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Preaching behind closed doors

By Alan Matheson - posted Thursday, 30 March 2006

General Patton orders his chaplain to pray for fine weather before an attack; a chaplain blessing the F111 prays "that they will quickly overcome aggression"; and before the Fallujah onslaught the battalion chaplain prays, "Lord there are some bad guys out there, just help us kill 'em".

It’s not difficult then to understand why Lord Montgomery said he "would sooner go into battle without my artillery than without my chaplain". But at a time, of "the re-emergence of the martial spirit", the “crusade”, “clash of civilisations”, and complexity in the Australian cultural soul - what of the modern day army chaplain?

Struggling with the moral ambiguity of the conflict, "they help troubled soldiers to justify the killing, comfort the injured, minister to the dying, and bless the dead" (Independent October 2, 2005).


One dimension of that ambiguity is that the accreditation of chaplains is done by both the military and the church. The Memorandum of Understanding between the Australian defence Forces (ADF) and the Religious Advisory Committee to the Services (RACS) is a classified document.

Requests for further information to the brigadier chaplain (Army) are referred to "Army HQ staff" on the extraordinary grounds of "the current levels of security threat".

While chaplains promote their pastoral role, little is known about the role they play in character guidance and instruction. Do same sex couples turn up to the chaplain's relationship development courses. Do archbishops know and approve of the provision of advice to commanders on religious, spiritual, moral, ethical, cultural and welfare matters?

The changing nature of war appears to have raised no questions for churches and their chaplains. The hegemony of the US military-industrial complex, the terrifying destruction of new weapons, the development of biological and chemical warfare, the systematic failures of military justice systems and the politicisation of faith, appears to be going unnoticed by chaplains.

They write no documents, maintain bland websites, while edited reports are made to church authorities and carefully crafted "inspirational pieces" are circulated to church members.

The Iraq war was built on lies and deception. But only one Australian chaplain, of the more than 200 chaplains warned, "that a unilateral pre-emptive assault ... without UN mandate has not been justified". He went on to condemn the "US weapons of mass destruction … and the moral scandal of the spending of billions of dollars to fund the conflict". That’s one chaplain who will not make it to brigadier.


Chaplains are an exclusive unit within the ADF. All hold officer rank with the associated prestige, privileges and benefits. While all protest that such rank is no barrier to the relationships with the rank and file, no priest has ever opted for a private’s position, salary or conditions.

They’re overwhelmingly male: of the 65 army chaplains only 3 are female officers, with Navy only recently commissioning its first female chaplain.

No Rabbi or Imam will make it to brigadier chaplain. Questioned in a recent Senate Inquiry into the military justice system about responsibility for Muslim Australian troops, the Brigadier Chaplain admitted there had been discussions over the years but “no forward direction has been taken for someone to proceed to be recruited”. Don Watson take note.

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About the Author

Alan Matheson is a retired Churches of Christ minister who worked in a migration centre in Melbourne, then the human rights program of the World Council of Churches, before returning to take responsibility for the international program of the ACTU.

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