Exclusive: Religious clerics raise “concerns” with Defence chief about former head chaplain’s media appearance

Si Gladman / 22 September 2022

A taxpayer-funded committee of religious clerics has raised “concerns” with the Chief of the Defence Force (CDF) about a media interview given by a former head chaplain who is calling for reform of military chaplaincy services, show documents obtained under Freedom of Information (FOI).

At a meeting of the Religious Advisory Committee to the Services (RACS) on 1 June this year, the 10-member committee discussed Collin Acton’s interview on ABC program Conversations in April.

In the ABC interview, former Principal Chaplain Acton repeated his calls for the Australian Defence Force (ADF) to move away from religious-based chaplaincy as the primary wellbeing model for its service personnel, given that most of them identify as not religious.

As Director-General of the Navy’s chaplaincy branch in 2020, he was instrumental in having secular wellbeing officer roles introduced into the Navy shortly before he retired from the role. The Army and Air Force are yet to follow suit.

FOI documents obtained this month by the Rationalist Society of Australia show that committee members, with the exception of one, agreed that the chair would write to the CDF “outlining RACS concerns with [the] interview”.

“This will represent the views of all RACS members with the exception of [NAME REMOVED FROM FOI DOCUMENT],” said the meeting’s minutes.

RACS consists of bishops, senior pastors, a rabbi, an imam and other religious leaders who represent their denomination or faith groups and are accorded two-star status – the rank of a General. The chair of this committee has direct access to the CDF and other senior Defence leaders.

The current chair of RACS is Anglican Bishop Grant Dibden (pictured), who earlier this year wrote in Christian media outlet Eternity: “…where there are more soldiers who follow the Lord Jesus, it is more likely that evil will be restrained in the heat of battle…” In 2012, then as Army Reserve Chaplain, he told Eternity: “I think it’s pretty true, the old statement that there’s not many atheists in the army. We’ve been an army at war. You see poverty, and are faced with the possibility of your own death – these guys have to think more deeply.”

Appearing in the RSA Webinar in June, retired Principal Chaplain Acton accused the RACS committee of making the task of reforming the provision of wellbeing support and pastoral care, from a religious-based chaplaincy model to a modern and secular capability, “very difficult”.

Retired Principal Chaplain Acton also said that the RACS committee had “odd views of the world” that contrasted to ADF values, pointing to some of Bishop Dibden’s public comments while in the role as chair of RACS.

In early 2020, Bishop Dibden told Anglican News that he wanted to “encourage the chaplains to make disciples who make other disciples.” In a video posted on the Defence Anglican website in 2021, he said: “Our heart is to minister in the Australian Defence Force, to be Ambassadors for Christ, and to represent the Anglican Church in this complex secular context. We do this in Jesus’ name.”

Retired Principal Chaplain Acton told the webinar that such views would be unacceptable to most ADF personnel.

“I guess that’s one take on wellbeing services. But I actually don’t think it’s a take on wellbeing services that most ADF members would feel comfortable with,” he said.

RACS is a statutory body appointed by the Minister for Defence and paid by the Department of Defence, with each member earning up to $778 per day to advise the ADF on theological matters and oversee the employment of chaplains.

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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

Image: Department of Defence (Commonwealth of Australia).

All the more reason.