Army Chaplains' Blog

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.

Editor.

Some of you will have followed Padre Tracey’s journey through pregnancy on the pages of this blog. You will be pleased to learn that said ‘bump’ is now a healthy baby boy doing his best to keep mum and dad awake. Tracey’s last offering before maternity leave teaches us something about the nature of waiting. It reminds me of a profound theological reflection written by W H Vanstone titled ‘The Stature of Waiting’, but more of this another time. Tracey writes:

The reply to the endless question? Any News Yet? Has the Baby come??

‘Love is kind, love is patient, love is gentle’. I have read these words many times at weddings but the past few weeks have alerted me to them in a different context – waiting to give birth. I took two weeks off before he was due, sure he was coming early – he was a good size and all had been going very well (and I thought giving birth amongst Soldiers would be traumatising for all concerned!). In those two weeks I did all things that needed doing and some that did not, such as re-organising my DVD’s and at the point of tidying the spice rack I knew things were going to be tough…thankfully swimming each day gave me something to hang the day on! And then it was the Due-Day and Nothing…and the next day and the next day…and now we’re at D-Day +7!

I reasoned with humour that my womb was too comfortable and too cosy a place to be, laughing with my husband that our child was going to be a pot holer as he enjoyed damp dark places. I then went through the baby blues early…D-Day +3 I was totally fed up. I had stopped swimming, not really wanting the pool to have to shut because of my waters breaking, I tried to stay in bed longer so the day wasn’t so long and I smiled politely when many people told me to make the most of having time off without a screaming infant…but I felt I was slowly gong mad…

Don’t get me wrong, I have spent more time with God and it’s been a good time to catch up on trying to read the Bible in a Year, although on one morning I was bemused as throughout the Book of Jeremiah there are far too many references to the pain of childbirth!! I have spent time in prayer and in the stillness and quiet have reflected a lot on the return of Jesus and how we don;t know when hat will be either – but I will leave those reflections until the season of Advent. I have prayed more for people I know who are house bond, bed bound, terminally ill and how truly hard it is for all people who are ill, trapped and unable to live as they would prefer…

Throughout all of this I have also been very thankful for my husband’s presence and stoicism. He has been amazing – of course at times everything has been his fault, but he has tried to be there for me, going for strolls, playing games, forfeiting some things he would prefer to do just in case I go into labour. But at the times when everything has been his fault, I have been mindful of many people within our Military community who would love for their partners to be with them rather than serving on Operations.

So my Patience has been truly tested, my being kind and gentle to a bump who is just too lazy to move has been tested…but still we wait for God’s perfect timing…

Is it theologically sound to pray; ‘Thy will be done…but please hurry up?’

‘In the Belly of the Beast’

It was totally dark inside the huge C17 Globemaster transporter aircraft as we made our decent into Bastion. The lights had been extinguished and we sat there perspiring in our helmets and body armour.

The journey had been fairly uncomfortable from the outset with our seats on rails in the centre of the aircraft, closely packed together like sardines and sharing an aroma not unlike the little salted fish! The air heavy with heat and fatigue, that accumulates on these long hauls. But this unpleasantness had been mitigated in part by being able to read and listen to the serenades of your iPod, but with the onset of darkness there was nothing left to focus on but the journey itself.

It was as I did such that I realised just how similar this scene was to the situation that a certain Old Testament Prophet found himself in. He had attempted to run away from the will of the Almighty only to find himself becoming whale food, and there deep in the belly of that mammal behemoth he was given time to reflect in the putrid air, his situation and God’s direction.

I peered into the semi darkness, lit only by a myriad of bright lights indicating secrets to only those trained to interpret, and wondered at the construction of this huge beast, that could actually swallow a helicopter let alone a little army padre! The metal frame creaked under the burden of both thrust and lift as it carried it cargo closer to the desert airstrip. Unfamiliar noises like whale song echoed around the cavern, creaks and groaning of fatigued metal alongside the whirling’s of motors responding to the pilot’s subtle touch. Lights flickered, and wheels thudded into place, eager to touch tarmac. Flaps struggled with air eddies to slow the beast on its approach and like Jonah; I was trapped, strapped into my seat, being taken somewhere but unable to input direction or course.

I was at the mercy of this huge beast, but none of that concerned me. For though I could not change course, or stop this decent into the desert, I knew that this direction was one chosen for me by God. Although I shared some of the ancient prophet’s misgivings, I was not seeking to run away from my calling, but just had to sit here in the belly of this aircraft until it reached my destination. There was no point being worried, God was in control, and his plan was being worked out and while I could struggle and fret, imagine and waste countless hours on concerns, what was the point? I know my God and he knows me and not only is He great and mighty but He is good and loving, a perfect combination and assurance for the fearful follower.

So wash over me strange noises in the dark, flickering lights of uncertainty in the heat of fatigue and travel. I know the doors will soon open and the stale air will be lost in the fresh air of my desert home. Air that has lost most of the day’s heat and although not cool and English in origin, has become pleasantly familiar as the smell of the place God wishes me to be.

Padre Cole Maynard