CCLKOW readers, we are pleased to introduce another British Army officer, this one we will be calling Colonel Laurens. First, to explain the moniker. ‘Laurens’ is for John Laurens, an officer of the Continental Army, a member of George Washington’s ‘family,’ the inner circle of officers who held his trust, and the son of Henry, a member of the Continental Congress and its President (1777-8) during the War for Independence. Throughout the war, until his death in 1782, John carried on a correspondence with his father to keep the latter informed of the military situation. In that correspondence, the son spared little in his responsible but frank forthrightness to explain the condition of the army to the father. I would reckon a similar characteristic of expression for our latest correspondent to Kings of War, and it will be to give an honest but thoughtful account of army experience on this blog that I anticipate as the strength of his contribution going forward. As for the inaugural piece, I think it lives up to this theme admirably. The institutional chaplaincy is an enduring part of the military experience, and yet it more often than not goes unconsidered or unexamined in the larger scheme of getting on with the work of an army, navy or air force. However, given the latitude and roles which chaplains can exercise, this may be a mistake. At the very least, nothing done within the military setting should be ignored, no matter how seemingly irrelevant it is to the main effort. Worse, lack of due consideration may either miss critical opportunities to use a capability better or avoid critical and damaging misuse. So, read the piece, ponder the place of the chaplain in your experience and organisation, and join the discussion on Twitter at the hashtag. (JSR – ed.)
This Easter Sunday I had a very brief moment of tranquillity at home. The jobs were done, the children were quiet and still alive, and I had a good twenty minutes before the next major family admin serial had to begin.
As any parent, or indeed those of you getting pushed hard at Regimental Duty or on the staff will know, such moments are rare, and rarely free of concurrent activity. I used my moment to complete something necessary for the day, but something which at least involved sitting down.
As I pondered the day ahead, I was struck by the fact that I hadn’t planned a trip to church. Our family are occasional attendees at church, and Easter would be the sort of time of year that we would normally go. My train of thought then leapt from church, to wondering if the Regiment had done a church parade for Easter, to a Padre who had recently been a source of some comfort to me during a particularly testing period. Padre had been the only person I thought I could turn to as a personal event began to take its toll. One day, as I could sense in myself that I was reaching a point where manning up was soon to lead to this man going down, I spoke with Padre. That initial interaction lasted only two minutes. He offered some words of advice, but I already either knew what he told me or had already considered and dismissed it. However, I felt a little better for sharing the problem for the first time.
Having spent all twenty years of my career advising others to go to Padre with their problems, and ensuring that Padres got to hear about problems I knew existed, I had never gone to one myself. I wasn’t too sure what to expect next. But Padre played it perfectly. I had feared what would come of my revelation; I had sent him a hasty text after our meeting assuring him this was not a cry for help but a requirement to chat with someone, but still I feared that he might share something I considered to be unrepeatable with higher (Army higher, not higher higher). He didn’t. Instead, judging me and the moments perfectly, we never spoke of it again, but over the next three months I received a couple of written notes and a couple of text messages of support. That was all, and that was all that was needed.
Sat having my gentleman’s moment on Sunday, I resolved to write to him or text him, to thank him for helping to keep me sane during that period. It had been about three months since I had heard from him and I was no longer serving at the same base. Just then, a text message arrived on my phone. It was from him, wishing me well. It was an outstanding piece of timing.
I have always pondered the role of the Padre within the Army, and tried to fathom what differentiated between effective and ineffective holders of the position. As I become more senior, and command more people, it has become of increasing importance to me and my style of leadership. Easiest to describe are those I have seen that have failed: the Padre who ‘borrowed’ some mess silver for his quarter (Commanding Officers do not like that) to try to fit in with his perceptions of the lifestyles of those he wanted as his peers in the Regiment; the Padre who came to every party and low level social event, getting drunk at every one, mistaking the soldiers’ and subalterns’ feeding of the habit (no pun intended) and joshing as acceptance when it was in fact done with distain; the Padre who sided with the despot of a Commanding Officer to further his own career rather than supporting those of us who were trying to explain the effects of the regime to that Commanding Officer.
It is harder to describe why those who have succeeded have done so. But in general they have three traits in common. First, they seek no peer group in the Regiment. They float between Messes, between canteens and NAAFIs, not particularly at home in one more than the other, but comfortable enough in all for all members of the Regiment to feel a connection. Secondly, they do not seek to impress through unbecoming traits, martial or otherwise. Officers and soldiers want to know they can confide in and trust a Padre; nobody trusts a drunk and likewise whilst the Corporal or Lieutenant will be admired for running a fast race, shooting straight, tabbing for miles without concern or lying up in an OP for days in the worst of weathers, this is not what is expected of Padres. A Padre should not compete with the soldiers. He is from a different plane, has spiritual concerns, and serves a different purpose; he must be seen to act accordingly. And finally, Padres do not press agendas that run contrary to good order and discipline of a military unit. Nobody, including the most junior soldier, wants a Padre who raises issues above where they need to be raised, and similarly nobody wants a Padre who lacks the moral courage to raise them when they should be. In my two years in Command, I had only ever once had an unexpected visit from one of the two (very good) Padres who served with me. Rather than barging in to my office (like the Padre who sided with the despotic Commanding Office) and flaunting his unfettered visitation privileges, this Padre queued up, waited his turn, and asked for an appointment from the Adjutant. The Adjutant was wise, and showed him in immediately. Padre spent 30 seconds in my office and got exactly what he wanted. The effective Padre works behind the scenes to protect those he is looking out for; the tiresome one bellows loudly, draws attention to himself and his charges and therefore loses the faith of those who might be coming to him next.
And I think it is indisputable that the Padres are used, and are considered valuable by all ranks. Whenever a Regiment lacks a Padre, it is noticeable; perhaps not on the surface, or particularly in terms of military outputs, but definitely in the undercurrents and moods of the body of men and women that encompass that unit. I have never known a Padre’s leave period to pass without needing to get the covering Padre in for some reason or another.
These three traits, of universal connection, spiritual focus, and moral courage, seemed to me as both a squadron leader and Commanding Officer to be about faith rather than Christianity. I thought that Padres were respected for believing in something, rather than what they believed in. Certainly, that was how I looked at it. The logical end to that particular flow of thought is that an Islamic Iman, a Jewish Kohen or a Sikh Guru should have been as effective as a Christian Padre in our Army.
I mooted this idea to my closest advisors – wouldn’t it have been cool, I thought, to show how progressive and enlightened we were by actively seeking a Padre from a different Religion. My idea was met with opened mouthed horror by my subordinates, who on this occasion sadly had taken plenty of moral courage pills that morning. Interestingly, the feeling was strongest amongst those who professed the least interest in faith in general. I spoke, too, with my soldiers and officers who were from other faiths, all of whom universally explained that the feeling was mutual. I asked them to consider themselves in the situation of a life or death accident and whether the arrival of a Christian Padre to tend their spiritual needs would suffice; they tended to see his potential presence as a practical one, with help carry the stretcher being the limit of his use. But it’s impossible to tell how officers and soldiers would react to a Padre from a different faith until you’ve actually done it. I suspect that like most things in life the experience would be neither as bad as the doubters feared nor as successful as proponents hoped.
But I think that leaders are only leaders because they have followers. And that’s why, sometimes, you’ve got to give the people what they want, be that turning a blind eye at the Christmas Lunch food fight or ensuring the boys and girls get the type of Padre they are comfortable with. But it raises the issue of how the Army, or Defence, copes with attracting a wider section of our society to join us in this most wonderful, embracing, meritocratic organisation that we have. Surely, as a soldier lies hurt in a foreign field, they should at least have the realistic hope that it’s going to be the correct version of Padre who turns up in his landrover, with the bloody headlights on, to give him or her their last jelly baby before they die.
Turning to the discussion, this week’s will be left open and broad. Instead of particular questions, I would simply open the floor for people to consider and reflect upon their personal experiences of the chaplaincy, how they have been effective or problematic, what other roles they might serve in contemporary and future conflicts, or any other views which people might have on the subject. Post your comments on Twitter at #CCLKOW.