Army Chaplains' Blog

Archive for May 2017

[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]