Theology degrees ‘inconsistent’ with purpose of Navy roles, says RSA

Si Gladman / 13 June 2022

The Rationalist Society of Australia is seeking an explanation from the Royal Australian Navy’s top brass on why ‘theology’ is listed as a relevant qualification for new secular wellbeing support roles within Navy’s Chaplaincy Branch.

The RSA can reveal that the Navy is currently advertising its Maritime Spiritual Welfare Officer (MSWO) roles – also known as Wellbeing Officers – to applicants with theology degrees.

In a letter to Deputy Chief of Navy Rear Admiral Christopher Smith (pictured) late last month, RSA president Meredith Doig argued that this appeared to be “inconsistent” with the purpose of the MSWOs providing a non-religious pastoral care capability to an increasingly non-religious workforce.

Selection criteria for MSWO roles on the Defence Jobs website list ‘theology’ as a relevant qualification, alongside degrees in other fields of human services, such as social sciences, social work, psychology, counselling, and nursing with postgraduate qualifications in mental health (see image below).

Image: A screenshot of a MSWO job advertisement on the Defence Jobs website.

Dr Doig told Rear Admiral Smith that the RSA was “very concerned” to make this discovery, given that, in establishing MSWO roles in 2020, the Defence Force Remuneration Tribunal (DFRT) did not list ‘theology’ as an acceptable qualification

Rather, DFRT emphasised that the MSWOs were to be different from religious-based chaplains in order to address a capability gap currently not being serviced by religious chaplains.

“We are concerned about the inclusion of ‘theology’ as a relevant qualification. It is inconsistent with both the purpose underlying the introduction of MSWOs and the substance of the Tribunal’s decision to include theology as an acceptable qualification for MSWOs,” Dr Doig said in the letter.

Pro-secular community groups welcomed Navy’s introduction of the MSWO roles in 2020 as a small but much-needed reform to ensure that non-religious Navy personnel could access more appropriate wellbeing support.

Despite non-religious personnel now making up about 60 per cent of the entire Australian Defence Force (ADF) and 80 per cent of new recruits, the Army and Air Force have so far failed to make similar reforms to their chaplaincy branches.

Dr Doig asked Rear Admiral Smith how the Navy considered the inclusion of ‘theology’ to be consistent with the DFRT’s decision.

“The Tribunal notes in its decision that the ADF has a very high proportion of personnel who are not religious. It also notes Navy’s own evidence that those personnel are not properly served by religiously-based Chaplains,” said Dr Doig.

“In this context, and noting the intention that MSWOs are meant to be different from chaplains, it is perplexing that Navy has chosen to simply replicate for MSWOs the selection criteria for chaplains.”

Collin Acton, the former head of the Navy’s Chaplaincy Branch, was instrumental in pushing for the addition of MSWOs to the Navy, having warned that religious-based chaplaincy put up barriers to non-religious personnel accessing wellbeing support.

In appearing before the DFRT, then Principal Chaplain Acton said theology degrees did little to prepare chaplains for attending to the welfare and mental health needs of service men and women, who are typically dealing with issues such as relationship breakdown, family and domestic violence, anxiety/depression and suicide ideation.

The DFRT also heard evidence that religious chaplains in the ADF spend 95 per cent of their time on non-religious pastoral care and wellbeing support activities.

Register today to join our RSA Webinar on Wednesday 22 June, when Retired Principal Chaplain Collin Acton will present on the need for a new model of wellbeing support in Defence. To attend, register here.

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; Department of Defence

All the more reason.