Colin Hewitt describes a rewarding ministry with a high profile among the men and women it seeks to serve
IMAGINE GOING TO WORK with the people in your street and parish, even wearing the same uniform they put on, and enjoying the same privileges, or suffering the same disadvantages as everyone else you serve. It’s a bit like that for those involved in Military Chaplaincy. As a Chaplain in the Royal Air Force (RAF), I offer this personal article from my own experiences within that particular Service of the Armed Forces. It is necessary to stress that the views expressed are my own, and not official RAF policy or those of the Chaplains’ Branch of the RAF. Half way through my contract, I have served eight years with some of the most interesting, adventurous, and God-fearing people under the skies.
Firstly let’s clear up the burning question often posed to military chaplains; “How could you belong to a war machine and proclaim the love of God?” Jesus, it appears, didn’t ask the same question of the Centurion with a faith, nor did St Peter question Captain Cornelius about his work. All the same, as priests, we chaplains minister alongside personnel geared up to fight at a moment’s notice. But who sends this machine to war, or orders it to keep peace in dangerous situations? Who pulls out the troops to face appalling conditions in the name of humanitarian aid? The answer probably lies in your parishes; those politicians, civil servants, media controllers and government officials … who live next to you. With trust in your part of offering the love of the Lord to those who actually direct the fate or lives of military personnel (and our families), the chaplain’s job thereafter is to provide for the religious, spiritual moral and welfare needs of the whole RAF community, irrespective of race, creed, colour or gender. As a non-combatant Branch, an important difference in our role from other Air Force personnel is that they have to learn to “Survive to fight”; chaplains must learn how to “Survive to serve”. This involves being trained and ready for duty 365 days per year, being prepared for an unaccompanied detachments (i.e. without one’s family) to troubled spots anywhere in the world, or accepting moves (postings) at short notice to other Stations, other Units, and other homes that one has not necessarily chosen. Jesus did say “Blessed are the peace makers”. In churches everywhere we are called to pray for peace. Military chaplains have the privilege of working alongside those very people of different trades ranks or duties, who are actually sacrificing a chunk of their lives in order to serve their country and take an active role in making and maintaining peace in the world.
RAF Chaplains are generally deployed wherever large numbers of Air Force Personnel go. Most are based in chapels on larger Stations, from where they operate their style of chaplaincy as part of every-day life, within a community signed up to the same cause. The routine can seem quite similar to parish ministry, although the chaplain’s work is constantly “assessed” by a Senior Officer, who may never come to Church – or who may not even be Christian. Chaplains are also prepared for war, or times of conflict. In the face of adversity, these priests will know their role and are trained to carry out their duties within the bounds of safety and sense. It would be foolish of a chaplain, for example, to consider himself effective by running into the middle of a battleground. Special “Tactical’ instruction is given to establish where, when and how to be of maximum use, before being sent off on deployments. Further and continuing training are valued as much as in the best Dioceses. The chaplains even operate their own Tri-Service Chaplaincy Centre, where they and all other personnel are offered courses on every subject from “Personal Awareness’ for Junior Ranks to deeper theology in CME.
As with many public departments (and dioceses) chaplaincy has fallen into the web of those sections believing it necessary to redefine themselves in order to justify their existence and then become controlled within the bounds of finance and planning – i.e. to survive. But no amount of paper work, financial constraint, investing in people, job specifications, bureaucratic reorganisation, or work accountability can change our basic priestly functions; administering the Sacraments, serving and praying for God’s people. Perhaps it was no coincidence that in recent conflicts, the majority of our Anglican chaplains sent to the front lines were the catholic minded ones. Their pastoral concern and catholic background helped both priest and people to cope with pressures of conflict and anxiety. There is a very positive need for Orthodox Anglicans in the Services, but one needs to be aware of the same constraints and frustrations suffered by some Parish Priests. PEVs cannot make formal visits to Stations, confirm or freely administer to Service congregations on their home base, as they come under the care and control of their own Bishop to the Forces. Resolutions A, B or C are not a choice within chaplaincies. The RAF Chaplain has to accept a certain degree of loss of freedom. Could this call to serve in a military chaplaincy still be yours? What does the transition from parish life entail?
Training begins, with other officers, at the RAF College in Cranwell The RAF does not teach us how to be priests of course, but an introduction to what is expected of an officer, together with the drill fitness and Service knowledge is provided in a special programme designed for all Specialist Entrants (professionals such as Doctors, Dentists, Nurses, Chaplains, etc.) entering the Service. After “Passing out”, most CofE chaplains are sent on a short posting to join a colleague at a larger Station for an excellent hands-on introduction to chaplaincy life. For me, this introduction was a poignant reminder of how Service life takes over from that moment: I passed out on Maundy Thursday, had a “Bull-night” (clean, scrub & clear up before inspection) on Good Friday and was told to report to my Station on Tuesday because Monday was a Bank Holiday! Needless to say, I did turn up on Easter Day to meet the new congregation! As in civilian life, the priest has a battle to keep the place of the Church relevant in contemporary society. But the RAF does value its chaplains and recognises the need for a spiritual presence within its work of defending the peace.
Sunday congregations tend to be small, even though the military types often express their need of God and their devotion to Christian teaching and belief. That loyalty often continues and blossoms later in life. How many of your parishes are without ex-military people on the electoral role, often on PCCs or taking an active part in some form of Church life? Many of the serving crew members will go home or away if they are not required at weekends perhaps they worship in your parish churches? Even so, there will always be the band of faithful Christians keeping every chapel alive and prayerful throughout the RAF, and more so out in the field, away from home or in the face of death or danger.
Happily, most time is spent behind the relative safely of a fence surrounding a Station in UK, Germany, or maybe Cyprus. Work therefore is not based solely around the Sunday congregation.
The Chaplain’s presence is generally welcomed at all sections of Air Force life; meeting the team, getting oneself seen and known, is an important step in sowing seeds of the Gospel and establishing one’s ministry. RAF Chaplaincy has grown with the people and progressed with the different needs and demands of Service life. The old “Padre’s Hour” for example, has long gone. It is now replaced with an excellent “Beliefs and Values Programme”, designed by our own dedicated Branch Training Officer in conjunction with Birmingham University. Chaplains have to be trained in the teaching methods required before delivering the course to every Airman or Officer who enters the RAF, as well as at certain stages of their career development. Chaplains are also required to work closely with the welfare agencies employed on Stations. In their Pastoral role, chaplains can offer a truly confidential counselling service, whilst at the same time benefiting from having access to all levels of management on their units whenever this should be required. This position of trust and high expectations of service is endorsed in the chaplain’s motto: Ministrare non Ministrari.
Colin Hewitt is the CofE Chaplain at RAF Cottesmore