Military Chaplaincy

Rising Sun Badge 1991 Pattern

The role of religion, religious leaders and religious communities in war and peace-making as well as associated and contested notions of a just war and religion as a cause of war are huge topics as is the assessment of war from a religious perspective. Military chaplaincy has always been surrounded by ambiguity, not least because of the nature and extent of religiosity (or its lack) among soldiers, sailors and air force personnel and the twin tension-filled role of the chaplain in relation to his or her own religious authorities and to his or her armed force authorities. There is the additional tension in being the representative of a religious founder such as the Buddha, Jesus and Muhammad who are perceived as peace-bearers and peace-makers.

There are the deep tensions between obedience to the military and to God, and in the chaplain’s various roles. Other tensions exist such as being non-combatants in combative situations, in the dialectic of religious universality and a national war cause, in the tension between being a religious functionary and a military officer, and in the issue of the role of the chaplain in military morale, of challenging official government war policy and the need to avoid the romanticisation of war.

Chaplains have always been admired for their care of the dying and the wounded. They conduct rituals to provide meaning though these rituals are also changing. Advanced countries no longer bury their soldiers on the battlefields as their bodies are repatriated back home with a new set of rituals both in the battlefield country in loading the casket onto a plane and in the home country in receiving and burying or cremating the body (Ball 2013).

Chaplains in War

Raaf Roundel used on aircraft
In World War One, 414 A.I.F. chaplains (175 Anglicans, 86 Catholics, 70 Presbyterians, 54 Methodists, 29 others) served their members with ship-board services, pre-battle services, praying with the wounded, ministering to the dying, burying the dead, maintaining morale, censoring the soldiers’ letters and sending condolence letters to the bereaved at home. There were other aspects including clergy who enlisted as soldiers (131 Anglicans, 109 Methodists, 6 Presbyterians, 0 Catholics) and the work of clergymen in Australia as deliverers to the families of the telegrams of death and with the subsequent grieving families. There is also the huge role of religious people in contesting government war policy and in the peace movement.

Australian military chaplains continued their service in World War Two and have continued in subsequent wars, including the Malayan emergency (1948 – 1980), the Korean War (1950 – 1953), the Borneo confrontation (1963 – 1966), the Viet Nam War (1964 – 1973), the Gulf War (1990 – 1991), the Timor Leste crisis (1999 – 2000), the war in Afghanistan (2001 – 2014), the Iraq War (2003 – 2011) and the war on Daesh (2014 – ).

Royal Australian Navy Insignia
Military chaplaincy is clearly different. Within the defence portfolio, the Australian Defence Force has a religious advisory committee chaired by the Anglican Bishop Ian Lambert with six members on its board representing the major Christian Churches and the Jewish and Muslim faiths. In the Anglican Church, Bishop Lambert who is assisted by three archdeacons for the army, air force and navy, heads Defence Anglicans which self-describes as a community of Anglican Christians who are associated with the Australian Defence Force ( Its remit is broader than military chaplains. The Catholic Church has a military ordinariate which functions as a quasi-diocese though currently without an active bishop. It has six priests and four permanent deacons.

Altogether in the Australian armed forces there are just over 100 army chaplains, and another 100 air force and naval chaplains serving the 58,751 permanent ADF (Australian Defence Force) members, the 16,816 active Reservists and the 20,138 APS administrative support persons according to the 2015 ADF census. In Victoria, there are few military chaplains because Australia’s military bases are concentrated in the north of Australia. HMAS Cerberus has had one full-time Catholic chaplain. Air force chaplaincy is focused on the bases as Laverton, Point Cook and Sale while the army has its bases such as at Bandiana, Macleod and Puckapunyal. Of course there are reservists but the role of chaplains in the reservist units is unclear.


Islamic, Hindu and Buddhist faiths are now represented on the Religious Advisory Committee to the Services