AM CATHOLIC, WILL TRAVEL

Simon Beveridge gives an insight into patterns of priestly ministry in the Royal Navy

WHEN I TOLD priest colleagues in the diocese back in 1993 that I was going to join the Royal Navy as a chaplain my announcement was received politely. I was given the impression that I was not only doing something unusual, but also that I was somehow letting the side down by turning from parish to sector ministry. That was eight years ago and still I am left with this perception. It was almost as though being a chaplain was a cop out and not a proper job.

Conversely, there are some family and friends, thankfully not all, who think that my joining the Royal Navy means I now have a proper job, have become an officer, and I am respectable to boot! May I reassure readers that the first view has not managed to undermine my sense of calling to serve our servicemen and women as a priest, and that the second point of view is as warped as the first!

So what is it about being a chaplain that I like so much? Is that the right way to start talking about being a chaplain I wonder; to speak in terms of enjoyment?

I suppose that I could speak of calling or vocation, and I could even bring duty into it somewhere. But no: enjoyment is where it is at, and that's my starting point! (In fact I'd go so far as to say that I don't know why more priests don't want to explore the possibility that God might be calling them to enjoy being a chaplain too!)

Portable Christianity

The reason I enjoy what I do lies with my discovery that there is a very close match between how I am to go about this chaplain's ministry with the style of ministry Our Lord exercised in the Gospel and the Apostles in the early Church.

At the beginning of his ministry Jesus comes to his own people preaching in the synagogues. It is recorded that on many occasions that what he has to say is not welcome. Rather it is out-doors that much of his work is done. The people find him and he finds the people. When he does assemble a congregation of 4 - 5000 it is not in a building.

True that having gone to Jerusalem for what we now celebrate as Holy Week Jesus visits the Temple and sorts out the money-changers, yet having taken on the religious people who decided to make an end of him, the main events - the Last Supper, the Agony in the Garden, arrest, trial, crucifixion, and resurrection discovery happen far from anything we'd describe as a religious venue.

Remember those Bible maps detailing the spread of the early church as St Paul travelled about preaching the Good News. In an age with a penchant for sound bites all of this translates for me as "Am Catholic, will travel".

If Christianity were not portable then there would be no Church, no Church of England, and no world wide Anglican Communion. Genuine faith is portable. Carried within, it is visible by example and confident without being smug it communicates itself as opportunity allows, and it is disciplined in prayer if it is to go out into the world and survive in it. This is the faith I aspire to, and the direction which I believe is commendable. It is adventurous, expeditionary, militant, and contends with powers and principalities, the objective being the salvation of people's souls.

Freedom from structures

Forward in Faith has made much of its discovery of a new style of episcopacy through the setting up of PEVs who get around and are unencumbered with the geographical diocese and the administrative mill stone which comes with so called "preferment" to diocesan bishop.

As an unbeneficed clerk I must say that I enjoy the freedom which comes with being a chaplain but I am constantly aware of the temptation to seek the solace of the familiar structures of a congregation, a PCC, the parish, the deanery, etc. It's easy at times to want to run for cover when ministering without the props.

But were a service chaplain to hanker after some imitation the traditional church structures, he would be running the risk of losing the unique character of Chaplaincy. Chaplaincy should be in the Church but not so much of the church that it attempts to provide what the wider parish system already provides. Chaplaincy should resist the temptation of setting up a Service alternative for civilians and retired service personnel who choose not to support their parish church.

Personal details

I am able to serve with the Royal Marines and earned the right to wear the Green Beret on completion of Commando Training at the Commando Training Centre at Lympstone in 1993. Since then I have served with Commando Logistic Regiment RM and at the Royal Naval Air Station Culdrose. At present I am the Chaplain to 42 Commando Royal Marines.

The commando training challenged me to make sense of being a priest in a difficult and unfamiliar environment having just left behind three rural parishes where I was the Commanding Officer, so to speak, as vicar with my daily routine of saying the Office, saying Mass, visiting my people, leading school assemblies, attending the worthy round of meetings at various levels and chairing my own.

Upon joining the Royal Navy I was part of an organisation where the chain of command was clear and understood by all. I had swapped a known, although not always comfortable setting, for a completely unknown and physically most uncomfortable one! Joining up had been a long time coming. For I had almost opted out of the parish structure on finishing my curacy, yet decided to give it a bit longer especially with our second child on the way. We had enough going on in our lives without me running off to sea just yet leaving my wife Sarah holding the baby!

I had been brought up an Anglo Catholic from the cradle and it took some working out that the only place real ministry happens was not necessarily in the parish. Old prejudices die hard.

I was also questioned by fellow Christians, priests and lay, as to how I could serve in an organisation which existed to use violence, or which made a credible threat to use it to deter enemies and defend the interests of the State. Did I not feel that this was contrary to the gospel?

My purpose in this article is not to rehearse the Just War arguments, but to let you know and experience and service has informed my thinking. (And no; I have not closed my mind to the questioning process! What I see, hear, and experience in my work denies me such dubious comfort).

The Apostles were told :

"Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost: Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you".

Because of this the Church does not designate anywhere as a "no go" area and the armed services are therefore not off limits to the gospel. Our servicemen and service women need pastoral care as much as anyone else.

I have been blessed with physical fitness and am therefore able to function in physically challenging environments - in the Arctic weather of Norway, saying the Divine Office in a snow hole, or saying Mass under a canvas shelter in the Rain Forest of Guyana. If this is one of the talents granted me to re-invest in the Kingdom of God I am uneasy with the prospect of burying it in the ground and offering it back to God unused when I am called to account for my brief stay on the planet.

Some priests need to be willing to try, in the words of that well-known beer advertisement, to "refresh those parts other priests don't reach"!

It has to be said that the accent is on the words "willing to try". There are chaplains who undertake courses of training so that they can work in areas of service life in which, had they not been adequately trained, they would be a liability to others and themselves. Such training is not to provide a clergy person to do the job already being done, but to give the church access to people, their working and living environment. It allows the chaplain to be part of the team to share in the lives of those entrusted to his care. The motivation behind "willing to try" is not to gain an extra feather in your cap, but must grow from a genuine desire to serve others where they are; and where they are is not likely to be at your church service. Having said that "Royal" and "Jack" are as likely to be as spiritual as anyone else and will ask the most challenging questions and present the most demanding of problems at times of the day not advertised on a church notice board or by prior appointment booked in one's diary!

This was certainly my experience earlier this year when the Amphibious Ready Group sailed from Marseilles just after Easter for Sierra Leone. The ship's chaplain, the Reverend Ian Wheatley and I were embarked aboard HMS OCEAN. We shared the pastoral care between us for the ship's company, the Air Group and the Commando.

It was good to share this responsibility with a priest who I respected and trusted. The passage south was a busy time for all on board and our pastoral friendship and advice was sought by a broad section of people throughout the ship. In an environment where we all live and work closely together, forebear, and enjoy one another's company, it becomes important to know that from time to time there are some things best spoken of privately and in confidence. This is very important in service life and is a great responsibility entrusted to chaplains.

Throughout the passage south, during the time in theatre, and the return journey home, we were often joined by different people for the Daily Office and for the Eucharist in the Ship's Chapel, St. Christopher's.

When I was ashore I became quite adept at celebrating the Eucharist in all sorts of places. On one occasion we had begun the service under a Palm tree when the Heavens opened, so I grabbed the altar ( a field bench ) and got under cover in a tent considerately offered by the occupants for our purpose. While ashore the faithful gathered regularly. Someone remarked that he looked forward to the Sunday worship because it broke the week up and then knew which week it was! Time wise one working day is much the same as any other in the field.

Integrated Prayer

There are of course many examples I could give which show how the church is valued and used in Royal Navy and being on hand is a special privilege.

Just before the Commanding Officer flew ashore with the rest of 42 Commando Royal Marines, he called me to his cabin to pray. I'm glad I followed the advice of my training incumbent to learn a few prayers by heart.

"O Lord, our heavenly Father, Almighty and everlasting God, who hast safely brought us to the beginning of this day; Defend us in the same with thy mighty power, and grant that this day we fall into no sin, neither run into any kind of danger; but that all our doings may be ordered by thy governance, to do always that is righteous in thy sight:"

I gave him God's blessing. We finished and got on with the day.

Drawbacks

I would not wish that readers form the impression that life is all, wonderful for a chaplain. It does have its draw-backs and constraints. Separation is probably the biggest.

I recall a conversation with my wife Sarah before I joined up when I said that my joining the Royal Navy would involve some separation. I remember that she agreed that separation would be hard, but she went on to point out that perhaps it would not be too bad since when I was in the parish I was around but never there, and that when I was there our attempts at routines were constantly frustrated by the phone ringing.

Again, I think of the parable of the Talents and remember that the master, having handed them out goes away. His servants are left alone to get on with it. When away with the Commando or deployed with the ship that is how it is and the feeling of being on one's own is sometimes very powerful indeed despite the constant company.

Congregations are usually small and the music interesting as there is not an abundance of organists. There are however musically talented people around who can be persuaded to help out and so you take what is offered; there is something very important in that. If you are only happy on Sunday with a Sung Mass then forget it.

Being a chaplain requires an appreciation of the constraints of service life. There are forms and traditions to be observed and dress codes to be respected. These can be irritating at times and serve as a constant reminder that a chaplain is part of another organisation besides the church.

It might not always be possible to celebrate the Sunday worship on a Sunday, so 'Sunday' is moved to Monday or a Saturday night. The cap badge of the Royal Navy Chaplaincy Service depicts a fouled anchor superimposed on the Cross. I have used this illustration when speaking to church groups about the role of the Chaplain, to convey that first and foremost comes Christ and the Navy comes second. In practice they closely mesh.

Our daughter and son were five and three when I joined the Navy. They have got used to dad going away although it is not easy saying goodbye when the time comes. Family life soon settles down again during my absence and routines quickly establish themselves. Returning home also requires a degree of readjustment for us all.

Although a demanding lifestyle it is one which has strengthened rather than diminished our family. Now the children are older, Sarah is successfully pursuing a career as a solicitor; a move which probably would not have been possible had we remained in parish ministry.

To be the "Friend and Advisor to all on Board" it is important to appreciate, and take an active part in naval life - to be part of the community. One of the aspects of being a parish priest I enjoyed most was the sense that, as an Anglican I had a civic identity and I was not to be solely concerned for my congregation, but for all in the parish whether they chose to come to church or not. To be "Friend and Advisor to all on Board" sits well with this understanding.

The Armed Forces Chaplaincies are not part of the parish, deanery, and diocesan structure and as such are not covered by the Act of Synod's provisions. Passing the Resolutions is not possible. While priests are permitted to receive the personal pastoral care of the Provincial Episcopal Visitor, PEVs are not at present allowed into Service Establishments to minister to service congregations or celebrate the sacrament of Confirmation.

At present should candidates for Confirmation wish to be presented to the PEV then special arrangements must be made for them to attend a celebration of Confirmation at a parish church outside their worshipping community. Diocesan Bishops and their Suffragans may be invited into Service Establishments, the Bishop to the Forces having been informed.

The recently discussed Blackburn Report which reviewed the working of the Episcopal Ministry Act of Synod has recommended to the General Synod that this discrimination against those who would like to welcome the Provincial Episcopal Visitor into service establishments should cease. I contributed to the report arguing that there should be equality of provision in the Armed Forces for that I believe was the spirit of the Act. It is difficult to see how such a practice could be allowed to continue in the Armed Forces, since the Ministry of Defence is an Equal Opportunities Employer.

I want readers to be aware of how this issue in the wider Church of England has affected the Armed Forces. It is however, important to keep such issues in context and appreciate that the Faith is always bigger than any one issue and that to devote too much of one's heart and energy to one thing denies God the opportunity to direct them elsewhere.

I hope the Church of England will continue to honour its words with actions which allow me as a priest to continue to work with integrity. For now that is as a Chaplain.

 

Simon Berveridge became a Royal Naval Chaplain in 1993

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