Exclusive: Defence review reveals “strong demand” for Navy’s non-religious pastoral care

Si Gladman / 21 November 2023

An official Defence review into the new non-religious pastoral care positions in the Navy’s chaplaincy branch has revealed strong demand for the capability and underscored the need for further secularisation of pastoral care in the military.

The Rationalist Society of Australia has obtained the Defence Force Remuneration Tribunal (DFRT) ‘interim review’ of the implementation of the secular Maritime Spiritual Wellbeing Officer (MSWO) roles. 

The review was conducted in December 2022, two years after the introduction of MSWOs into Navy’s chaplaincy branch under the leadership of former Director-General of Chaplaincy and now secular advocate Collin Acton.

In the DFRT interim review, a Defence Force ‘response’ to a key performance indicator said demand for accessing MSWOs among Navy personnel had been “strong” where the seven MSWOs were located in ships, including HMAS Anzac, Cerberus, Waterhen, Kuttabul and Stirling.

“One MSWO noted that about half the members they had supported had specifically requested the MSWO,” the report says.

“The positive effect of increased gender diversity in the Chaplaincy Branch by introducing MSWOs of which 50% are female is evident. An MSWO advised they were often sought out by personnel because they were female.

“MSWO support has also been sought out by personnel identifying as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersex and asexual…that did not want to see a religious Chaplain.”

The evidence detailed in the review will add further pressure on Army and Air Force to follow suit with the introduction of secular pastoral care and wellbeing support roles into their chaplaincy branches to provide a non-religious option for their majority non-religious workforces.

Last year, Defence officials and the Minister for Defence Personnel Matt Keogh said Army and Air Force would consider following Navy’s new non-religious option, with both services to consider the outcome of a review due in 2024. However, the Pentecostal representative on a taxpayer-funded committee of religious clerics with oversight of Defence chaplaincy recruitment told the media that he was “not necessarily completely convinced” that Army and Air Force would follow suit with a similar model.

A Defence Force ‘response’ in the DFRT interim review said the continued rise in Navy personnel identifying as not religious – at 64 per cent in March 2022 – supported “the importance and value of MSWOs”.

The interim review noted that the high proportion of Christian chaplains serving in Defence was “representative of historical recruitment”, which began to change in 2017 with the introduction of non-Christian religious chaplains and then MSWOs in 2020. 

It also suggested further increases in non-religious pastoral care would take place.

“The introduction of MSWO and imperative to recruit other non-Christian faith based Chaplains will increase the Navy Chaplaincy Branch diversity and broader support options for uniformed personnel and their families,” the report says.

“As the MSWO and non-Christian faith based Chaplain workforce grows in numbers, the balance between faith based and non-faith based pastoral care options will over time more closely resemble the ADF/Navy religious/non-religious ratio.”

Data supplied in the interim review showed that, across the Defence Force, the ratio of Christian chaplains to Christian personnel stood at 1:134. In comparison, the ratio for non-religious pastoral carers (MSWOs) to non-religious personnel was 1:11992. For Muslims, the ratio was 1:62. For Buddhists, it was 1:83.

The interim review also detailed personnel testimony that some existing members of the chaplaincy branch were “campaigning” to prove the “perceived ineffectiveness of MSWO”. However, much testimony reports that chaplains have welcomed and supported MSWOs.

One chaplain told the interim review that Navy personnel and their families viewed MSWOs as operating “without religious baggage”, which had helped to create a “greater openness” to non-religious personnel in engaging with the chaplaincy branch.

As reported earlier this month, Australia’s Army and Air Force could soon become outliers in not providing a secular pastoral care option for their non-religious personnel, with a number of comparable countries already deploying humanist or non-religious pastoral care support in their militaries.

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

If you want to support our work, please make a donation or become a member.

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

Image: Department of Defence/Commonwealth of Australia

All the more reason.