Forces & Emergency Services Chaplaincy

I was a military wife before I was ordained. I was 21, young, recently married and we were posted to a foreign country. We arrived on Sunday and on Thursday morning my husband sent off on exercise for months. It was difficult and a bit of a low time. The Chaplain knew I'd just moved in and helped me find groups of women to meet for friendship and fellowship: it was a saving grace that gave me the encouragement to stick with it.

When my husband was away in places of conflict, the chaplaincy department were there for women and families of faith and none. It was the chaplains who prepared the spouses and families for how it would be for their partners on the front line - simple things like what to include or leave out of letters. And they were able to tell us about support for us while the soldiers were away.

In times of need, such as when my father-in-law died, the chaplain was an immense support, just helping with the practical stuff and sorted out compassionate leave for my husband.

The chaplains weren't just there in doom and gloom - they enabled plenty of good things such as opportunities for bible study, confirmation classes - many of the same routines as in civilian parishes.

Margaret Sherwin

The Armed forces and Emergency Services are renowned for forming tight-knit communities among staff and their families.

For many, this is tied up in the excellent pastoral care offered by the service, the closed nature of living in barracks, the regular upheaval of postings to different places and the specific stresses of working in or deployment to high-risk life-and-death environments.

The appreciation of and need for the work of chaplains is often higher than in civilian settings. And yet current changes in the norms of life in the services are resulting in new challenges for chaplains and the people they serve.

There are many military bases within the diocese for both Regular, Reserve and Cadet forces. The largest are the Stafford and Tern Hill barracks for the Army, RAF Shawbury and RAF Cosford in Shropshire and the tri-service Defence Medical Services unit at Whittington, just outside Lichfield.

And while there are few staff chaplains in the emergency services, a number of parish clergy also have a role as chaplain to local units, as described here.

Challenges facing forces’ chaplaincy

The move from constant operational deployment gives chaplaincy an opportunity and a challenge. The challenge is that chaplaincy has been rightly focused on accompanying soldiers on operations, on training for operations, and in supporting soldiers’ families through the cycle of deployment and in times of crisis.But now, the army is facing changes including:

  • Withdrawal from Germany, and Army life being normatively UK based.
  • Greater stability for families, with an encouragement for soldiers to buy their own houses and be settled.
  • Fewer locations, with a greater concentration of troops in certain areas.
  • Normal state of life will be in barracks, with a predictable exercise season.
  • Deployments at short notice and uncertain duration, rather than the six-monthly cycle with pre-deployment training, and with variable package sizes.

The questions arise: how does the Church at large and Chaplaincy in particular best serve these communities? 

One temptation of garrison churches is to live in isolation from the wider Christian community. A common ground is that the local church is “a community of baptized believers in which the word of God is preached, the apostolic faith confessed, the sacraments are celebrated, the redemptive work of Christ is witnessed to, and a ministry of episkopé exercised by bishops or other ministers in serving the community.”[1] For Anglicans, the local church is the diocese, so a garrison church by definition needs to be linked by bonds of communion with others. This is expressed both by a personal instrument of communion, the Bishop to the Forces, and by relationships with neighbouring civilian churches and the local diocese.

What sort of church can we hope to build in a setting that is normally ecumenical and increasingly multi-faith? A common opportunity for chaplains is to identify how we can build up and lead those whom we are given to serve in these aspects of witness, worship and discipleship. to minister to a specific community one must be committed to it, to share its dangers and excitements, but must not be subsumed by it. The Forces ask the churches to send priests and ministers to them: they does not generate their own. The chaplain gathers Christians in the community to worship and to incarnate the Body of Christ where they are. Operational service can show this to be a stark and obvious reality: in garrison life the experience is less intense, the questions of life and death are less immediate, and the worshipping community less coherent. This may be an ongoing challenge as personnel are based in one location for longer periods and encouraged to settle in civilian communities.

Chaplains in the forces has a formal link with Church of England structures through the Bishop to the Forces.

This page draws significantly on 'Review of garrison churches: Project Hawksmoor' by The Revd Canon Jonathan Gough, Assistant Chaplain General and Departmental Colonel | Headquarters Regional Command: Royal Army Chaplains Dept Journal, volume 55, 2016



[1] The Church; Local and Universal, report of the Joint Working Group of the World Council of Churches and the Roman Catholic Church.