Defence official signals possible secular reform to chaplaincy in Army and Air Force

Si Gladman / 10 November 2022

The Army and Air Force could follow Navy’s lead and introduce secular roles to its chaplaincy branch to help meet the wellbeing needs of non-religious personnel, it has been revealed at Senate estimates in Canberra. 

At yesterday’s hearing, Greens Senator David Shoebridge quizzed top officials about the appropriateness of the Australian Defence Force relying on religious-based chaplaincy as its primary support for a mostly non-religious workforce.

Senator Shoebridge pointed out there were only a handful of secular wellbeing officers in Navy compared to more than 300 chaplains employed across the three services’ chaplaincy branches, despite more than 60 per cent of personnel and 80 per cent of new recruits not being religious.

Head of People Capability Major General Wade Stothart (pictured) confirmed that Army and Air Force are considering adding to their chaplaincy branches a non-religious capability similar to Navy’s new secular roles, known as Maritime Spiritual Wellbeing Officers.

“I know that Army and Air Force are looking at this Navy more recent innovation to provide professional spiritual pastoral support to members from a non-religious basis,” he said. 

The Rationalist Society of Australia has been calling on Army and Air Force to follow Navy’s lead and reform their primary model of wellbeing support and pastoral care.


In a submission to the Royal Commission into Defence and Veteran Suicide, the RSA argued that religious-based chaplaincy was failing Defence Force personnel as it put up barriers to personnel accessing appropriate care.

In a July letter to Defence Minister Richard Marles and Defence Personnel and Veterans Affairs Minister Matt Keogh, RSA president Meredith Doig asked how they would ensure that Army and Air Force follow the lead of the Navy in introducing non-religious wellbeing support officers. A reply has not been received.

At Senate estimates, Senator Shoebridge asked Vice Chief of the Defence Force Vice Admiral David Johnston whether he could “see the problem” of Defence relying on Christian-based chaplaincy to support its people.

“If the goal of the ADF is to recruit people that reflect modern Australia – multicultural, diverse Australia – do you see what a problem there is when the spiritual and pastoral care of the ADF does not reflect modern multicultural Australia and, particular, the 80 per cent of new recruits who have no religious affiliations? Do you see the problem?”

In response, Vice Admiral Johnston said the Defence Force recognised that the “needs of our people are changing” and would “contemporise” the support structures provided to personnel.

In an interview on ABC radio earlier this year, former top Navy chaplain Collin Acton OAM said the gap in religious affiliation between senior military officers and new recruits was preventing the Defence Force from making necessary reforms to modernise its chaplaincy capability. While about 75 per cent of those in the highest ranks have a religious affiliation, only about 20 per cent of incoming personnel do, he said.

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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

Photos: Commonwealth of Australia / Department of Defence

All the more reason.