Reform on radar after Air Force review finds ‘conflict’ between faith-based values and Defence values

Si Gladman / 15 March 2024

The Air Force is developing a proposal to introduce non-religious wellbeing officers into its pastoral care and chaplaincy capability, the Royal Commission into Defence and Veteran Suicide has heard.

At Wednesday’s hearing, Chief of the Air Force, Air Marshal Robert Chipman, said a review found there was an “unhealthy mix of theological beliefs” in the service’s chaplaincy branch that conflicted with Australian Defence Force values.

The Royal Commission questioned him about findings and recommendations of the Review into Air Force Chaplaincy, which was prompted by allegations of inappropriate behaviour and a toxic culture that, in particular, negatively affected women and LGBTIQ+ colleagues.

In February this year, the Department of Defence refused the Rationalist Society of Australia’s Freedom of Information request for access to the review’s executive summary. In documents obtained last year, however, the RSA discovered that the review had identified a “broad tension” in reconciling the religious identities of chaplains with the “unified values” of Defence members.

At the Royal Commission hearing this week, some pages of the review’s executive summary were publicly displayed and some of the review’s recommendations discussed.


Air Marshal Chipman said he “absolutely agree” with the finding that there was a conflict between faith-based values of chaplains within the branch and the requirements of  Defence Force values.

“I would say that most chaplains would say that their faith-based values aren’t in conflict with Defence values but we did find chaplains from certain theological schools that had concerns with female chaplains or LGBTIQA chaplains. And so those beliefs that they bring as chaplains into our organisation did intersect unevenly with our Defence values,” he said.

“…the report was specifically looking at chaplaincy branch and there was an unhealthy mix of theological beliefs – of a view that things that happen between chaplains should stay within chaplains. Both of those created conditions for an unhealthy culture to develop within chaplaincy branch and that had very significant impacts on the welfare of some of our chaplains.”

When Counsel Assisting the Royal Commission, Erin Longbottom KC, asked Air Marshal Chipman whether he agreed that there should be no place in Defence for chaplains who could not reconcile their faith with Defence values, he responded: “If there are chaplains practising in Defence that cannot abide by our values and behaviours, then they need to find somewhere else to be employed.”

Counsel Assisting Longbottom said recommendations made in the review’s report included that Air Force should “purposefully explore” whether to introduce non-religious roles into the chaplaincy branch.

Air Marshal Chipman said the head of the Air Force’s chaplaincy branch was currently developing a proposal for the introduction of non-religious spiritual wellbeing officers, but could not say when there would be an outcome.

“I don’t have a specific deadline in mind but I can tell you I met with members of the Australian Defence Force religious advisory council last week and expressed to them that I was sympathetic to that as a proposal,” he said.

While the Navy introduced a handful of non-religious Maritime Spiritual Wellbeing Officer (MSWO) roles in 2020, the Air Force and Army have so far failed to follow suit. Despite having majority non-religious workforces, Air Force and Army only provide religious-based frontline pastoral care and wellbeing support.

In November, the RSA reported that an official Defence review into Navy’s MSWO roles revealed “strong” demand for the capability, especially among female and LGBTIQ+ Navy personnel.

The RSA has made two submissions to the Royal Commission. The first submission in 2022 argued that religious-based worldviews of chaplains were not only often at odds with modern society and mainstream religious people, but out of step with the culture that Defence was trying to develop – a culture recognising diversity and promoting inclusivity.

In the second submission last year, the RSA provided evidence – in the form of publicly stated comments by chaplains, including in official Defence publications – in support of the claim that religious-based chaplaincy was unable to provide non-judgemental care.

At Senate estimates in November 2022, the Australian Defence Force’s Head of People Capability Major General Wade Stothart said Army and Air Force were considering adding to their chaplaincy branches a non-religious capability.

Last year, former Air Force chaplain Rev Dr Nikki Coleman gave evidence to the Royal Commission detailing abusive and inappropriate behaviour. Her allegations helped to trigger the Air Force Chaplaincy Review in 2021.

Counsel Assisting Longbottom revealed that Dr Coleman had called for chaplains to be required to sign an agreement in relation to respecting Defence policies in relation to women, ethnic and religious minorities, and LGBQTI+ people.

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

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


All the more reason.