having started as a deaconess in Düsseldorf in 1984 and then ordained as a deacon – one of the first 10 to be ordained by the Archbishop of Canterbury – Sheila worked alongside the Royal Army Chaplains’ Department in what would prove to be a forerunner of the Community Chaplains of today.

This recent trip proved to be an opportunity for Sheila to return to the Army environment as an ordained vicar, leaving behind her three parishes of Wilden, Colmworth & Ravensden, in the Diocese of St Alban’s.

“I don’t remember us having the information and communications that you have here today”, she said as she visited a welfare centre, “it is wonderful to see how the Army has improved and moved on in supporting the families of soldiers in Germany.” During her time as ‘wife of’, as wives were then referred to, Sheila lived in countries as far afield as Bahrain, Hong Kong as well as across Germany and the UK.

“It is such an honour to be able to help out during this period of deployment but also to have this great opportunity to bring my career to an end in the same country where it began professionally. I have always helped in the church community but it was when we were stationed overseas that I felt that I could do more to support families through the church”, explained Sheila whose husband, Alan, retired as a lieutenant-colonel after a thirty-eight year career. “Having been a young wife of 21 years old having a baby far away from close family in Bahrain, I felt that I could relate to the younger wives and families by offering support and guidance for them through the military maze. It has been a journey for me where I have used my experience as a wife and mother in the military environment in the parishes that I have worked in. Coming back and seeing the changes in Germany is both fascinating and uplifting. There have been some very positive changes, although I suspect that those experiencing them now may not see it as such!”

Recalling her first services in the initial few months after her ordination as a deaconess she said: “I remember I did three christenings, as the families were Church of England, and the children were all called Christopher. Wearing the cross that I received when I became a deaconess is a reminder of where I started.”

Ordained women serve in the Royal Army Chaplains’ Department under the same terms as their male counterparts, providing spiritual support to soldiers on the front line across the world. Whilst this is no longer an option for Sheila, the opportunity to be back in a military community as a fully ordained priest of the Church of England felt as if the circle was complete.

“Of course retirement is daunting for anyone, but this chance for me to come to Germany to again be amongst the military community has been very special. Even when you leave the Army community you know that you have been part of a very special organisation and the sense of community remains with you wherever you go. This trip has given me some time for reflection on where my career has taken me and I am grateful to those in the Chaplains’ Department who gave me support throughout my training. I never thought thirty years ago that I would be back amongst the Forces families as a fully ordained member of the Church taking a service. What a journey it has been!”

[Padre Matt Coles reflects on the transition from Curate in Chesham to commissioned chaplain with 1st Bn Coldstream Guards]

Bathed in red light, soothed by the World Service and watching my dark arcs, was a heaven-sent slice of calm. I was not alone in the sangar, but the company helped me reflect on my tour thus far and the family I had grown to love, since being posted to 1st Battalion Coldstream Guards in April 2012.

When I left my curacy in Chesham to join the RAChD, I guessed the path would not be straight and the learning curve steep. However, I stepped off knowing I was following God’s call to Army Chaplaincy…

After a fleeting but foundational training period at Amport House, I joined the Battalion in Windsor for three months. The scrapes and japes of the soldiers constantly amazed me and the routine of this new world was confusing, but for the gruff growl of the Adjutant. At this time I saw a breadth of chaplaincy opportunities, from exercising in Brecon with the Guardsmen, to ministering in the Guards Chapel to the great, the good and the General. Also, my evangelical instincts were tingling with the warm welcome from the Mess, but left shuddering from the cold shoulder from the secular institution.

Three months later I started Professionally Qualified Officers’ Course 122 at the Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst. Training there gave me some competence and a greater confidence to speak, think and walk like a soldier. With a better brace and sharper salute, I began to be more robust to the taunts of “imaginary friends”, “fictional characters” and being ‘an officer without portfolio’ and got on with loving my flock.

I found the best way to do this was by becoming one of the blokes and building friendships, whilst always being available, offering a different perspective and delivering weddings, baptisms, funerals and seasonal services to the highest standards possible. I also had the privilege of representing the Battalion at rugby and the Guards at cricket, and the pleasure of laying up the Colours in Eton and marching to the Cenotaph on Black Sunday.

When we deployed to Afghanistan … and I became chaplain to the Kabul Support Unit, I had my fair share of anxieties and expectations. I left behind my young family, but was joined by an army of prayer warriors and soon settled into a routine. This included ministering to four locations every week plus memorials, pageants, festivals and learning to live cheek by jowl with my extended family, far from home …

This tour has been one of searing complexity and yet stark simplicity. Conversations have covered the foreseeable topics of life and death, and the predictable areas of depression and frustration, as well as the surprising preference for financial gain at the cost of family time, but I suspect those are linked. To be honest, despite the non-kinetic nature of this tour, it has been hard to make time for my personal devotionals and find people with an appetite for enquirers’ courses and discipleship classes. On reflection, again, those are probably linked. Previously in Windsor, I tried at all costs to make a distinction between chaplaincy and welfare, but here the edges have become blurred between customised Battalion rock and faithful preaching from the Book and everything in the middle. And that holistic care for the flock feels all right.

People have said on tour, “the veil is thin” and God can be felt close at hand, but that’s not been my experience. However, I have expanded my appreciation for the church building, specifically asking how we interact in the ‘sacred space’ and what is conducive for worship and reflection. That might mean installing a pulpit or adorning the walls with photocopied stained glass and scriptural slogans. It could look like singing traditional hymns and using the full Anglican liturgy and vestments. It has happened sitting in the round or in a Foxhound or crouched in a foxhole.

[Edited excerpt from an article first printed in the Royal Army Chaplains’ Department Journal]

 

 

Chaplains require an adventurous character if they are to make the most of the opportunities for ministry presented to them in their service of the military community. Below, Padre Stewart MacKay reflects theologically on a visit to the Falkland Islands:

I have been working with 2 PARA since January 2012. During that time the whole battalion has rarely been together in one place as exercises, operations (Op OLYMPIC and Op FIRIC) and leave have happened mainly at company level and many of our troops attend courses in between these. Whilst there is plenty of pastoral work to be done in camp exercises provide the best quality time to spend with troops. This can be illustrated through a trip to the Falkland Islands, some 7,900 miles from the UK, to visit C (Bruneval) Coy, who were undertaking a two month exercise package as the Falkland Islands Roulement Infantry Company (FIRIC).

The exercise package included two cycles through the ranges, patrols and Quick Reaction Force, culminating in a final exercise. There were also battlefield tours and platoon socials between phases. This context delivers many opportunities for pastoral ministry. Sharing some of the experiences of the troops embodies what I believe to be the necessity of incarnational chaplaincy approach if it s to bear fruit of any kind. One such activity was a sixteen mile TAB from Onion Ranges back to Mount Pleasant Camp. I suggested to one of the soldiers that it would be great if I had a cross to carry and he quickly volunteered to make me one! And cometh the hour I strapped it to my Bergen after having it signed by the troops and off we went. Weather is massively changeable though fairly consistently very windy. About five minutes is enough to produce four seasons. We certainly experienced those seasons on this TAB. Not so much rain, but snow and horizontal hail stones proved something of a challenge to exposed faces. With heads bowed and the odd groan we journeyed on, thinking to ourselves how tough it must have been for the soldiers to survive, let alone fight, in the 1982 South Atlantic winter.

As I tabbed with the blokes I displayed not only the incarnational aspect of the gospel but also the sacrificial as I carried my cross. Sacrificing personal comfort and sharing the burdens of the troops is something chaplains have done for a very long time, often in extremely dangerous situations, and at times to the cost of their own lives. And as Christ ministers to us incarnationally and sacrificially so we, in turn, minister Christ to those whom we serve.

Army chaplains spend, on average, between two and three years with a particular unit before moving to a new location to begin the process again. The following reflection is written by the Revd Hector MacKenzie who experienced this transition for the first time last year.

‘I moved recently from my first unit, The Highlanders, 4th Battalion, The Royal Regiment of Scotland (my home battalion) to the 3rd Battalion, The Parachute Regiment. This was my first experience of leaving one unit to commence chaplaincy in a new and different environment. I am sure that almost always leaving a unit comes as a wrench, when you have worked closely alongside individuals, deployed on a tour with them and had the privilege of ministering to them in the highs and lows of life. That is certainly the case for me, and I have to be honest and say that I was apprehensive about the move and anxious at stepping out of my comfort zone. But the Paras have been so welcoming and as I slowly get to know individuals I feel more at ease.

Relocation, with all the physical and emotional stresses and readjustments, has given me a valuable insight into how change affects me; it has informed my ministry and I offer this reflection not as the finished article but as a work in progress.

Am I someone who handles change well? I’m not too sure. On the one hand, being a Highlander full of Celtic melancholy I have a tendency to look with nostalgia and romance at the past and lament the here and now; on the other hand, I have heard God’s call to ministry and stepped out in faith, albeit reluctantly and with a certain degree of apprehension. I am sure that we would all admit a sense of fear of the unknown. I know that I have likened myself to Moses many times, wishing and asking God to provide an Aaron to go instead of me!

There have been a number of passages from scripture that have spoken into my experience when I was preparing to commence my training as a chaplain. The resonating theme was God promising to be with his people and helping them to overcome. These words from Isaiah 43:1-3 encouraged me on tour time and again:

But now, O Jacob, listen to the Lord who created you. O Israel, the one who formed you says, “Do not be afraid, for I have ransomed you. I have called you by name; you are mine. When you go through deep waters, I will be with you. When you go through rivers of difficulty, you will not drown. When you walk through the fire of oppression, you will not be burned up; the flames will not consume you. For I am the Lord, your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Saviour. (Holy Bible, New Living Translation, 2007, Tyndale House)

The thought of moving, whether that be to a new job, ministry opportunity, school or leaving the Army after a long period of service can be very daunting, in fact for some people it is a terrifying experience. That is understandable when you are somewhere that you know, where routine is familiar, where you have built strong relationships with individuals and personalities are well known: you feel comfortable and at ease. Moving into a new area can be tough, you may be reluctant and find it a struggle to engage. It can be like going to a big hill and when you begin your climb all is fine; the visibility is good, all is calm and the path is sure underfoot. But the further and higher you go, the visibility deteriorates, the terrain becomes unfamiliar, hostile even and you become less and less confident. What do you do? You remember the stream that flows close to the path. You listen out and sure enough you hear the faint trickle of running water. Knowing that it runs downhill it will be your guide home.

We can liken Jesus to the stream, even though the way may seem unclear, if we listen we will hear his voice; he is a safe and sure guide, and he promises to equip us for whatever (new) challenge he calls us to. I am still learning to come to terms with the fact that change is inevitable, and I will continue to have mixed emotions/reactions towards it, but the words of the old hymn ring true, ‘change and decay in all around I see, oh thou who changest not, abide with me.’ (H F Lyte, 1793-1847)

We may worry about our role as chaplains in a changing, shrinking, contingency-focussed Army, but we must remember that God will still give us opportunities to minister and will equip us for that ministry and strengthen us to face the change. It may be that we have to step out first of all, feeling the fear but doing it anyway. Above all let us remember the nature of the God whom we serve, who as James says, ‘never changes or casts a shifting shadow.’ (James 1:17, ibid) Everything else may change, but our God never will and he is entirely trustworthy.

The Secretary to the Methodist Forces Board writes:

‘Normal adjectives like ‘good’ are not appropriate when describing the experience of our visit to Afghanistan. I have been asked for a response many times since returning. I generally resort to words like extraordinary or daunting or fascinating – all of which are true but also completely fail to convey the scope of the experience which was at once complex, profound, exhilarating and confusing.

‘This was my first opportunity to visit a theatre of war and even the flight into Camp Bastion was a revelation. 20 – 30 minutes out, we made the final descent and all the lights were extinguished except for the green guidance lights in the aisles. At near enough the same moment, the conversation died away to silence. After a few minutes, I did wonder if prayer was the sole preserve of the clergy in the period of suspended quietness.

‘Amid the presentations, briefings, meetings and visits, the importance of chaplaincy was a constant theme. Repeatedly, Commanding Officers spoke glowingly of the vital contribution of their padre. ‘Vital’ is a powerful word, so what brings about such a conviction? Repeatedly we witnessed the seriousness of chaplains as well as their humour. We saw their passionate, pastoral and professional commitment, but all of this was placed in a new perspective because of their context. Warfare means the constant proximity of death or serious injury. Of course we know about this as theory but the experience at first hand confirms without question that in this situation, the prayerful person of God is invaluable – vital indeed.

‘All conversations spoke of the grimness of war and two questions were always in my mind. The first asks ‘what does this experience say about humanity?’ Chaplains spoke about warfare bringing out the best in people but one pointed out the best has to be balanced by an experience of the worst in humanity which is at the heart of war.

‘The second question is even more fundamental and asks ‘where is God in all of this?’ In many respects it seemed a God-deserted place but chaplains mostly wanted to point to God present in laughter, joy, and in the relationships of colleagueship and camaraderie. God was also present in pain and suffering of injury and death. From this my mind went back to the death of Lazarus (John 11). Seeing all the distress of sisters and friends, ‘Jesus began to weep.’ (Jn 11:35)

‘So maybe it is enough to say:

            I will weep when you are weeping

            when you laugh I’ll laugh with you;

            I will share your joy and sorrow

            till we’ve seen this journey through.  (Richard Gillard b1953)

It is the ultimate question for chaplaincy to answer ‘where is God in all of this?’ At times the answer is to be found in theological eloquence and narrative, but as many chaplains will testify and as Robert Jones as hinted at, there are occasions when silence and emotions speak more powerfully.

‘Whenever I am introduced to people as the Bishop to the Forces, the inevitable first question is “Have you been to Afghanistan?” It is a profound pleasure now to be able to say ‘yes’, and having stories to share is already making a significant difference to my ministry. I am grateful to those who made the trip possible and to those who helped to make it a memorable event.

‘It was a delight to meet the team of chaplains who are currently deployed. in so many ways they thoroughly reflected the rich diversity of the Church’s ministry – different theological emphases, different giftings, very different characters! Yet what a creative and stimulating team they are! I hear that this is a common experience for deployed chaplains, and is a powerful challenge to clergy elsewhere that if you are together passionately committed to and focussed on the tasks God has laid on you, then a profound and rich unity emerges.

‘A similar message came from the hospital. The Matron told us that the hospital at Bastion has no equipment that NHS hospitals do not have. What it has is a team of people with different skills who are united in their focus on providing the very best service to those who come under their care. That is what makes the place so special.

‘It was quite a surprise to hear an almost universal assurance that the troops had excellent equipment and excellent support. But every section we visited underlined that it is the dedication of the human beings and their commitment to work together as teams to fulfil their tasks to the very best of their ability that makes such a difference.

‘Finally, everywhere we went, in all sorts of ways, I sensed the quiet, reassuring, committed presence of God. And rather wonderfully, found dozens of clues that his presence was acknowledged. Lots to think and pray about. Lots to be thankful for.

The profound and rich unity of which Bishop Stephen speaks is a reality of life in the Chaplains’ Department. A commitment to working as part of an ecumenical team is required of all applicants for a commission with the RAChD and our leavers often comment on this being something they miss.