Senior Army chaplain critiques colleagues’ response to call for non-religious representation

Si Gladman / 05 July 2023

An Anglican priest and senior member of the Australian Army’s chaplaincy branch has critiqued the institution’s defensive response to public calls for the introduction of non-religious pastoral support.

In an article in the 2022 edition of the Australian Army Chaplaincy Journal – published online last month – Chaplain Sarah Gibson, the Army’s Director of Chaplaincy Capability, argued that “running to defend” religious-based chaplaincy “may not be the best option”.

Chaplain Gibson noted the 2020 article by former Army Colonel Phillip Hoglin that discussed the rapid decline of religious affiliation in the Defence Force and the significant number of Defence members not wanting to seek help from religious chaplains.

She wrote that the response among Defence chaplains to that article had been “to defend our position”.

“At the end of the day the point Hoglin makes about representation is important. For some people who ascribe to no religious belief, knowing that their non-religious world view is valued alongside a variety of religious world views may be essential to feeling visible to the organisation or just to seeking help when needed,” she wrote.

“I would suggest that in hindsight, running to defend this position may not be the best option, and that engaging in deep listening may still serve Chaplaincy and Army better going forward. 

“I am committed to a way forward where significant differences exist and where it is possible to engage in a process of deep listening. Building barriers or walls or running to defend ones [sic] self is not what we need to heal our divisions in the church or the world.” 

Chaplain Gibson also appeared to take issue with the common argument put by religious chaplains in Defence that, while many Defence members do not identify as religious, chaplains “provide support for all”.

That argument was made, for example, by Army Chaplain Gary Pope when asked at the Royal Commission into Defence and Veteran Suicide in June last year whether there was interaction between non-religious personnel and chaplains.

In her article for the journal, Chaplain Gibson connected the issue with her experience of entering the male-dominated environment of Defence chaplaincy as a female chaplain.

“I find myself asking: how different is the ‘religious chaplains provide support to all’ argument to the ‘we don’t need female chaplains, as male chaplains provide support to all’ argument from earlier times,” she wrote.

The comments will increase pressure on Army and Air Force to follow the lead of Navy and reform their chaplaincy branches by introducing non-religious pastoral care roles to serve a majority non-religious workforce.

The Rationalist Society of Australia has raised concerns with the Albanese government about the “go-slow approach” to introducing suitable non-religious support into the Army’s and the Air Force’s pastoral care capability.

The RSA has long been calling for the Defence Force to reform its primary wellbeing support capability – religious-based chaplaincy – to better meet the needs of its workforce, a majority of whom are not religious.

In November last year, a Defence official told Senate Estimates that Army and Air Force were considering adding to their chaplaincy branches a non-religious capability similar to Navy’s new secular roles.

Defence personnel minister Matt Keogh’s chief of staff told the RSA that the Army and Air Force would “examine the lessons” of the Navy’s initiative of introducing some secular roles, with a review of the roles due in 2024.

In late December, the Pentecostal representative on the Religious Advisory Committee to the Services (RACS) told the Canberra Times that he was “not necessarily completely convinced” that Army and Air Force would follow suit with a similar model.

RSA president Dr Meredith Doig wrote to RACS in January seeking an explanation. No response has been received.

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Si Gladman is Campaigns & Communications Coordinator for the Rationalist Society of Australia.

Image: Alex de Sousa on Flickr (CC)

All the more reason.