How chaplains find peace during wartime

February 11, 2010
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A British military chaplain prepares a Remembrance Day ceremony at the British cemetery in Kabul November 11, 2009/Jerry Lampen

Dozens of chaplains from the Church of England are serving with British armed forces in Afghanistan and Iraq. They are there when soldiers seek redemption around the time of battle, and they there are, standing in the operating theatre, waiting until the surgeon can do no more.

They serve the needs of soldiers sent to war, and they also serve God.

While they adminster balm on the battlefield, their peers preach peace from the pulpit. Which is the more important for the CoE at a time of war?

A recruitment advert for the Royal Air Force in a Christian publication recently said it needed chaplains “to take the church to where it’s needed most” – moving with troops and air-crew, providing support on the front line and at the altar back at base.

Some vicars in the shires and cities would say they are most needed in the pulpit, preaching pacifism.

This is one of the busiest times for armed forces chaplains since World War Two – a war when the role of the church was possibly less blurred.

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Canadian chaplains lead coffins of fallen colleagues onto a military transport plane while German troops salute at Kabul airport, October 4, 2003/Richard Vogel

One of the highest-ranked chaplains in the armed forces touched upon this issue during the CoE’s General Synod in London this week.  The Venerable John Green, chaplain of the fleet and archdeacon for the Royal Navy, told members of the assembly that though they may have views on government defence policy, they should think of those carrying out those policies on the battlefield. You can listen to the audio of his presentation here.

“This political situation in the world clearly at the moment is very difficult,” he said. “And I know there are members of the synod who will have very strong views on government policy.

“Some of you might feel it is appropriate to stand in the pulpit and talk about government defence policy in a theological context. But when you do, please be aware of the position of armed forces personnel and their families.

“It is very important in a democracy that a national church engages with people with views about pacifism for instance on the one side and the use of military force on the other in a national debate.

“That is not only right, but members of your armed forces rely on you to do that. But please, please, do not engage in megaphone or shotgun diplomacy because quite often the people who are injured in that sort of approach or whose morale is most challenged are those who are suffering already.”

He said there are those who feel that chaplains working with the forces “have betrayed their Christian principles allowing themselves to be seduced by the trappings of military power”.

“But it might surprise you to know that from a military perspective, a chaplain who has gone native is not valued but regarded as worse than useless.”  That role is to bring spiritual succour to personnel, and to offer counsel, mediation and advice as well as carry out the traditional church service.

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An American chaplain prays with members of NATO's International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Kunar Province, 17 July 2009/Tim Wimborne

His counterpart in the Royal Air Force, the Venerable Ray Pentland, said chaplains “do all the normal things that a priest does, just in a rather interesting and challenging context”.  He likened his role to that of a watch keeper – regularly keeping watch over fallen comrades before they are returned home.

“We can find ourselves in a lonely and occasionally misunderstood position with community, but more often we are deeply valued, standing between heaven and earth,” he said.

The Venerable Stephen Robbins, chaplain general for Land Forces and Archdeacon for the Army, said chaplains can reveal God to men of war.  “Soldiers may not be queueing up at the altar rails, but they do want the hope of resurrection when they are faced with their own death, or more importantly for them, the death of their friends.”

He said that while chaplains faced danger and hardship, he hoped he brought “a glimpse of heaven to those caught up in hell”.

And war can bring chaplains closer to God, the RAF’s Pentland said.  “Chaplains constantly report a fresh authenticity in their faith,” he said. “Operations give a rawness to everyday life, with everything taking on a sharper clarity, including things of the spirit, bonds of friendship, common purpose, need of God – for God has made us for himself and we find our rest in him.”

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