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Chaplains in front line for Uniting Church

Defence Force chaplains give their time and energy to minister to Australian forces serving in frontline conflicts. But they don’t necessarily agree with military action.

Such ethical and theological tensions are balanced admirably by the Uniting Church’s 19 full-time defence force chaplains, according to the Rev. Gale Hall.

Mr Hall was speaking during a question and answer session on the work of Assembly agencies on July 7.

“None of us agree with war,” Mr Hall said later to The Daily Word news sheet for the Assembly meeting in Brisbane.

“We all want to live in peace. All the chaplains would want that — and I think most of the service personnel do too.

“They don’t mind doing their duty and going overseas. But there is still that feeling of ‘We wish we didn’t have to do what we have to do.'”

Mr Hall said certain situations exacerbated such ambivalence.

“In the Iraq situation, for example, where the community is divided, that [feeling of] conflict is something the chaplain has to deal with for themselves, as well as for some of the people to whom they minister.

“The whole question of violence and the use of violence, how it is used and when it is used and what is acceptable, is always a question we have got to wrestle with as a church.

“Our chaplains, particularly, have got to wrestle with that because they wrestle with it [in their work] continually.

“When you give a weapon to a Service person, you immediately put that person in a conflict situation — because they now have something [in their hands] that is designed to kill people.

“They have to think about what that means for them. As they ‘battle with that’ the chaplains ‘battle with them’ — trying to support and bring some sense to the situation.”

“Sometimes there is no sense to it,” he said.

At times it was necessary to use violence to stop violence; to stop people killing one another.

“But the ‘how’ and the ‘when’ is always a difficult question,” he said.

Mr Hall said the chaplain to officer ratio was around 1:1000. That number was reduced when troops travelled because more intense support was needed when troops were away.

Two of the Uniting Church’s full-time chaplains are serving overseas indefinitely. John Marshall is on a Navy ship and David Jackson is a chaplain who visits troops in continuing areas of conflict.

Last year, part-time Army chaplain the Rev. Kaye Ronalds provided chaplaincy support to the Regional Assistance Mission to the Solomon Islands (RAMSI).

On July 8 she told the Assembly that one weekend a month for five months she had left her congregation in Central Queensland to visit Australian soldiers in Honiara.

Ms Ronalds said her conversations with soldiers often focused on how they could learn to function without their loved ones and to sustain relationships while they were away.

“At least there were email and telephone facilities for this deployment,” she said.

Ms Ronalds also told the Assembly of an experienced officer who had found the Honiara deployment difficult because his children were now old enough to miss him. His five-year-old asked if his Dad would remember how to find his room.

Ms Ronalds said being deployed in a small Pacific nation made soldiers appreciate the wealth of a society like Australia.

“I could identify with many of the soldiers who expressed some sense of guilt about being wealthy, and how we squander our resources, and then complain and argue about the smallest things.

“Part of my agenda was to make sure that when the soldiers took home their money and their medals they would also take home an adjusted sense of place in the world community.”

Mr Hall said caring for the spiritual needs of people in environments of conflict and war was no easy job. And, despite reservations about having to leave their families or go into areas of conflict, the chaplains were dutiful and loving servants of God, their nation and its people.

“Their loyalty is to their calling to God and to the people they serve.”

Read more about the 11th Assembly HERE.