UK Armed Forces introduce secular pastoral care roles, as Australian personnel go without

Si Gladman / 17 December 2023

The United Kingdom’s Ministry of Defence has officially announced the introduction of new non-religious pastoral care roles into the Armed Forces in an effort to “further bolster the support given” to the growing cohort of non-religious service personnel.

In a press release, the Ministry of Defence said the new roles would begin in 2024 and would operate alongside Christian, Muslim, Sikh and Jewish chaplains currently serving in the Armed Forces.

While comparable countries are introducing non-religious pastoral care into their militaries, the Australian Army and Air Force continue to deny a secular option for their majority non-religious workforces. Only the Royal Australian Navy has introduced some secular roles into its chaplaincy branch.

According to a report by Humanists UK, the percentage of UK service personnel identifying as non-religious grew from 15 per cent in 2012 to 38 per cent now.

Earlier this year, former Australian Army Colonel and Defence statistician Phillip Hoglin reported that the most recent figures for the Australian Defence Force – as of 1 January 2023 – showed almost 64 per cent of permanent members did not identify with a religion. On the current trend, he said that figure could reach 75 per cent by 2030.

Humanists UK spokesperson Clare Elcombe Webber said her group was “delighted” with the Minister of Defence’s decision to recruit non-religious pastoral support officers across the Armed Forces.

“This historic step reflects growing demand for the service. In times of critical need, people need person-centred support. Just as this is true of religious people, so it is also true of the non-religious. We look forward to continuing our work with the Ministry of Defence to see this recruitment take place,” he said.

A 2022 UK Army report into the suicide death of an officer cadet revealed shortcomings in the delivery of chaplaincy support and barriers to care for non-religious personnel. The inquiry’s report noted that “a number of [officer cadets] have explained to the Panel that they would not seek help from the Chaplaincy Dept because they were not religious.” 

In a letter to the Rationalist Society of Australia (RSA) last year, a spokesperson for Australia’s Defence Personnel minister Matt Keogh said that the Australian Army and Air Force would “examine the lessons” of the Navy’s initiative to introduce some secular roles, with a review to be delivered in 2024.

The RSA has warned the Albanese government that its “go-slow approach” would unnecessarily delay the introduction of secular pastoral care and negatively affect Australian defence personnel.

Last month, the RSA revealed that an interim review into Navy’s secular Maritime Spiritual Wellbeing Officer (MSWO) roles showed there was “strong” demand for the capability among Navy personnel.

Data supplied in the report for the interim review showed that, across the Australian Defence Force, the ratio of Christian chaplains to Christian personnel stood at 1:134, while the ratio for non-religious pastoral carers (MSWOs) to non-religious personnel was 1:11,992.

The Rationalist Society of Australia is actively lobbying and advocating for secular reform of the Defence Force. See the latest updates here.

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Si Gladman is the Campaigns & Communications Coordinator for the Rationalist Society of Australia. He also hosts ‘The Secular Agenda’ podcast.

Photo by Roberto Catarinicchia on Unsplash.

All the more reason.