During Lent this year, the sermons at Evensong at St Mary’s will be held together by the common theme of the presence of the Church in the ‘world’ in the form of chaplaincy (or ‘sector ministry’, as it is also known). The hope is, as Fr Mark said in his February article, that we may gain a better insight into the value of this particular form of ministry to the Church and the institutions served by chaplains. Fr Mark has asked me to write briefly on my own experience of chaplaincy, which is not as chaplain but of chaplains’ ministry during my time in the army.
Some of you will know that, joining straight after leaving school, I was an officer in the German Army Military Police from 1987 to 2001 (retiring as Captain and Company Commander of a Staff & Support Company to go to Theological College in Mirfield in June 2001). During these years, I had eight major postings requiring me to move from one place to the other (not counting training courses of up to sixth months). That, and the nature of my work – a way of life more than a ‘job’, of course – meant that my ‘world’ was very different to that of most of my fellow Christians, some of whom on occasion viewed it as something ‘not quite right for a Christian’. The net result of all this was that I was hardly ever anywhere for long enough to build lasting friendships with members of local church congregations, nor found them necessarily aware or understanding of the challenges of my ‘way of life’.
Army chaplaincy was of enormous help: it gave me a way of living my faith that was adapted to the circumstances of my life, knew them and their challenges, and was there to support. It provided also an ‘oasis’ of faith in the midst of military life which is, of course, also full of people for whom faith is at best a ‘weird thing from the past’ – though, oddly enough perhaps, to this day I would say that I had some of the most meaningful conversations about the faith at night round the fire in camp, often with people who would never have such conversations with me now but were intrigued that I was ‘one of them’. Chaplaincy also gave us Christians a chance to reflect together on the moral and ethical challenges of being a Christian in the army, and I still recall with great gratitude the Officers’ Study Circle that used to meet for a residential twice a year to discuss the ethics of war and peace, to spend time together and to worship together. Finally, it proved to be the place where I discovered and discerned my vocation to the priesthood – and I do not think that this would have got anywhere without the padre at the NATO headquarters where I served at the time (even if he was RAF rather than Army.). At its best, then, military chaplaincy provided an experience of ‘true church’ in the midst of and alongside my military life; I wouldn’t be the same without it. Fr Bernard