ADF needs to ‘get serious’ about meeting wellbeing needs of personnel, RSA Webinar told

Si Gladman / 25 June 2022

The resistance of Army and Air Force to modernising their religious-based chaplaincy capability is having a detrimental impact on their own personnel, the latest RSA Webinar has heard.

On Wednesday, Collin Acton OAM, the former head of the Navy’s chaplaincy branch, told the webinar (watch the full recording below) that the Australian Defence Force (ADF) had to “get serious” about meeting the wellbeing needs of its largely non-religious workforce.

While Navy had its “lightbulb” moment and introduced some secular wellbeing officers to its chaplaincy branch, Retired Principal Chaplain Acton said Army and Air Force were resisting the need to modernise chaplaincy even though they regularly updated other military capabilities, such as combat hardware.

In the Army and Air Force, clergymen are charged with delivering the frontline wellbeing capability even though 60 per cent of overall ADF personnel and 80 per cent of new recruits are not religious.

“And I believe it is to the detriment of Army and Air Force personnel,” he said.

“…religious chaplaincy continues largely untouched and unaffected by time and the trends or needs of the current workforce.

“I just don’t understand why they can’t see across that gap and see a way of opening up another way of helping people or providing support to people that doesn’t involve religion.”

Fellow guest speaker former Army Colonel and Defence statistician Phillip Hoglin CSC pointed to the disparity in religious affiliation between the top brass and the youngest cohorts of personnel as being a factor preventing reform. While only 20 per cent of new recruits are religious, 85 per cent of generals identify as Christian.

“This is why gaining momentum and maintaining momentum to change Defence’s wellbeing model away from being religious to a secular model is so difficult …” he said.

“What we can’t do is wait 20 to 30 years until those junior officers and the senior officers are the next leaders and then 80 per cent of them are not religious, and then we get a model that supports Defence’s population. That’s too late.”

Retired Principal Chaplain Acton said many personnel feel discomfort about the idea of seeking wellbeing support from religious chaplains, as they are reminded of the churches’ histories of institutional child abuse, negative views on social issues and hang-ups about sex.

“This discomfort with religion, in general, and the clergy person, in particular, is unhelpful and it is a serious barrier in using the service”.

“Chaplaincy is a discretionary service. And, to be effective, Defence needs to work really hard to make sure that there are as few barriers as possible for people to use that service. So it’s completely unsurprising and completely uncontroversial to say that religion is a barrier for many people to access that care.”

Disclaimer: Collin Acton and Phillip Hoglin do not speak for the Australian Defence Force or any other entity. The views expressed in this webinar are their own.

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Si Gladman is Campaigns & Communications Coordinator at the Rationalist Society of Australia. You can contact him at sigladman@rationalist.com.au or follow him on Twitter at @si_gladman

Image:  Commonwealth of Australia / Department of Defence

All the more reason.