Royal Army Chaplains Department ©
The British army today has more chaplains on active service than at any time since World War II. Thanks to a recruiting drive launched by army, navy and air force in 2005, there are about 280 chaplains in the armed forces (2007 figures). Twelve chaplains flew out to serve the approximately 7000 British troops in Iraq.
No army chaplain is permitted to carry or use weapons.
The Royal Army Chaplains' Department is located in Upavon. The headquarters has been there since 1996. Chaplaincy training is conducted at The Armed Forces Chaplaincy Centre, near Andover.
All recruited chaplains in the British services are Christian (as of 2007), but the armed forces retain civilian chaplains to care for their Buddhist, Hindu, Sikh, Jewish and Muslim recruits.
The U.S. armed forces have 1400 chaplains, all Christian except for about 30 rabbis and 15 imams (2003 figures).
A changing role
The nature of the army is changing. Soldiers no longer remain on army bases when not on active service. A job in the armed forces is becoming closer to a regular weekday nine-to-five. Consequently, with fewer soldiers on base at weekends, congregations at army chapels are low to nonexistent.
The nature of warfare has also changed drastically - including the certainty that the war's cause is just and well supported at home. Today's wars may not be about religion, but in Iraq and Afghanistan there's an element of religion in them.
It is not surprising, then, that the role of army chaplains - padres - has changed as well. Far from "building up the indomitable spirit of the army" (as Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig said in 1919), chaplains now see their role as one of support and guidance for the troops - whether or not the chaplain, or their church, believes the war is morally right.
History of army chaplains
History of army chaplains
An open-air Church of England service, attended by the 10th Irish Division at their camp in Basingstoke. From The War Illustrated, 12 June 1915 ©
First World War
Army chaplains came into their own during the First World War (1914-1918), with its extended periods of trench warfare and the ensuing heavy casualties.
Not all chaplains served at the front - some commanding officers would not allow them to risk their lives - but where they could, many chaplains did. For men surrounded by seemingly futile death, a churchman willing to risk his life to join them in the trenches helped them make sense of the war and feel that God had not abandoned them.
One chaplain recounted his experiences in a letter to The Times.
In 1919 the Army Chaplains' Department became the Royal Army Chaplains' Department when King George V officially honoured its work. By 1920 all the Protestant denominations involved had consented to be governed by the department, although the Roman Catholics did not join until 2004.
179 British Army chaplains died in the First World War. Three of them were awarded Victoria Cross medals.
1942: Chaplains Fred W. Thissen (Catholic), Ernest Pine (Protestant) and Jacob Rothschild (Jewish), at the U.S. Army chaplain school in Fort Benjamin Harrison, Indiana ©
Second World War
The role of chaplains expanded and changed during the Second World War.
Many things were expected of a Second World War chaplain. For example, in the Canadian army:
The Vatican made some special wartime concessions to make life easier for military chaplains. They were allowed to celebrate mass at times that did not interfere with soldiers' duties. Chaplains were permitted to grant "general absolution" when they did not have time to hear individual confessions. The required period of fasting before receiving the Eucharist was reduced from eight to four hours, and waived altogether for troops on the battlefield. In recognition of the many difficulties involved in feeding soldiers, meat on Fridays was officially allowed.
96 chaplains from the British armed forces were killed in the Second World War.
Frederick Browning introduced the Padre's Hour ©
The Padre's Hour
The Padre's Hour was introduced to the British army during the Second World War by The Reverend J.J.A. Hodgins on the instructions of Major General Frederick Browning. Commanders were required to provide an hour out of training time once a week for the padre to instruct the troops religiously. Other armed forces, including Canada's army, copied the initiative.
The hour was informal ("they can smoke if they want", Time Magazine reported) and groups ideally consisted of a platoon of 20-25 soldiers rather than a larger number. After a fifteen-minute talk by the chaplain, the rest of the time was taken up by questions from the troops.
"The opportunity for these informal give-and-take talks has been welcomed by many of the troops," wrote Major C.P. Stacey, the historian of the Canadian Army during the Second World War, in a 1943 report.
There are suggestions that some commanding officers felt the Padre's Hour was not a productive use of time, or that it represented an attempt by the Church to increase its influence within the army.
However, most COs seem to have encouraged the initiative for its positive effects on morale and conduct.
Multifaith army chaplains
Chaplains to the Military Mandeep Kaur, Krishan Attri, Asim Hafiz and Dr. Sunil Kariyakarawana, at their inauguration in 2005 ©
At the moment (2007) all commissioned padres in the armed forces are Christian. The Buddhist, Sikh, Hindu and Muslim soldiers in all three of the armed forces are served by Buddhist, Sikh, Hindu and Muslim Chaplains to the Military. Mandeep Kaur (Sikh), Krishan Attri (Hindu), Asim Hafiz (Muslim) and Dr. Sunil Kariyakarawana (Buddhist) were appointed in November 2005 by John Reid, then Secretary of State for Defence.
Unlike Christian padres, who are commissioned officers, the four Chaplains to the Military are civilians. At the time of their appointment there were 220 Buddhists, 90 Sikhs, 230 Hindus and 305 Muslims serving along with around 183,000 Christians. There was already a rabbi acting as honorary chaplain to the 65 serving Jews.
The Revd David Wilkes (a Methodist) is the Chaplain General, in charge of all army padres. He described the difficulties involved:
Wilkes believes the army will eventually have full-time, commissioned non-Christian chaplains.
The armed forces are moving towards better provision for all religious dietary requirements, including kosher and halal meat.
As well as ministering to individual soldiers, the chaplains act as advisors and educate the armed forces about their respective faiths. It is also their job to conduct services when a soldier is killed.
After 18 months in the post, Imam Asim Hafiz said he had already made personal contact with over 100 serving British Muslims.
Imam Asim Hafiz ©
Muslim soldiers are given room to pray five times a day and are allowed to fast during Ramadan as long as it does not interfere with military duties, although some Muslim soldiers have said they were made to feel that it would be more convenient if they didn't pray.
War in the Muslim world
The Iraq war was already in full swing when the four multifaith chaplains were appointed in 2005. Imam Hafiz talked about his reaction to the fact that his troops were fighting in Muslim countries:
Role of military chaplains
Chaplain Andrew Martlew visits soldiers in their watchtower
Chaplains hold a unique place in the army. They wear the army uniform but, although employed and paid by the Ministry of Defence, they are sent by their churches and their churches retain spiritual authority over them. If this authority is revoked the chaplain must leave the army.
Padres do not think of themselves as army officers at all: they are clergy, first and foremost, who happen to work in the military. At the end of their chain of command is God.
What do chaplains give to the military?
While out on a tour of duty, chaplains have to hold funerals. Such times are difficult for the soldiers, but also for the padre.
Chaplains' moral role
Army chaplains believe that they are following the 'incarnational' principle: following the example of Jesus, they live alongside their charges and share their life.
A chaplain needs to know the rules and also have a wider moral view. Sometimes this may mean adapting the Church's rules in practice.
Padres are allowed to raise moral questions. If they have doubts about specific plans, they will discuss them with the commanding officer. The Revd David Wilkes, Chaplain General, calls the army padre "the friend of the soldier and the critical friend of the C.O."
This is not to say chaplains are allowed to be subversive or encourage soldiers to disobey orders. Not only is this far outside their duty, but it could put lives in danger - not to mention careers.
Disapproving of a war
It is possible for the church to disapprove of the war the army is fighting.
(left to right) Chaplains Andrew Martlew, 40 Regiment Royal Artillery, David Banbury, 33 Field Hospital, Tom Place, 1st Battalion, Yorkshire Regiment and Anthony Feltham White, Ghurkhas
Like a soldier, if a chaplain felt that they could not remain in uniform on conscience grounds, they have the option to resign. Most choose to stay, not least because of the drive to minister to soldiers in the same situation.
Padres are not there to justify the conflicts that the army is in. Their purpose is "to walk with the men and to help them", to be there for people who need them and to be, as one padre put it, "a bit like Jiminy Cricket... the little voice of conscience".
God and the Gun series
God and the Gun
Martin Bell in Basra, Iraq
This two-part radio series was broadcast on Mondays 12th and 19th March, 2007, on Radio 4. It was presented by Martin Bell, himself a former soldier, and was the culmination of more than a year's time spent with army chaplains during training, while stationed at military bases and on the battlefield.
Most of the audio clips used throughout this article are from the series. Below, you can listen to the programmes in full.
God and the Gun won the Premier Award at the 2007 Sandford St Martin Trust Religious Radio Awards.
God and the Gun - programme 1
2006 was a watershed year for the armed forces chaplaincy; it was the year it turned from an exclusively Christian service to a multifaith one.
With more and more recruits joining the army, navy and RAF from ethnic minority communities, the chaplaincy had to change with the times and a Muslim, Sikh, Buddhist and Hindu were appointed to serve those growing spiritual needs.
What does it take to become a chaplain in the army? How have the new multifaith chaplains coped with their new high-profile role?
God and the Gun - programme 2
Fr. William Cummings, a padre serving with the US Marines in the Pacific during the Second World War, is often credited with the saying "there are no atheists in foxholes."
The maxim may have grown hackneyed over years, but when soldiers go off to war zones their thoughts understandably turn to what might happen if things go wrong. This is when army chaplains can step in to bring help and comfort.
Martin Bell travels to Basra in Iraq to meet The Reverend Andrew Martlew, chaplain to 40 Regiment Royal Artillery.