Monday, December 29, 2014

Incarnational Ministry In A "Suicide Wagon": A British Army Padre's Story Of Afghanistan


During my time working with the staff of British Army Training Unit Suffield, I was fortunate to get to know many fine padres from the UK’s Royal Army Chaplain’s Department.  Several kept in touch with me once they left Suffield and deployed shortly thereafter to Afghanistan.  This story is from one of them,  who was in Helmand Province sometime in 2013, and I was reminded of it recently while sorting some emails.  It's as good an illustration of the work of an army chaplain as any I can think of, and it’s too good not to share.

  Some time ago, a young man spoke to me about his role as the resupply fuel truck driver.  He makes journeys to forward patrol bases carrying 50,000 litres of fuel and he affectionately referred to his vehicle as the ‘suicide wagon’.  I made a mental note to travel with him on his next trip and, as the Sergeant Major had to cancel his plans at the last minute, I was fortunate enough to take his place alongside the driver only a week later.  We lined up in a convoy of vehicles waiting to leave the base and the conversation went something like this - Me:  “Shall I say a prayer before we go?”  Driver:  “Go on then, when you’re ready, Padre!”

I gave him a set of ‘dog tags’ with a Scripture verse and a cross and these are now hung by their chain from the seatbelt cutters mounted in the cab.  As we chatted the driver asked about my sharing the risks and not carrying a weapon for protection.  (As chaplains we are ordained ministers from our sending Churches and although we wear uniform we are not soldiers and do not bear arms, we are here simply to serve).  I always take the stance that the lads are my protection; “we’ll be alright, Padre” he said, “you’ll see!”


The Church calls this ‘Incarnational’ ministry – in the same way that God emptied Himself of all the glory of heaven and lived an earthly life among us as Jesus – so we seek to share the same lives and conditions as those we serve.  That young man is getting married in October at the end of the tour.  He didn’t need me to say I would pray for him, although I do – he needed me to travel with him along the road.  Oh, and he was right too, we were fine!

I’m happy to say that this Padre and the young driver returned safely from their tour.  MP+


Wednesday, December 24, 2014

A Canadian Christmas On Salisbury Plain, 1914



This post is taken from the Advent/Christmas edition of the newsletter of the Anglican Military Ordinariate, for those of the Royal Canadian Chaplain Service of the Canadian Armed Forces from the Anglican Church of Canada.   In each edition I have been writing a piece looking at the ministry of Anglican chaplains in the Great War a hundred years prior to the writing of each newsletter.  This piece focuses on the first Christmas of the Canadian Expeditionary Force overseas. MP+

Christmas On Salisbury Plain, 1914


Over thirty thousand Canadian soldiers, most of them living under canvas, spent their first winter of the Great War on Salisbury Plain, a large military training area in the south of England.  George Anderson Wells, who went on to be a famous Bishop, was there as padre to the 6th Fort Garrys, and described the camps as “an endless field of mud” where “tent peg would loosen and the tents blow down in high winds”.   The cold and wet conditions put many on the sick list and claimed some lives due to illness.  Morale was further tested by deficient equipment, including shoddy boots with heels made of compressed paper that simply rotted in the mud.  While few could imagine what lay ahead, this first taste of mud and misery was preparing them all for the trenches in France and Belgium.



Canadians in the mud on Salisbury Plain, winter of 1914-15 


Chaplains busied themselves with visits to the many sick in hospitals and infirmaries, and tried to organize evening concerts and activities to maintain morale.   Many padres found themselves torn in one direction by their allegiances to the powerful temperance movement back in Canada, which was supported by their prohibitionist commander, Sam Hughes, and in the other direction by their soldiers’ frustration with the alcohol ban and the so-called “dry canteens”.   Local pubs in the area tempted many thirsty troops.   In the words of the Official History of the Canadian Army in the First World War, this led to “quarrelsome” and “disorderly” conduct, which was not solved until local villages were placed off limits and “wet canteens” were allowed as per British Army practice.   Problems arising from alcohol and discipline issues must have kept the padres busy indeed.


While some men were granted leave in the weeks leading up to Christmas, military training kept up at a brisk schedule all through December.  For example, the War Diary of the 2nd (Eastern Ontario) Battalion mentioned that on 23 December, drills were conducted on The Company In The Attack.  Christmas Day saw some respite.  The War Diary of the 3rd (Toronto) Battalion describes “a holiday [with] no parade of the Bn.”, parties in various Messes, and in the evening “a bon-fire for all ranks and an open air concert” with a special dinner provided by the Toronto City Council. 


Unlike their Roman Catholic colleagues, Anglican and other protestant padres could enlist local churches for Christmas services.  Canon Frederick Scott  obtained the loan of the church of St. Mary and St. Melor, Amesbury, from its Rector for a midnight eucharist, and sent notice of the service through his Brigade. 

Interior of the church of St. Mary and Melor, Amesbury, Wiltshire, Diocese of Salisbury, taken 1905


Canon Scott describes the service that Christmas Eve.


“In the thick fog the men gathered and marched down the road to the village, where the church windows threw a soft light into the mist that hung over the ancient burial ground.  The church inside was bright and beautiful.  The old arches and pillars and the little side chapels told of days gone by, when the worship of the holy nuns, who had their convent there, rose up to God day by day.  The altar was vested in white and the candles shone out bright and fair.  The organist had kindly consented to pay the Christmas hymns, in which the men joined heartily.  It was a service never to be forgotten, and as I told the men, in the short address I gave them, never before perhaps, in the history of that venerable fane, had it witnessed a more striking assembly.  From a distance of nearly seven thousand miles some of them had come, and this was to be our last Christmas before we entered the life and death struggle of the nations.  Row after row of men knelt to receive the Bread of Life, and it was a rare privilege to administer it to them.  The fog was heavier on our return and some of us had great difficulty in finding our lines.” 

Wishing all readers a peaceful and joyous Christmas, and every blessing in the year to come.  Michael+

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Book Review: Military Chaplaincy in Contention: Chaplains, Churches and the Morality of Conflict

This review was written earlier this year and appears in the Advent/Christmas edition of the Newsletter of the Anglican Military Ordinariate, Royal Canadian Chaplain Service.  MP+

Military Chaplaincy in Contention: Chaplains, Churches and the Morality of Conflict. Andrew Todd, editor. Farnham, UK: Ashgate, 2013.

 In this compilation of essays, British military chaplains and theologians reflect on the United Kingdom’s decade long engagement in Iraq and Afghanistan. Canadian readers of this book will immediately notice differences between our two chaplaincies. The military chaplains who contributed essays were or are members of the Royal Army Chaplains Department (RAChD), so there is no experience of tri-service chaplaincy here. As members of a Christian organization, they lack the nuances and multifaith awareness that CAF chaplains have been gaining since 2003. Their ecclesiastical relationships are not as strong as ours are, and they are aware that their churches share British society’s uncertainties about these wars. Nevertheless, their struggles with the moral ambiguities of asymmetric conflict, with the demands of military missions and theology, and with the changing role of religion in the military and society, will be struggles that any CAF chaplain can identify with.

The book’s title, Military Chaplaincy in Contention, was deliberately chosen by the editor, Andrew Todd, Director of the Chaplaincy Studies program at Cardiff. As Todd notes, the ministry of chaplains is “in contention” not only because the Iraq and Afghanistan missions were/are contentious, without a consensus of support within UK society, but also because the chaplain’s role, often doing “instantaneous theology” within the complex demands of military operations and under the media gaze, raises the public question, “to what extent is a largely Christian, religious presence appropriate in this public context”? The essays that follow take their tone accordingly. They are provocative, challenging, and provide ample food for thought.

Andrew Totten, currently the Assistant Chaplain General, RAChD, and a veteran of many deployments including Afghanistan, carefully explores the differences between two words that every chaplain must negotiate, “moral” and “morale”. While “morale” speaks to the chaplain’s pastoral role of caring for and encouraging soldiers, Totten notes that chaplains must also engage with “moral” issues of right and wrong. This engagement can be difficult when British Christian churches are conflicted about war and give their chaplains little support or framework to reflect on the morality of warfare. If chaplains avoid issues of morality and default to merely being“morale sustainers of soldiers”, Totten argues, then they have failed their primary role, which is to help soldiers distinguish between right and wrong. As Totten notes, military duty in Helmand Province comes with an ethical component. He writes that he has often observed British soldiers enduring great discomfort and risk while “encouraging local nationals to support the people and processes of civil society”, and so chaplains must share and engage with “soldiers’ needs and experiences”.

Likewise, Philip McCormack, Chief Instructor at the UK Armed Forces Chaplaincy Centre, argues that chaplains and their churches cannot sit quietly on a comfortable and removed moral high ground, but must “become active participants in a dialogue on how to create a moral/ethical resource or framework for those who find themselves in the most morally challenging situations of our time”. Other contributors in this section address moral aspects of interrogation of suspected terrorists and the implications of the increasing use of robotics in warfare.

Peter Howson, a retired RAChD padre and Methodist pastor, examines the sometimes strained relations between chaplains and the British churches, which often think and act like “functional pacifists”. This chapter made me especially grateful for the role of our own Interfaith Committee on Canadian Military Chaplaincy in the life of our Branch, and led me to conclude that our chaplaincy is markedly ahead of the British in terms of our relations with Canadian faith groups. Jonathan Ball, a retired RAChD padre and Anglican priest, offers a strong essay on the role of liturgy in deployed contexts. Ball examines the experience of padres with British Army deployments in 2010, when an astonishing 78 soldier deaths in one brigade proved that vigils and memorial services show that liturgy, carefully planned, still has the power to console and comfort, even in the British context where society, especially male society, is increasingly estranged from religion. Two final essays both address the Christian just war tradition as a resource for chaplains, and examine the connection between military mission and morality.

The essays in Military Chaplaincy in Contention highlight some of the differences between our Branch and our British colleagues. However, the contributors to this thoughtful book all recognize a universal role of our vocation, namely that effective chaplaincy must be located “within the military community: providing space for military personnel to air their doubts, or raise questions about the rules that govern military life; acting as a critical friend to the commanding officer; questioning, when necessary, the way in which military strategy is carried out”. In those respects our role is the same, regardless of the uniform or faith identifiers we may happen to wear.

Reviewed By Padre Michael Peterson

Mad Padre

Mad Padre
Opinions expressed within are in no way the responsibility of anyone's employers or facilitating agencies and should by rights be taken as nothing more than one person's notional musings, attempted witticisms, and prayerful posturings.


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