Services fill up on the front line
How does a chaplain reconcile his faith with serving in the armed forces? Padre Clinton Langston, who has served in Omagh, Bosnia and now a training camp in Staffordshire, explains his calling.
Joining the Army was not an easy decision for me; I did have to go through a lot of soul-searching. But I feel that in this imperfect world of ours, there comes a point when diplomacy fails because people don't listen.
People do hurt others, threaten others, and appealing to their better nature doesn't always work. History reveals that for us. So sometimes people have to be physically stopped. That is why I feel I can serve in the Army. But I appreciate that there are Christians - and people of other faiths - who believe that force is not the answer.
Recently a recruit pointed out that one of the 10 Commandments is 'Thou shalt not kill'; but as I read them out last Sunday I realised that it says 'Thou shalt not murder'. Sometimes the government does give the right to its armed forces to take other people's lives.
My job as a padre - as the Army refers to its priests, chaplains and so on - is not to oil the wheels of war but to help the humanity caught up in it. We do wear fatigues, but the fact that we do not carry weapons is symbolic of our peaceful role.
I carry in my mind this story about a padre in World War II; following the ferocious fighting after D-Day, a British soldier saw this padre coming down the road and realised that was what he was fighting for - to be able to live in peace, to not have to carry a weapon. He saw that padre as an image of peace, an image of home.
Even in peace time - or here, at a training regiment - the Army aims to develop the whole person, so moral and spiritual training is as important as the physical and mental skills needed to be a soldier.
My job is to run services every Sunday as well as courses on the Army's core values - I expect there are recruits who think they must have signed up to train as a monk, not a soldier. So I have to get where they are, to explain why I'm here and how I can help even those who don't believe in God.
Padre Langston jokes with recruits
If nothing else, the church can provide a moment's stillness from the bustle and shouting of the barracks.
It's quiet in here; a recruit can sit and think, or ask me to pray for their loved ones. Some, if they're struggling, might even ask me to pray for help with their map-reading - I can relate to that one, having had to do basic training when I joined up.
The church here at ATR Lichfield is quite unusual in that it's a lovely Victorian era chapel - in my 10 years in the Army I've worked out of a converted garage, a leaky 60s church, even the back of a lorry out in the field.
In Bosnia, it was the shooting gallery in the bombed-out stadium where ice dancers Torvill and Dean won their gold medal in 1984 - the Olympic sign was still clinging to the roof. Because accommodation was so tight, a lot of the American soldiers had to stay there too - during services, the hymns were sometimes interrupted by loud snores.
Just as happened in build-up to the Falklands war, the Army chapels in the Gulf are getting fuller and fuller.
Death is suddenly in sharp focus
For if you're facing the possibility of your own death - and that of friends and colleagues - it can be a time to reflect on the quality of life that you've had, and on questions of faith and spirituality.
It's important that soldiers wrestle with these questions; imagine getting into a situation where you may have to put your life on the line and you've not given it any thought - it's going to cause you no end of anguish.
So it's very important that a chaplain be on hand to provide support and encouragement. It's also a marvellous opportunity to spread the word of God to people who wouldn't otherwise go to church.
Send us your comments:
I served for 12 years in the British Army and much of the time the Padre was a person we tried very hard to stay away from - they always wanted to talk about the difficult things, like life, death, marriage etc. Everything changes when you're catapulted into Northern Ireland, Bosnia, the Falklands or the Gulf war (1 or 2). This is when soldiers FULLY understand that irrespective of what people at home might think about the military, the fact that they do their job means people can feel safe and comfortable. A Padre is a lifeline to reality for soldiers and an absolute necessity.
Nowhere in the gospels is force justified, nowhere is the achievement of peace by the application of force referred to. It was Jesus' insistence on peace and his antipathy to the leadership that lead to his crucifixion. If I as a non-believer can see this, why not a man of God? As well as the New Testament, might I also suggest a dose of Wilfred Owen?
The point of a military chaplain is to demonstrate that no-one and nowhere is "God forsaken". If at Easter Christians recall that Jesus "went to hell and back", sometimes his followers are called to follow him through a valley of shadows and accompany others - in this particular case the military - without passing judgment on whether the action is politically motivated, strategically imperative etc. The chaplain's loyalty has a much more practical base to those he's called to accompany and to God who gave the vocation.
Rodney Cameron, prison chaplain, France
While the use of force is undoubtedly compatible with the Christian tradition (if not gospels), I would be interested in how padres stand in their own moral freedom to decide if they approve of a particular war? The army has a tradition of following orders regardless of personal opinion; the church a tradition of conscientious consideration of whether killing really is the lesser of the evils on offer.
Richard Huzzey, UK
It is simply not true that the gospels are completely against force, only that the individual must not use it for their own ends. The state does have the right to use force in certain situations. This is illustrated emphatically by the conversation that Christ had with the Roman Centurion worried about his occupation. Christ encouraged him to continue but to discharge his soldiering in a Christian manner. This idea of Christianity being completely against war is a very common misconception, even amongst Church-goers such as myself.
Andrew Cadman, UK
I'd just like to add that the padre works with soldiers' partners and children too. Also, padres often tend to the sick and wounded of the other side. When men are seriously ill or dying, they need someone by their side, no matter what the colour of the uniform they wear.
Paul, you're right, the gospels condemn every use of force by individuals on their own behalf. But nowhere do they state that one cannot use force to protect others or contribute to collective efforts to protect others, such as the police or the army. The fact that I must "turn the other cheek" when I am stuck does not mean that I should stand by when others are treated badly.
Michael Lakey, UK
Padres are an essential part of the military, even if one was totally opposed to the war. I believe because of his calling he should still go the theatre of operations to do his job, which is to look after the religious and moral welfare of the troops. Because they are the ones who will face the emotional stresses before, during and after.
David Bell, UK
Jesus didn't mix with people who were problem-free, rather he chose to associate with prostitutes, tax collectors and fishermen - the latter being coarse men. It was them who needed help and guidance. Our soldiers, while not any of the above, are in a situation where they need someone to talk to and to guide them. Would people rather leave this section of society free from spiritual guidance?
As a Christian and ex-soldier I would like to encourage all those who have difficulty reconciling the faith with the need to use force. It is necessary at times and not all killing is murder and nobody, especially a soldier in action, should be made to feel guilty for doing their duty. Peace at any price is not peace worth having: Hitler, Stalin, Saddam, Mugabe.
John Findlay, UK
My father has been a Padre with the Territorial Army for 25 years and he too has spent time in Bosnia. This has given him the opportunity to do "God's work" in a unique and special way - a way in which he might never have had the chance to do otherwise. I am enormously proud of him and all the people in our armed forces. People often forget that they operate in a humanitarian as well as military capacity and in what are often difficult emotional and environmental circumstances.
Definitely a valuable service. Whatever the rights and wrongs, good luck to the padres and servicemen facing conflict in the Gulf in the near future.
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