Submission to the Royal Commission into Defence and Veteran Suicide – Submission No. 2

Si Gladman / 06 October 2023

Dear Commissioners,

This is a formal submission by the Rationalist Society of Australia, which is Australia’s oldest freethought organisation promoting secularism, evidence-based policy and reason. It is our second submission to the Royal Commission into Defence and Veteran Suicide.

In our first submission, submitted in April last year, we raised concerns about Defence’s reliance on religious-based chaplaincy as its frontline wellbeing and pastoral care support for a majority non-religious workforce. We argued that the religious-based model was no longer fit for purpose. The model puts up barriers to some personnel seeking appropriate wellbeing support and, therefore, risks contributing to poor wellbeing outcomes for Defence personnel.

We argued that secular reform was needed of the religious-based chaplaincy model to better meet the wellbeing needs of an increasingly – and, indeed, majority – non-religious workforce.

We wish to update the Royal Commission on significant developments in regards to religious-based chaplaincy in Defence since we made our original submission. We believe that the evidence provided herewith could be helpful in the Royal Commission’s deliberations and in shaping its recommendations.

In this submission, we provide evidence for the following claims:

  1. Religious demographics in Defence have fundamentally changed.
  2. Chaplaincy is viewed as a ‘missionary’ activity in the Defence Force.
  3. Religious-based chaplaincy is unable to provide non-judgemental care.
  4. The Religious Advisory Committee to the Services (RACS) is actively blocking secular reform within Defence.

In this submission, we will address these assertions and provide evidence for each.

1. Religious demographics in Defence have fundamentally changed

We note that at a hearing of the Royal Commission in early September this year there appeared to be some uncertainty about the level of religiosity among ADF personnel, with a Commissioner asking questions about the breakdown of religious affiliation of certain sections of the Defence Force and with a witness suggesting that “there is probably a higher level of religiosity of Defence Force members” than the wider community.

However, the data on religiosity in the ADF are well-documented and clear. The majority of ADF personnel identify as not religious. The latest Defence Census figures (collected in 2019) showed that, at that time, 56 per cent of ADF personnel said they were not religious. New data – reported in July 2023 by former Army Colonel and Defence statistician Phillip Hoglin in an official Defence publication – showed that, as of 1 January 2023, almost 64 per cent of permanent force members in the ADF did not identify with any religion.

In the wider public, the results of the 2021 ABS Census – which used a biased question that assumed all respondents had a religion – reported that almost 40 per cent of the population had no religion. If the ABS were to remove the bias from the question – as it has proposed doing in recent months – that figure at the next Census, to be held in 2026, could reach, or go beyond, 50 per cent of the national population.

By 2026, the official ‘no religion’ figure within the ADF would be even higher than 64 per cent. Colonel Hoglin has predicted that, by 2030, ADF personnel identifying as not religious could reach 75 per cent. In his July article in Defence publication The Forge, he wrote:

“Having increased by an average of 3 per cent in each of the previous three calendar years, this change was higher than anticipated and continued the march toward a prediction that 75 per cent would not be affiliated with a religion by 2030. Data suggests that the faster pace of change is due to the separation of older (and more religious) members and the simultaneous recruiting of less religious members; a trend set to continue as Defence pushes to increase recruiting over the next few years.”

Hoglin has also presented research showing that about 80 per cent of new recruits to Defence are not religious.

In their early histories, the military’s chaplaincy branches accepted the principle that the religious make-up of their branches should reflect the beliefs of personnel serving in the forces. In a book on the history of the Air Force’s Chaplaincy Branch, author Peter Davidson (1990, Sky Pilot: A History of Chaplaincy in the RAAF) noted that, in the early decades of the branch, it was accepted that “numbers of Chaplains should be in proportion to denominational percentages”. Similarly, in a book on the history of the Army Chaplaincy Branch, author Michael Gladwin (2013, Captains of the soul: A history of Australian Army chaplains) noted that, in the early years of the branch, a system was introduced in which “the allocation of positions was based on proportional denominational strengths reported in the 1911 national census”. If this principle was true in the past, it should apply today.

Recently, one Anglican priest and senior Army chaplain publicly critiqued the Army Chaplaincy Branch’s defensive response to calls for the introduction of non-religious pastoral support to the branch. Writing in the 2022 edition of the Australian Army Chaplaincy Journalwhich is available online – Chaplain Sarah Gibson, the Army’s Director of Chaplaincy Capability, argued that “running to defend” religious-based chaplaincy “may not be the best option”. She wrote:

“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.”

“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.”

The Royal Commission, therefore, should consider the appropriateness of Defence continuing to rely on religious-based frontline pastoral care and wellbeing support – requiring employed staff to have theology degrees and religious credentials – to care for the needs of an overwhelmingly non-religious workforce.

The Royal Commission should also weigh the prospect of non-religious personnel continuing to not have access to appropriate frontline non-religious wellbeing and pastoral care through secular wellbeing roles equivalent to the chaplaincy roles embedded in units and provided through the chaplaincy branches.

2. Chaplaincy is viewed as a ‘missionary’ activity in the Defence Force

From evidence we have gathered, it is clear many chaplains and some religious clerics on the Religious Advisory Committee to the Services (RACS) – which is a taxpayer-funded committee of religious clerics that oversees the appointment of chaplains – view religious-based chaplaincy in Defence as a missionary activity to bring people to Christ.

Comments by RACS members

In July this year, Pastor Ralph Estherby – a member of the RACS – spoke to a Pentecostal church congregation on the topic of bringing into the churches “other sheep not of this fold”. The sermon came just days after a fatal helicopter crash during a military exercise. During the sermon – a recording of which was published on YouTube – Pastor Estherby said: “My other sheep are the people of the ADF”. He said:

“The reality is the Lord has other sheep, and they may be the people in your workplace, they may be in your sporting club, they may be in your streets, they may be in your playgroup. There could be all sorts of people, but I’m asking are you actually aware that they’re not of this fold, and that’s okay. … They don’t fit into the mold, maybe, of this fold – yet. They may not be comfortable – yet – in this church.”

“My other sheep are the people of the ADF. How’s that for a small flock – 85,000! You know, some of them died yesterday in a training accident. And I have to tell you my heart is with those people. We were praying – I was ringing the chaplains that were looking after the families of those people. They are other sheep that need care. Who are the sheep you’re going to be called to? We’re not all called to the same sheep. We’re called to different sheep. I want you to recognise that God actually wants to do something and can use you. You don’t have to be a pastor, you don’t have to be a leader, you don’t have to be anything special. You just have to be a sheep.”

“The second thing I want to tell you is that He wants us to reach out to them. The verse goes on. It says: ‘Them also I must bring.’ Can you hear the urgency in Jesus’ voice? He said: ‘There are other sheep which are not of this fold. Them also I must bring’.”

In 2021, the current chair of RACS, Anglican Bishop Grant Dibden, said, in a speech to Anglicans to mark Defence Sunday, that chaplains were “missionaries in the Defence Force”. He added:

“Our heart is to minister in the Australian Defence Force, be ambassadors for Christ, and to represent the Anglican Church in the complex secular context that is Defence… Any time we do anything in Jesus’ name, we are participating in the mission of Christ and pointing people to God. We’re missionaries in the Defence Force…”

In a report to the Anglican General Synod last year – and published online – Bishop Dibden said that chaplains in Defence must have a “missionary mindset” and must be strong enough to “resist” pressures to “compromise their message”. In the report he wrote:

“It is critical, therefore, that clergy who become chaplains have a missionary mindset being clear that the imperative is to both live out and proclaim the gospel winsomely with gentleness and respect. Yet they must be strong enough to resist the pressure of the ministry context to compromise their message.

“Under God, they demonstrate His love by awakening people to Him, sustaining and nurturing them on their faith journey, and praying and caring for them.”

“Defence chaplains often work theologically from the other person’s situation back to God rather than starting from a church or religious perspective. Defence chaplains have to live the gospel amongst many who have never heard the ‘good news of salvation’.”

The Anglican General Synod last year noted that Defence Chaplaincy was a “critical element of the Church’s ministry” and noted “the benefits to the Church of partnering with Defence Chaplaincy in gospel ministry…”

Comments by chaplains

Serving Defence chaplains have repeated similar sentiments in official Defence publications and promotional videos.

In a promotional video for Defence Anglicans and published online last year, a chaplain said that chaplains provided Defence personnel with the “peace, hope and calm that only comes from a relationship with Jesus”. The Chief of the Defence Force appeared in the same video.

In an official Australian Army video promoting chaplaincy and published on YouTube, one chaplain said he viewed the role as “a call to serve God by serving our soldiers”. The chaplain also said:

“It’s an unconditional commitment in both ways – to Him and to them… Everyone’s got a role to play, and ours is to stand with our soldiers, whether that’s on the front lines or in the barracks. It’s a relationship we build so whatever the situation or the environment we remind them that there’s a God and that they’re never alone… As I serve those who serve our country, it’s great to know that in doing so I’m serving God.”

In the 2019 edition of the Australian Army Chaplaincy Journal (which has been removed from this Army website recently), one article detailed a 2018 Military Appreciation Process – a process normally used during planning for military operations – in which the chaplaincy branch said it believed it had the “unique opportunity to serve the Master” and point people to hope that could “only be found through faith in Jesus”.

The Royal Commission, therefore, should consider whether Australian taxpayers should be funding a religious missionary effort to bring Defence personnel to Christ, instead of providing a wellbeing and pastoral care service with the aim of supporting the wellbeing of personnel.

3. Religious-based chaplaincy is unable to provide non-judgemental care

In our first submission to the Royal Commission last year, we 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.

Since then, we have gathered publicly stated comments – including from official Defence publications – as evidence to support our claim of religious-based chaplaincy being unable to provide non-judgemental care. We believe such beliefs of chaplains can also deter Defence personnel from seeking appropriate wellbeing support and, therefore, contribute to poor wellbeing outcomes.

In the 2018 Australian Army Chaplaincy Journal (which has been removed from this Army website recently), one chaplain wrote that non-religious people suffered from “self-deceiving” for choosing “not to believe in God and His plan to restore the Divine-human relationship”. As a result, the chaplain wrote, there were contradictions in their judgements and inconsistencies in their decisions. Christians, on the other hand, the chaplain argued, had the “advantage” of access to God’s special revelation – the Bible – through which people could “live in community knowing that they should not murder, lie or steal.”

Similar negative sentiment towards non-religious personnel has been publicly echoed by the chair of RACS, Bishop Dibden. Last year, he wrote in Christian media outlet Eternity News:

“…where there are more soldiers who follow the Lord Jesus, it is more likely that evil will be restrained in the heat of battle…”

Given that chaplains are typically recruited from insular religious communities, it is unsurprising that some hold views that are out of step with mainstream Australian society, harmful to the wellbeing of some Defence personnel, and at odds with Defence’s own stated values. Here are some further examples.

In the 2017 Australian Army Chaplaincy Journal (which has been removed from this Army website recently), a chaplain wrote that Army personnel were suffering negative effects of the “widely practiced and culturally endorsed inauthentic expressions of sexuality.” The chaplain argued that sex in any form outside of God’s “intended blessing” – marriage between a man and woman – was “bereft of the fullness it could have” and was “often quite harmful”. The chaplain added:

“To ensure the goodness of human sexuality is experienced as Divine-intended blessing, God provides the perfect context for sex: the covenantal relationship of marriage, wherein man and woman become ‘one flesh’.”

The chaplain also questioned Defence policies on healthy relationships and sexual ethics because these policies encouraged, among other things, premarital cohabitation.

The religious-based nature of the capability opens the door to chaplains identifying problems as ‘sin’ and the solutions as requiring ‘repentance’. In the 2020 Australian Army Chaplaincy Journal (which has been removed from this Army website recently), a chaplain advocated that people who behave in contradiction to Defence values should be viewed as “having sinned”, and suggested activities to help individuals and teams find “redemption from sin”. In the 2018 edition of the journal (which has been removed from this Army website recently), a chaplain wrote that any attempt to deal with guilt and shame outside the Christian framework was deficient. The chaplain wrote:

“Secular psychology often simply attempts to remove guilt by removing responsibility. This approach will thereby misclassify what is really a sin problem… Psychological methodologies of acceptance are cheap substitutes for forgiveness that deny the need for an existential experience of Christ’s atonement.”

Such views should raise sufficient doubt for the Royal Commission as to whether religious chaplaincy could provide non-judgemental wellbeing support and pastoral care for a majority non-religious Defence workforce.

The Royal Commission, therefore, should consider whether it is appropriate for Defence to continue to rely on religious chaplains who are sourced from insular faith communities and hold views on numerous social issues – such as same-sex marriage, and issues such as abortion and voluntary assisted dying – that are now fringe views to most Australians.

4. The Religious Advisory Committee to the Services (RACS) is actively blocking secular reform within Defence

We have obtained evidence that shows that the taxpayer-funded RACS has pursued a pattern of conduct aimed at blocking much-needed secular reform within Defence.

Last year, the Rationalist Society of Australia reported that former Director-General of Navy Chaplaincy (DGCHAP) Collin Acton had been “forced out” of the military for having spoken publicly about the need for secular reform of the Defence Force’s religious-based pastoral care and wellbeing support capability.

Defence documents obtained by the Rationalist Society of Australia under freedom of information (FOI) laws – and now available on the Defence disclosure log –show that on 1 June last year RACS decided to write to the Chief of the Defence Force (CDF) to raise “concerns” about an interview that Mr Acton gave on ABC radio in April. Documents detailing the minutes of RACS meetings show that the committee, with the exception of one member, agreed that the chair would write to the CDF “outlining RACS concerns with [the] interview”.

RACS’ letter to the CDF sparked a high-level investigation into Mr Acton, leading to a meeting at Navy Headquarters where it was made clear to Mr Acton that “RACS wanted me gone from Defence” and also from his civilian role with the Defence Member and Family Helpline. In a podcast interview last year, he said the message was clear that he would have to leave the Navy if he wanted to continue advocating for secular reform.

In 2020, as DGCHAP Navy, then Principal Chaplain Acton was instrumental in having a handful of secular wellbeing officer roles introduced for the first time into the Navy’s chaplaincy branch to help meet the needs of non-religious personnel. In his public commentary on the issue, he noted that he encountered deep opposition to the proposal to introduce secular wellbeing officers. In speaking at a webinar in June last year, he said that, in particular, RACS had made the task of achieving the reform “very difficult”. In a podcast interview last year, he said RACS had been “implacably opposed to any change in the status quo”.

The Rationalist Society of Australia has viewed an FOI document detailing the report of the investigation “regarding comments made by former DGCAP Navy Collin Acton”. The report, developed by Deputy Chief of Navy Chris Smith for the CDF, states that the CDF received a letter on 15 June raising the following three complaints about Mr Acton:

“Firstly, Acton persistently breached Defence Values. Secondly, he undermined Defence personnel and their families’ confidence in religious chaplaincy. Finally, by disrespecting religious chaplaincy he will make it more difficult to recruit ADF chaplains in the future.”

The report blanked out who had made the complaint to the CDF. But the timeline of events and the previous confirmation of RACS’ letter of complaint leave little doubt that it was RACS.

In his report to the CDF, Rear Admiral Smith said Mr Acton’s commentary in the media was “overwhelmingly positive to Defence and more specifically Navy”.

“His discussion around Religious Chaplaincy pastoral care was focussed on it not being relevant due to the nature of the care required in most circumstances and the percentage of ADF members who identity as belonging to a faith-based group.”

Rear Admiral Smith noted that Mr Acton had “encountered deep opposition” in his drive to introduce some secular wellbeing officers, now known as Maritime Spiritual Wellbeing Officers (MSWOs), into the Navy chaplaincy branch. While he noted that the public narrative was having a “negative impact” on serving religious chaplains and there was a view among them that Mr Acton should be repudiated, Rear Admiral Smith said it was noteworthy that Navy chaplains were “overwhelmingly reconciled with the introduction of MSWOs” and believed the secular roles would make a valuable contribution.

In conclusion, Rear Admiral Smith found that there was:

“…no evidence to suggest any contravention of Defence policy or unprofessional conduct on CDRE Acton’s part. Furthermore, I do not believe Acton has made any disingenuous commentary on the work of chaplains in the military while serving as DGCHAP Navy. Nor can I determine if his actions as DGCHAP Navy were anything other than genuine attempts to serve the best interests of Navy’s people and Command.”

This example demonstrates that RACS is using its privileged position – with direct access to Defence leadership – to obstruct secular reform, force out reforming elements and entrench religious chaplaincy in Defence. Its presence is providing a structural block to much-needed secular reform within Defence.

RACS is, effectively, a taxpayer-funded religious lobby within Defence, doing the bidding of religious interests. With no equivalent representative body advocating for the needs and views of non-religious voices, Hoglin has warned that this “large and emerging demographic will be under-represented in relevant forums” and excluded from important debates.

All the more reason.