Military chaplaincy is an opportunity for Christians to “touch people” who have no connections to churches, says the Australian Christian Church (ACC) representative to Defence’s taxpayer-funded committee of religious clerics.
Speaking in an ACC video promoting the role of the church’s chaplains in Defence, Pastor Ralph Estherby urges Pentecostal Christians to mobilise and “go outside of the church to make a difference” in chaplaincy roles.
“That’s what we’ve seen happen in this amazing opportunity with military chaplaincy. People who would normally not be touched by a church are being touched by people who have a connection with God and hope and life, and can be given the support they need,” he says.
“That opportunity is available to every pastor, every church and every Christian in our country. We just need to mobilise ourself. We need to listen to the voice of God when Jesus says ‘other sheep I have which are not of this fold’.”
Late last month, The Guardian reported that the Defence Force had a disproportionately high number of Pentecostal and evangelical chaplains, as revealed in new figures provided to the Senate by the Department of Defence.
In the ACC video, Pastor Estherby says the number of ACC chaplains has grown from four to 32 since 2012. Although, this figure – 32 – differs slightly to that detailed in the data provided to the Senate and reported in The Guardian.
In the corresponding period (from 2011-2023), the proportion of Defence personnel identifying as not religious has climbed from 37 per cent to 64 per cent, while only a handful of secular wellbeing roles have been introduced into the Navy.
The Defence Jobs website says that chaplains have the role of providing pastoral care and character development to all personnel.
The ACC is actively promoting Defence chaplaincy roles, telling readers of its magazine in 2021 there are “a number of Part-time and Full-Time opportunities available” for candidates with degrees in theology or ministry.
Earlier this year, the Rationalist Society of Australia (RSA) wrote to RACS seeking an explanation after Pastor Estherby told the Canberra Times that he was “not necessarily completely convinced” that the Army and Air Force would follow the Navy in introducing a secular wellbeing officer option. He also said statements being made about the ineffectiveness of religious military chaplains were “highly inaccurate”.
More than six months on, RACS has not responded to our questions.
In The Guardian article, Pastor Estherby rejected the suggestion that some military personnel would be reluctant to seek help from a chaplain whose beliefs and values they disagreed with. He said:
“Maybe that’s your initial thought, but when you spoke to the chaplains you would find that they are chosen to be non-judgmental and non-sectarian.”
But the Royal Commission into Defence and Veteran Suicide has, over the past year, heard testimony that non-religious personnel do not want to seek help from religious chaplains.
Also, Defence itself told the Defence Force Remuneration Tribunal in 2020 that relying on religious chaplains for wellbeing support had led to a “capability gap in the provision of mental health and wellbeing care for its members and their families”.
The Tribunal – which ruled to introduce secular wellbeing officers into the Navy – said it “agree[s] that at present some Navy members may not seek counsel from a Chaplain based on a difference in, or with, religion”.
In lobbying the Albanese government’s Defence ministers, the RSA has raised concerns that many Defence chaplains view their role as a missionary one. Earlier this year, we reported that Bishop Grant Dibden, the chair of RACS, described chaplains as the “Anglican Church’s missionaries” in Defence and said it was “critical” that they have a “missionary mindset”.
The RSA has also raised concerns that some publicly expressed views of chaplains were incompatible with providing non-judgemental care – including comments that same-sex marriage was “bereft of the fullness” and “often quite harmful”, and non-religious people suffered from “self-deceiving”.
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 Campaign & Communications Coordinator for the Rationalist Society of Australia. He also hosts ‘The Secular Agenda’ podcast.
Image: Screengrab from Hope 103.2 (YouTube).