There are currently just over 200 Army Chaplains – men and women - in the British Army and the Royal Army Chaplains’ Department (RAChD) has been responsible for ministering to soldiers and their families in times of war and peace since 1796.
The Presbyterian Church in Ireland is one of the recognised ‘Sending Churches’ who provide chaplains to the military in the UK. Also known as padres, recruits must be ordained ministers in one of the Sending Churches and be a citizen of the United Kingdom or the Republic of Ireland.
The Church’s Forces Panel is responsible for recruiting and interviewing ordained ministers for the chaplaincy and provides on going support to them and their families. Convener of the Panel, Professor Patton Taylor, explained that the evening wasn’t just about recruiting. “Recruitment is an important part of the event, but Roadshows like this one are also opportunities for friends, family, and all those interested to discover more about ministry within the Army at both Regular and Reserve levels.”
A former Army Reserve Chaplain himself, who served in different parts of the world including Afghanistan, Professor Taylor is also Head of Biblical Studies at Union Theological College. “For over 100 years Presbyterians in Ireland have had a long pastoral association with the Army at Regular, Reserve and Cadet force levels and that continues to this day, as we have eight chaplains currently serving,” he said.
Chaplains are ordained ministers with between two and three year’s experience who undertake their initial training at the Armed Forces’ Chaplaincy Centre in Hampshire and then at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst. They neither carry weapons nor bear arms and will normally be assigned to a unit of about 700 troops and families.
One Presbyterian minister, Rev. Dr. Victor Dobbin, rose to become Chaplain-General to Her Majesty’s Land Forces (1995-2000), the most senior chaplain in the British Army. The current Chaplain-General, Rev. Dr. David Coulter is a Church of Scotland chaplain, but is also from Northern Ireland.
With the RAChD holding nine regional information events around the UK each year, the Belfast Roadshow was open to all denominations and was attended by Methodists, Church of Ireland and Presbyterian ministers.
Speaking after the event, Staff Chaplain, Rev. Richard Smith, who is responsible for recruitment, said that RAChD welcomes applications from all denominations and is a pioneer in ecumenical relations. “Looking after people is our business,” the Methodist Minister, who has served in Iraq and Afghanistan, said.
“Providing spiritual support, both publicly and privately, at every level of the Army and pastoral care at home and abroad, is an essential part of what we do. On average, we need to recruit around 20 chaplains a year to maintain current levels and our roadshows play an important part in this, so it is good to be back in Belfast.”
One local serving Presbyterian chaplain said, “It is a role I thoroughly enjoy. It may be a cliché, but you do get to see a good part of the world during training and on unit deployment overseas. A number of my colleagues have seen active service in Iraq, Afghanistan and with United Nations’ Missions.
“It is a huge privilege to serve, but it is definitely a calling as we deal with people who would never go near a church and would have never heard the Gospel message and the hope and salvation it brings. It is very humbling.”
For more information on Royal Army Chaplains’ Department visit their website.
Photo: (1) The badge of the Royal Army Chaplains Department (2) Professor Patton Taylor (left) convener of PCI’s Forces Panel with (right) Staff Chaplain, Rev. Richard Smith.