Conversation With A Military Chaplain

Posted by Craig Borlase on 31 October 2014

“Deeply spiritual and mysterious and misunderstood”
A conversation with a military Chaplain about worship, witness and losing some of the Christian fat.

Rev Adam Jenkins (not his real name), always assumed that he was going to be a traditional parish priest. He imagined that he would be caring for the spiritual needs of eighty, maybe a hundred people from the parish for an hour on a half on a Sunday, while the rest of the week few people beyond the church would be interested in what he did.

But then he became a military Chaplain (padre), and everything changed. “Depending on what’s going on in the world there are anything from 1800 to 3000 people on the camp. On a Sunday the congregation ranges from six to twelve people, but you walk around the ’parish’ and everybody knows who you are. Everybody knows you’re the Christian presence - their Christian presence. They know that you’re there for them, praying for them, even if they don’t share your beliefs.”

The difference is significant, he says. “It’s a harder place to be a Christian. You’re not surrounded by people who pray all the time and you’re not getting carried along by others. It’s more gritty, more grounded. But it’s a very spiritual existence in a way that you wouldn’t think possible looking in from the outside. You’re constantly in dialogue about things of faith, things that are spiritual.”

The reasons, Adam says, are clear and varied. “There’s an element of ‘we’re all in it together’. They could be deployed at short notice for months overseas, so could I. They’re having their pension pinched, so am I. Their spouses find it difficult to get a job because of the transient nature of the job, so does mine.

“The other key part is being in uniform. We have occasional ministers who come in wearing their black shirts and dog collars. On paper that should have the same effect as a military padre, but they don’t have the same impact. There’s not the incarnational, community basis that we share with the people. With those of us in uniform there’s the sense that we’re in the foxhole together with them, going through what they’re going through.”

There’s a reason why lots of military padres like the story of Jesus walking along the road to Emmaus. “He’s not up front preaching, but walking side by side. People are not entirely sure who he is but he’s there anyway. It’s deeply spiritual and mysterious and misunderstood.”

How much of that is due to the fact that padres get deployed overseas along with everyone else?

“Getting deployed overseas was the one big sticking point before I applied, but when you’re in and everyone else is doing it, moving all the time, going away for six to nine months is normal.

The Emmaus connection goes deeper than that, Adam says. “They know if they’ve got nowhere else to turn, they can come and see their padre and we’ve got the authority and the uniform to walk into anybody’s office on camp and do some chest poking on their behalf. It’s a unique role that doesn’t really get replicated out in normal parish life.”

What of fighting, though? Does faith fit comfortably with war? “I was asked on my interview about my view of war. You’re taught throughout your leadership training that war is a political lever, something to get things done. It’s out of our control. None of us have anything to do with the decision to send troops overseas, so our view is irrelevant. We’ve still got to get on with the job. The people on this camp need to do what they’re told and they still need a padre who’s going to be with them.”

Bit by bit, Adam says, he’s noticed the change in his faith. “It’s like a bit of Christian fat has melted off. What’s left is the stuff that’s at the core of being a Christian; being with people where they are, praying for them and letting them know that. Anything else is a nice to-have.”

Having served his curacy in a town centre church, Adam’s view on worship has changed since joining becoming a part of the armed forces. “We don’t have impressive Sunday services and I wonder what it means to be a worship leader round here.

“I wonder whether the answer has something to do with going out every day, being the light on the hill rather than the light under the bushel basket. I think I‘d go mad if I didn’t worship every day through my conversations, I’d wonder what the point was. It would be very depressing to have these conversations with people about how hard their lives were if I didn’t feel that I was being that lighthouse, that beacon drawing people in. They might not want to come now, maybe not ever, but they’ll take comfort from the fact that on the horizon is that presence.”

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