Concern over chaplains’ religious identities raises “broad tension” for Air Force

Si Gladman / 01 September 2023

A review into the scandal-plagued Air Force Chaplaincy Branch has identified a “broad tension” in being able to reconcile the religious identities of chaplains with the “unified values” of Defence members.

Freedom of Information (FOI) documents obtained by the Rationalist Society of Australia (RSA) have revealed some observations made by the inquiry into the Air Force’s chaplaincy branch, known as the Air Force Chaplaincy Review.

In minutes taken at the September 2022 meeting of the Religious Advisory Committee to the Services (RACS), the committee noted that, in a ‘directive’ published internally on the intranet last year, the Air Force Chaplaincy Review had “observed a broad tension between the identity of Air Force chaplains as chaplains and as Air Force members.”

The RACS minutes noted that the ‘directive’ had also said:

Effectively reconciling individual religious identity with the unified values, responsibilities and procedural requirements assumed by all members of the Royal Australian Air Force on entry is to be an overriding consideration in implementation of specific recommendations arising from the Review.

The meeting minutes also noted that RACS – a taxpayer-funded body of religious clerics overseeing chaplaincy across the military services – took issue with this characterisation of ‘identity’ and successfully sought the intervention of the Deputy Chief of Air Force to have the directive amended.

Earlier this week, a former Air Force chaplain who was allegedly abused by another chaplain told a hearing of the Royal Commission into Defence and Veteran Suicide that the Air Force Chaplaincy Branch had a “toxic culture” that particularly affected women and LGBTIQ+ chaplains.

Rev Dr Nikki Coleman – whose case helped to trigger the Air Force Chaplaincy Review in 2021 – told the Royal Commission that the inquiry had made 176 findings but no one outside the senior Air Force chaplaincy leadership knew what they were.

She said the inquiry had made 62 recommendations – although the meeting minutes from RACS said it was 63. 


According to an ABC report in 2021, the terms of reference for the inquiry included:

…the demographics within the branch and whether they meet the needs of the modern Air Force considering factors such as diversity of gender, sexual orientation and religion and the services provided by the branch, including pastoral care and spiritual guidance, and whether they meet the needs of a modern Air Force.

Rev Dr Coleman told the Royal Commission that “a large number of chaplains” gave evidence to the inquiry and detailed “serious unacceptable behaviour” and “illegal activity” within the chaplaincy branch.

The RSA is currently seeking documents from the Department of Defence under FOI laws in relation to the Air Force Chaplaincy Review.

In a submission to the Royal Commission in 2022, the RSA argued that the Defence Force’s religious-based pastoral care model put up barriers to service personnel seeking and accessing the care they need at the time they need it – especially given that most personnel were not religious.

The RSA also argued that the religious-based worldviews of chaplains, having been ordained and trained in church communities, were often out of step with the culture that the Defence Force was trying to develop.

Since making the submission, the RSA has sought answers from Defence ministers about publicly expressed views of a number of Defence Force chaplains, including views describing same-sex marriage as “bereft of the fullness” and “often quite harmful”, and non-religious people as suffering from being “self-deceiving”.

Although the Navy introduced some secular roles to its chaplaincy branch in 2020, Air Force and Army are yet to move away from their exclusively religious-based models of pastoral care.

In the FOI documents of RACS meetings from March 2022, the Director-General of Air Force chaplaincy told RACS that he remained “committed to further expanding the diversity of Air Force Chaplaincy”. 

At the June 2022 meeting, the Director-General of Air Force chaplaincy reported that the Air Force needed chaplains who could work in “diverse and inclusive, secular environments like Defence”.

The Rationalist Society of Australia is actively lobbying and advocating for secular reform of the Defence Force. See the latest updates here.

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Si Gladman is Campaign & Communications Coordinator for the Rationalist Society of Australia. He also hosts ‘The Secular Agenda’ podcast.



All the more reason.