Defence’s ‘go-slow’ approach on reforming chaplaincy to impact personnel, says RSA

Si Gladman / 11 December 2022

The Defence Force’s ‘go-slow’ approach in considering reform of its religious-based chaplaincy model continues to ignore the wellbeing and pastoral care needs of many service personnel, says the Rationalist Society of Australia.

In a letter to the RSA, the Chief of Staff for Minister for Veterans’ Affairs and Defence Personnel Matt Keogh said the Army and Air Force would “examine the lessons” of the Navy’s initiative to introduce some secular roles.

Nicola Gordon-Smith wrote that a review of Navy’s Maritime Spiritual Wellbeing Officer (MSWO) roles would be due in 2024.

“The review will determine suitability of the approach, for use in the land and air domains, to shape capabilities to meet the demand for a broad range of religious and non-religious pastoral care, and the spiritual needs of all personnel and their families,” she said.

As reported last month, the Defence Force’s Head of People Capability Major General Wade Stothart told Senate Estimates that Army and Air Force were considering adding to their chaplaincy branches a non-religious capability similar to Navy’s new secular roles, but did not give a timetable.

RSA president Dr Meredith Doig said the slow approach being taken was unnecessary given the demonstrated need for a new non-religious capability to provide pastoral care and wellbeing support for the majority non-religious Army and Air Force.

“The need for secular roles has already been accepted by the Commonwealth government through the Navy’s introduction of the MSWO roles. So how could the Army and Air Force think they are somehow immune to this need for reform,” she said.

“Every day that goes by without Army and Air Force personnel having the same access that Navy personnel have to a non-religious pastoral care worker is another day that the Army and Air Force fail to properly support them.”

Ms Gordon-Smith’s letter was in response to the RSA’s letter in July to Defence Minister Richard Marles and Mr Keogh (pictured) inquiring into how they would ensure that Army and Air Force would follow Navy’s lead in introducing non-religious roles.

Ms Gordon-Smith said that chaplaincy capability was an “effective” part of the system of support provided to Defence personnel, including uniformed medical and psychological specialists, and non-uniformed social workers. 

“Religious-based chaplaincy is an integral component of a multi-disciplinary suite of wellbeing and support services,” she wrote.

“Defence acknowledges that a person’s religious and spiritual belief system can be a significant factor in their overall wellbeing. Accordingly, Defence is committed to providing appropriate religious ministry and support, spiritual guidance, pastoral care, command advice, and character development for ADF personnel. Support is delivered by both officers commissioned as chaplains and Marital Spiritual Wellbeing Officers.”

A Defence spokesperson told the 7am Podcast late last month that personnel who did not want to engage a religious chaplain have access to other support. 

However, as reported in Rationale magazine last month, chaplains are uniformed and embedded in ships and military units with personnel and are readily available, whereas other support – such as psychologists and social workers – are civilian, located externally, far fewer in number and more difficult to access in a timely fashion.

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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

*This articled was revised on 30 November 2023.

All the more reason.