During the course of this week I spent the day at Aldershot, at the Army Headquarters. For those of you who don't know, and are wondering why a vicar should be hob-nobbing with soldiers, I should point out that by an odd turn of fate I am now a commissioned Officer in Her Majesty's Army - or put another way, the Padre to the Buckinghamshire Army Cadet Force. It was a training day for such men and women as us.
If one were an alien and beamed down to Earth, perchance stopping to note the Anglican Christian blogosphere, one would wonder if the Church had any value or good in it at all. Much vilified in the typed media, it is often delivered as a dead-horse-walking. My visit to Army HQ told me a very different story.
The Brigadier of 145 Brigade (covering a vast swathe of southern England) talked to us about how absolutely crucial the Chaplaincy was, in two ways:
- To the provision of pastoral care and support to the soldiers and their families
- The connection of the Army with the civilian population (for another post)
It is part of the mantra of the Army that is provides a 'Firm Base' to its operations in places such as Afghanistan. It is acknowledged in the language and process of the Army that the chaplaincy is intrinsic to that. This is outworked in a number of ways:
- Padres alongside soldiers on Operations
- Padres caring for families back at base, providing for their pastoral and spiritual needs
- Padres providing a significant volume of the core learning about values during basic training
- A 'firm base' of prayer
- A considerable zeal for mission and evangelism, with some success
- If you want 'undefended leadership' models, the Padres are the only front-line personnel who carry no weapon
For the Army, the church isn't far short of being one of the legs on a stool - a crucial part of the 'whole'. I am new to all of this, but have seen with my own eyes the support and witness that padres (male, female, all denominations) provide to frightened soldiers, triumphant soldiers, soldiers who have lost three limbs in a mine blast, and so on. We visit all 'recovered' personnel at home, regularly, the more obvious provision of funeral rites - but also the joyful matters, the happy times.
Only when the church stands in a place of real adversity, life and death problems, and not the flaccid half-concerns that we worry about so often in our present day, that we become a community of most potent relevance. A soldier will not fight without his/her scriptures in their pocket, or, it seems, without the padre being there upon his/her return. That is a very relevant church. The church of Blog? An Obese Asthmatic with one leg. The church of the field of conflict and defence? Crucial, valued, vital, respected, loved, alive and kicking.
May God bless all the men and women who, this day, are risking their lives to fight for a cause that they didn't choose, having answered a call to do their part. May God bring peace in our time, so that they may be returned safe to their families and loved ones.