The Pentecostal representative on the taxpayer-funded committee of religious clerics that oversees the Defence Force’s chaplaincy capability has described military personnel as “sheep” to be brought into the “fold” .
In a sermon to Eastcoast Church in July – and which was published on YouTube – Pastor Ralph Estherby (pictured) preached on verse John 10:16-17, saying that there were “other sheep not of this fold” and that the Lord wanted to bring them into the “fold” of the church.
He gave the sermon on the weekend after a fatal Army helicopter crash and described families of the victims as “other sheep that need care”.
“My ‘other sheep’ are the people of the ADF. How’s that for a small flock – 85,000!” he said.
“You know, some of them died yesterday in a training accident. And I have to tell you my heart is with those people. We were praying – I was ringing the chaplains that were looking after the families of those people. They are other sheep that need care.”
The Rationalist Society of Australia has highlighted the comments in a new submission to the Royal Commission into Defence and Veteran Suicide. The submission – the second by the RSA – provides a number of examples in making the case that some chaplains and religious clerics on the Religious Advisory Committee to the Services (RACS) view Defence chaplaincy as a missionary activity.
As recent reports in The Guardian have noted, the Defence Force is increasingly relying on Pentecostal and evangelical chaplains to provide frontline wellbeing support to Army, Navy and Air Force members, even though about 64 per cent of personnel now identify as not religious – and this is predicted to rise to 75 per cent by 2030.
Pastor Estherby, the Australian Christian Churches representative on the RACS, told The Guardian that most Defence personnel did not care what “flavour” a chaplain was and that chaplains were “chosen to be nonjudgmental and non-sectarian”.
In August, the RSA revealed that Pastor Estherby had, in a promotional video, told Pentecostal audiences that military chaplaincy was an opportunity for Christians to “touch people” who have no connections to churches.
In his sermon at Eastcoast Church, he urged the audience to reach out to the “other sheep” in their lives.
“The reality is the Lord has other sheep, and they may be the people in your workplace, they may be in your sporting club, they may be in your streets, they may be in your playgroup… They don’t fit into the mold, maybe, of this fold – yet. They may not be comfortable – yet – in this church.”
In the new submission to the Royal Commission, the RSA shares numerous other examples of chaplains and RACS members speaking about the missionary nature of the chaplaincy roles. It includes reference to comments by current RACS chair Anglican Bishop Grant Dibden describing chaplains as “missionaries in the Defence Force” who are “participating in the mission of Christ and pointing people to God.”
The RSA’s first submission last year argued that Defence’s reliance on religious-based chaplaincy for its frontline wellbeing support failed to meet the needs of the majority non-religious workforce. The submission al so argued that, given that religious-based chaplaincy put up barriers to Defence personnel seeking appropriate care, it risked contributing to poor wellbeing outcomes for personnel.
The RSA’s new submission also provides evidence to the Royal Commission of RACS pursuing a pattern of conduct aimed at blocking much-needed secular reform of chaplaincy. The submission will be published on the RSA website tomorrow.
Last year, a spokesperson for the Defence Personnel minister said Army and Air Force would “examine the lessons” of the Navy’s initiative to introduce some secular roles into its chaplaincy branch, with findings from a review due in 2024.
However, late last year, Pastor Estherby told the Canberra Times that he was “not necessarily completely convinced” that the Army and Air Force would follow suit with a similar model. He said: “…the same problems that were present in Navy are not present in Army and are not necessarily being argued.”
The RSA sought an explanation from RACS as to the factual basis of Pastor Estherby’s comments, but a reply has not been received.
The Rationalist Society of Australia is actively lobbying and advocating for secular reform of the Defence Force. See the latest updates here.
Si Gladman is Campaigns & Communications Coordinator for the Rationalist Society of Australia. He also hosts ‘The Secular Agenda’ podcast.
Image: Screengrab from Hope 103.2 (YouTube).