Religious affiliation of top ranks preventing reform to military chaplaincy

Si Gladman / 26 April 2022

The gap in religious affiliation between senior military officers and new recruits is preventing the Australian Defence Force (ADF) from making necessary reforms to modernise its chaplaincy capability, says the former head of chaplaincy for the Navy.

In an interview on the ABC’s Conversations program today (listen to the full interview here), Collin Acton, the former Director General of Chaplaincy and Principal Chaplain,  said the continual focus on religious-based chaplaincy meant that Army and Air Force, in particular, were failing to meet the wellbeing needs of their people.

He pointed to the significant difference in religious affiliation among the decision makers compared to new recruits as being a major problem in holding back reform.

While about 75 per cent of those in the highest ranks have a religious affiliation, only about 20 per cent of incoming personnel do, he said.

“When you look at religious affiliation figures in Defence, particularly today, 80 per cent of people joining the Army, Navy and Air Force have no religious faith. And it’s not that they’re angry with religion or they have some sort of problem with it; it’s just that it’s irrelevant to their daily life,” said former Principal Chaplain Acton.

“The numbers of chaplains have increased over time. And I guess Army, Navy and Air Force have said, ‘What’s our wellbeing support? It’s a chaplain.’

“I don’t think those in the senior ranks have necessarily thought, ‘Oh, that’s right. They’re all ordained ministers of religion.’ … They probably have good memories of when they were young men and they went out bush and the chaplain was there, or they went to sea and the chaplain was there, and they were a good chap. But it’s a different world now.”

In an hour-long interview with ABC host Sarah Kanowski, former Principal Chaplain Acton discussed his career in the Navy and shared about his journey of losing his faith and becoming a humanist while serving as a chaplain and then as head of the Navy’s chaplaincy branch. 

He revealed how being a religious chaplain had put up many barriers to being able to provide care for Navy personnel, including while on deployment, as some personnel had not wanted to discuss their issues with a religious chaplain.

Later, as Director General of Chaplaincy, he was instrumental in the introduction of non-faith pastoral care roles, known as Maritime Spiritual Welfare Officers (MSWOs), into the chaplaincy branch. 

Since retiring from the Navy in early 2021, former Principal Chaplain Acton has continued his push for the whole ADF, including Army and Air Force, to follow the lead of Navy and introduce a modern wellbeing support capability to meet the needs of its changing workforce.

In the ABC interview, he said that his efforts to provide Navy personnel with the choice of secular wellbeing support proved “very, very difficult” because of the “open hostility” he experienced from chaplains.

“Both the Deputy Chief and the Chief of Navy at the time were 100 per cent behind me. Out there in general Navy, there was nothing but support. I have to say that out there in general Army and Air Force there was nothing but support, either. It was only chaplains who had a problem with this,” he said.

“So there was just extraordinary passion for this change from within Navy who wanted to see this. So that kept me going throughout all of it.”

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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: Commonwealth of Australia

All the more reason.