Army Chaplains' Blog

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.

Bishop Richard writes:

‘This year’s visit was the result of sustained effort on the part of the Chaplain-General and his staff, the visit team and the chaplains serving in Afghanistan. The programme that was put in place was as extensive and informative as possible, given the length of time we were at Camp Bastion.

‘The first thing to strike me about Camp Bastion was its size. I did not expect to be visiting a large ‘town’ that has sprung up and developed in the desert of Afghanistan. The sheer extent of the operation was simply impressive – the logistics operation and the amount of air traffic being only two elements. At every stage, we received a warm welcome and first class briefings. I found myself leaving with what i believe is a greater understanding of the engagement in Afghanistan, the pressures imposed through living conditions and the demands made on those living at a high state of readiness – with the tension this produces. This was especially evident in meeting with the personnel and their canine friends of the C-IED Group [Counter-Improvised Explosive Device] and the pilots and ground staff providing air cover.

‘The medical teams, both on the MERT [Medical Emergency Response Team] and at the hospital, are providing a truly wonderful service to all those for whom they care and it was a privilege for me to be able to celebrate Mass at the hospital chapel on both days of the visit. The opportunity to share in prayer with military staff and a number of the civilians, from many nations, working in the hospital was a real highlight.

 ‘As for the chaplains, their persevering dedication to those in their pastoral care was, for me, a humbling experience. Praying with them and listening to their often moving accounts of the challenges and joys of service in theatre has left me with many memories. My prayers for everyone in theatre are all the more real as a result.

‘One of the things that struck me most – and which has been a source of reflection since returning – is what I can only describe as the very different world in which our service personnel and the civilians who work alongside them are asked to live while in theatre. There can be few places where the presence of chaplains, their prayer, compassionate listening, sacramental ministry and the hope that this brings is more vital.’

Bishop Richard brings an added dimension to his work as Bishop to the Forces having previously served as a Territorial Army Chaplain and worked with the volunteers at 217 General Hospital RAMC(V). The Royal Army Chaplains’ Department is recruiting now for full time and reserve force chaplains, see the link on this site for more information.

The Moderator writes:

‘I was delighted, as Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, to be able to pay a visit to Camp Bastion in the company of four other representatives of the sending churches. I had no military experience before becoming Moderator so I came to this without any preconceptions.

‘My lasting impression of the trip has to be of people. I sat and listened to chaplains tell of going to FOBs [Forward Operating Bases] and PBs [Patrol Bases] where the troops were asking them what they were doing in such a dangerous place when they didn’t have to be. As chaplains breezily told of their pastoral role of listening, encouraging and comforting, I couldn’t help but reflect this was not being done in the comfort of a fireside chair in someone’s front room. I heard again of men and women aware of their total reliance on God through prayer, their own prayer, highly disciplined, but also sustained by the prayers of so many others.

‘But what made the biggest impression was not the presentations and the speeches but the interaction of the chaplains with the troops. Their easiness with each other spoke of deep trust and respect. It revealed the relationship the chaplains had created was worth the long hours to get there. I doubt if I had ever been so aware of the power of incarnational theology. It was a joy to behold.

‘The other people who impressed me were the troops. Their professionalism, their commitment and their dedication were all first class, as they explained to us their own particular task. Here were again ordinary men and women doing extraordinary things.

‘I defy anybody to make a visit to Camp Bastion and return without a profound respect for our chaplains and the troops they serve. This visit for me was both a privilege and an honour.’

In the midst of a six month tour, particularly during the latter stages when fatigue is at its highest, to see ourselves as others see us provides a necessary boost to morale. To know that others remember us in their prayers and understand the value of our work is heartening. All the more so when this message is carried to centre of the churches who have empowered us for this work.

It’s been a while since we last updated the Blog – one or two technical issues and some unwelcome attention haven’t helped but we’re back, just in time to think about change and the future. But before moving on, some reflections from Afghanistan in the form of the Sending Churches’ Representatives.

One of the highlights of 2012 was the visit of the Sending Churches’ Representatives to Afghanistan. This visit, led by the Chaplain-General, was the first in many decades and it continues a long tradition of National Church support to and encouragement of the Armed Forces. Padre Bennett gives an overview of the visit:

‘The opportunity for the representatives of our sending churches to see the work of Army chaplains at close quarter on operations is probably quite rare, and so it was a great delight and challenge to receive a visit by the Bishop to HM Forces, the Rt Rev’d Dr Stephen Venner DL, the Catholic Bishop to the Forces, the Rt Rev’d Richard Moth MA JCL KCHS; the Moderator of the Church of Scotland, the Rt Rev’d David Arnott; Convenor of the United Board, the Rev’d Ian McFarlane; the Secretary to the Methodist Forces Board, the Rev’d Robert Jones; and the Convenor to the Church of Scotland Committee on Chaplains in the Armed Forces, the Rev’d Neil Gardner. The group arrived early at Camp Bastion on a chilly Monday in early February, just over half way through HERRICK 15.

‘A busy programme had been organised by the Force Senior Chaplain, but the first item was food, and the opportunity to tuck in to a traditional fried breakfast in the catering facility with all the Army chaplains from Task Force Helmand, and the chaplains from Joint Force Support working in the hospital and aviation group. Through a very packed two days the group were shown around the facilities in Camp Bastion, and taken to unit visits at 2 RIFLES, the Logistics Group, the Counter-IED Task Force and the Military Working Dogs.

‘One evening, the visiting team spent some time talking to the chaplains in theatre about their experiences, and one of their final briefs by the chaplaincy team concluded with a very moving presentation of picture from the Repatriation Services that have sadly become too familiar to many of us. It was a huge privilege for all the chaplains in theatre to spend time with their sending church leaders, in particular for the Catholic clergy to celebrate Mass in the hospital chapel with their Bishop, and likewise for the Anglican clergy to celebrate Holy Communion in the Bastion Church with their Bishop.’

Over the coming weeks we will hear some more from the representatives as they reflect on the experience of visiting Afghanistan, their words are powerful and the visit has made a deep impression upon their prayers and work with Forces’ Chaplains. Please continue to remember the work of chaplains in your prayers, those who continue to serve on operations and those who support the military community across the world.