The Rationalist Society of Australia is seeking an explanation from a taxpayer-funded committee of religious clerics about how the pastoral care needs of Army and Air Force personnel differ from those in the Navy, which has initiated secular reform of its chaplaincy branch.
In an article published in The Canberra Times and other Australian Community Media-owned outlets in late December, a member of the Religious Advisory Committee to the Services (RACS) claimed that statements being made about the ineffectiveness of religious military chaplains were “highly inaccurate”.
Asked about the Navy’s introduction of secular roles to its chaplaincy branch, Pentecostal pastor Ralph Estherby (pictured) said he was “not necessarily completely convinced” that the other services would follow suit with a similar model.
“… because the same problems that were present in Navy are not present in Army and are not necessarily being argued,” he said.
In a letter to RACS earlier this month (see letter below), RSA president Meredith Doig asked the committee to provide evidence to confirm the claim that military chaplains were effective and to explain what made the Air Force and Army different from the Navy in respect of the mental health and pastoral support needs of personnel.
“We would like to know the factual basis for Pastor Estherby’s commentary on behalf of the RACS,” she said.
As the RSA reported in November, Defence’s Head of People Capability, Major General Wade Stothart, told Senate Estimates that Army and Air Force were considering adding to their chaplaincy branches a non-religious capability similar to Navy’s secular roles.
Vice Chief of the Defence Force, Vice Admiral David Johnston, told Estimates that Defence recognised that the “needs of our people are changing” and would “contemporise” the support structures provided to personnel.
The RSA has consistently argued that the Commonwealth accepted the need for secular reform of the religious-based chaplaincy model when, in 2021, Navy introduced Maritime Spiritual Wellbeing Officer roles. Damning testimony to a Defence Force Remuneration Tribunal revealed that religious-based chaplaincy put up barriers to Navy personnel getting appropriate support.
RACS has been accused of blocking the much-needed reform of the religious-based chaplaincy model, with former Director-General of Navy Chaplaincy, Collin Acton, revealing last year that RACS had been “implacably opposed to any change in the status quo”.
Even though official figures show the majority of Defence personnel are not religious, public comments by members of RACS have stressed the importance of religious belief for those fighting on the frontlines.
Last year, Anglican Bishop Grant Dibden, the chair of RACS, wrote that “…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 an Army Reserve Chaplain, he echoed the old trope that there were ‘no atheists in foxholes’.
In a video for Anzac Day in 2020, Pastor Estherby argued: “When you are faced with the challenge of an enemy that is strong, determined and unmerciful, it is imperative that we have something to hold onto that is even stronger and cannot be shaken, no matter what circumstances prevail.”
Image: Screengrab from Hope 103.2 (YouTube).
Letter to the Religious Advisory Committee to the Services, 2 January 2023
In an article titled ‘ADF religion declining as Christian chaplains still dominate internal mental health support’ in The Canberra Times on 27 December 2022, one of RACS members, Pastor Ralph Estherby, made comments about chaplains in the ADF.
Pastor Estherby was reported to have said:
- Statements made about the ineffectiveness of military chaplains were “highly inaccurate”, and
- “I am not necessarily completely convinced that all three services will pick up a similar model [to Navy’s MSWO model] because the same problems that were present in Navy are not present in Army”.
We would like to know the factual basis for Pastor Estherby’s commentary on behalf of the RACS.
Could you please:
- Provide evidence to confirm the claim that military chaplains are effective, and
- Explain what makes the Royal Australian Air Force and the Australian Army different from the Royal Australian Navy in respect of the mental health and pastoral support needs of its personnel?
President, Rationalist Society of Australia