Army Chaplains' Blog

Second to None

Posted on: May 8, 2017

[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]



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