Military chaplain

Military chaplain
Catholic Mass in an Austrian military hospital, 1916.

A military chaplain is a chaplain who ministers to soldiers, sailors, airmen, marines and other members of the military. In many countries, chaplains also minister to the family members of military personnel, to civilian noncombatants working for military organizations and to civilians within the military organization's area of operations.

Although the term chaplain originally had Christian roots,[1] it is generally used today in military organizations to describe all professionals specially trained to serve any spiritual need, regardless of religious affiliation. Often, in addition to offering pastoral care to individuals, and supporting their religious rights and needs, military chaplains also advise senior officers on issues of religion, ethics, troop morale and morals, while also increasingly functioning as liaisons to local religious leaders in an effort to understand the role of religion as both a factor in hostility and war and as a force for reconciliation and peace.[2]

Some military's chaplains only work with men and women of their faith group but in many cases chaplains work with military personnel of all faiths, as well as those who claim no faith or religious affiliation. While most military chaplains represent a religion or faith group, some countries, like the Netherlands, also employ humanist chaplains who offer a non-religious approach to chaplain support. Some groups such as the Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers,[3] support the idea of such humanist chaplains in the military, and also work to make all chaplains more sensitive to the needs and rights of those who profess no belief in a god. Others advocate for secular chaplains who have no faith identification but who do have the professional qualifications for the counseling and advisory responsibilities of chaplains.


Nomination, selection, and commissioning

An Orthodox priest administers Holy Communion to a wounded Russian soldier during the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-1905.
Jewish Chaplain (Rabbi) Arnold E. Resnicoff wears a kippa/yarmulke made from a piece of a Catholic chaplain's camouflage uniform after his own head covering had become bloodied when it was used to wipe the face of a wounded Marine during the 1983 Beirut barracks bombing.
Stained glass window, U. S. Pentagon, honoring the Four Chaplains, USAT Dorchester, 1943

In countries where the term "nomination" is applied to candidates for the role of Chaplain, candidates are nominated in different ways in different countries. A military chaplain can be an army-trained soldier with additional theological training or a priest nominated to the army by religious authorities. In the United Kingdom, the Ministry of Defence employs chaplains, but their authority comes from their sending church. Royal Navy chaplains undertake a 16-week bespoke induction and training course, including a short course at Britannia Royal Naval College, and specialist fleet time at sea alongside a more experienced chaplain. Naval Chaplains called to service with the Royal Marines may undertake a gruelling 5-month long Commando Course, and if successful wear the commandos' Green Beret. British Army chaplains undertake seven-weeks training at The Armed Forces Chaplaincy Centre Amport House and The Royal Military Academy Sandhurst. Royal Air Force chaplains must complete 12 weeks Specialist Entrant course at the RAF College Cranwell followed by a Chaplains' Induction Course at Armed Forces Chaplaincy Centre Amport House of a further 2 weeks.

In the United States, the term, nomination, is not generally applied to the process of becoming a military chaplain. Individuals volunteer, and if they are accepted, they are commissioned as military staff officers in the Chaplain Corps. Members of the clergy who meet the qualifications for service as an officer in the military are free to apply for service with any of the three United States Chaplain Corps: the Army, Navy, and Air Force each has a Chaplain Corps, with Navy chaplains also assigned to serve with Marine Corps units, Coast Guard units, and the Merchant Marine Academy. Some clergy, like rabbis, can apply without permission from any individual or organization within their faith group; others, in faith groups that have a hierarchy established to make decisions on the postings or positions of their members, must be granted permission from the appropriate official, such as the appropriate Bishop. As the application process proceeds, and the military determines whether the applicant will meet standards in areas such as health, physical fitness, age, education, citizenship, past criminal history, and suitability for service, which includes supporting the free exercise of religion for men and women of all faiths, an endorsement from an endorsing agency that is recognized by the Department of Defense, representing one or more faith groups in the United States, will be required, in part to ensure that the separation of church and state is honored. Neither the government as a whole nor the military in particular will be put into the position of determining whether an individual is a bona fide priest, minister, rabbi, imam, etc. (The requirement for such an endorsement has been in force since 1901, and today many of the various religious endorsing agencies work together under such non-governmental voluntary umbrella groups as the National Conference on Ministry to the Armed Forces.) Although ordination is normally required for chaplain service, some "equivalent" status is accepted for individuals from religious groups which do not have ordination, such as the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (Mormons) or the Church of Christ. Additionally, in cases where an endorsing agency is not yet established for an individual's religion, it is possible for him or her to be endorsed by the endorsing agency of another group, a process which was followed for the first Muslim chaplains in the military. In any event, this endorsement is recognized as necessary, but not sufficient for acceptance as a chaplain: in other words, the military will not accept an individual for service as a chaplain, nor allow him or her to continue to serve, without such an endorsement remaining in force; however, the decision as to whether to accept that individual remains with the military service, and the individual can be rejected for a number of reasons, including the needs of the military, even with the endorsement of an endorsing agency.

Noncombatant status

The Geneva Conventions are silent on whether chaplains may bear arms. However, the Conventions do state (Protocol I, 8 June 1977, Art 43.2) that chaplains are noncombatants: they do not have the right to participate directly in hostilities.

It is generally assumed that during WWII chaplains were unarmed.[by whom?] Crosby describes an incident where a US chaplain became a trained tank gunner and was removed from the military for this "entirely illegal, not to mention imprudent" action (1994, pxxi). At least some UK WWII chaplains serving in the Far East, however, were armed: George MacDonald Fraser recalls (1995, p109) "the tall figure of the battalion chaplain, swinging along good style with his .38 on his hip" immediately behind the lead platoon during a battalion attack. Fraser asks "if the padre shot [an enemy], what would the harvest be ... apart from three ringing cheers from the whole battalion?" (1995, p110).

In recent years both the UK and US have required chaplains, but not medical personnel, to be unarmed in combat, although the US does not prohibit chaplains from earning marksmanship awards or participating in marksmanship competitions.[4] Other nations, notably Norway, Denmark and Sweden, make it an issue of individual conscience. There are anecdotal accounts that even US and UK chaplains have at least occasionally unofficially borne weapons: Chaplain (then Captain) James D. Johnson, of the 9th Infantry Division, Mobile Riverine Force in Vietnam describes (Combat Chaplain: A Thirty-Year Vietnam Battle) carrying the M-16 rifle while embedded with a combat patrol. Since 1909 US Chaplains on operations have been accompanied by an armed 'Chaplain Assistant'.[5] However, perhaps on this occasion it was felt that an unarmed uniformed man would draw unwelcome attention.

Captured chaplains are not considered prisoners of war (Third Convention, 12 August 1949, Chapter IV Art 33) and must be returned to their home nation unless retained to minister to prisoners of war.

Inevitably, serving chaplains have died in action, sometimes in significant numbers. The U.S. Army and Marines lost 100 chaplains killed in action during WWII: the third highest casualty rate behind the infantry and the Army Air Corps (Crosby, 1994, pxxiii). Many have been decorated for bravery in action (five have won Britain's highest award for gallantry, the Victoria Cross). The Chaplain's Medal for Heroism is a special U.S. military decoration given to military chaplains who have been killed in the line of duty, although it has to date only been awarded to the famous Four Chaplains, all of whom died in the USAT Dorchester sinking in 1943 after giving up their lifejackets to others.

Badges and insignia

The Latin Cross of the U.S. Navy Chaplain Corps
The Tablets and Jewish Star of the U.S. Navy Chaplain Corps (in 1981 the Roman Numerals used to represent the Ten Commandments were replaced with Hebrew letters).
The Crescent of the U.S. Navy Chaplain Corps

Military Chaplains are normally accorded officer status, although Sierra Leone had a Naval Lance Corporal chaplain in 2001. In most navies, their badges and insignia do not differentiate their levels of responsibility and status. By contrast, in Air Forces and Armies, they typically carry ranks and are differentiated by crosses or other equivalent religious insignia. However, United States military chaplains in every branch carry both rank and Chaplain Corps insignia.

Chaplain's badges and insignia follow this general pattern (taken from the Royal Australian Navy):

  • A gilt cross is worn by chaplains of all Christian denominations and worn in the same manner as specialist badges.
  • A chaplain’s cap badge is of the same design as an officer’s cap badge except that the laurel leaves are embroidered in black silk, edged and veined in gold. The peak of the cap is covered with black cloth.
  • A clerical collar stock and/or black military style clerical shirt may be worn instead of white shirt and tie (including dress shirt and bow tie for evening wear.)
  • The badge worn by chaplains on shoulder boards consists of a gold embroidered foul anchor on a Maltese cross of embroidered silver. This is similar, in embroidery, for soft rank insignia for shirts.
  • Honorary Chaplains to the Sovereign wear a red cassock and a special bronze badge consisting of the Royal Cypher and crown within an oval wreath. The badge is worn above medal ribbons or miniature medals during the conduct of religious services. On the left side of the scarf by chaplains, who wear the scarf and on academic or ordinary clerical dress by other chaplains.
  • Royal Navy Chaplains had no uniform until WWII when Churchill was allegedly concerned about German spies dressed as clergy entering Dockyards. Chaplains still enjoy the privilege of wearing a clerical suit as their uniform: it is in general Anglican chaplains serving ashore other than with the Royal Marines who use this right. Commando trained chaplains wear a small badge depicting a gold commando dagger on the right sleeve of mess dress and No 1 uniforms.

In addition to badges and insignias for individual chaplains, certain nations, including the United States, fly a Church or Worship Pennant during the time a chaplain leads a religious worship service, especially on ships at sea. On United States Navy ships it is the only pennant that flies above the United States flag.

Recently the Army[specify] cessioned the first Buddhist Chaplain. The insignia for the Buddhist faith is the "Dharma Wheel."

Expanding role of military chaplains

Beginning with United States and NATO involvement in Bosnia and Kosovo, some military commands began to understand the potential to use military chaplains as liaisons to religious leaders as part of the process of engagement, building ties and strengthening relationships with leaders in other nations that could promote understanding. Some key American chaplains began to speak and write about the fact that Americans often want to avoid involvement with religious issues because it is something "personal,"[citation needed] but that approach ignores the fact that religion often matters greatly to the combatants, and therefore could also be a force for understanding and peace.[citation needed] This was especially true in nations where religious leaders had close ties or even official links to government leaders, or where religion itself had an official place in national policies—such as in Lebanon, where the official census determined the "confessional balance" of national officials (that is, the percentage of the population that represented one religion determined the percentage of officials of that religion in the government). One early example were the efforts of the Command Chaplain for the U.S. European Command:[6][Full citation needed]

With the NATO Kosovo war over in Kosovo and the rebuilding process begun, one high-ranking U.S. Navy officer wants to try and avoid future ethnic conflicts with the help of military chaplains. Rabbi Arnold E. Resnicoff, chaplain on the staff of Gen. Wesley K. Clark, the commander in chief of the U.S. European Command, is pushing an initiative to include chaplains from all faiths in military decisions to prevent violence and, if that fails, in the healing process. "We all know that religion can play a role in conflict, and has been used to fan the flames of hatred during a conflict," Resnicoff says. "We must investigate ways that religion can also play a role in conflict resolution and reconciliation." To that end, the soft-spoken Conservative rabbi says NATO chaplains should have a greater role in supporting Allied troops with personal moral conflicts, and in reducing misunderstandings about foreign religious beliefs. He says it is important to move fast and establish regional cooperative programs in such potential hot spots as Eastern Europe and South Africa "so that we are ahead of the power curve before another Kosovo explodes." Capt. Resnicoff says American military leaders have come a long way in understanding other religious cultures since the UN shot at a minaret in Gaza in 1957, "because unfamiliarity with the call to prayer made them think it might be a 'call to revolt.' "But we are not yet at the stage where we can use the stories from other cultures as opportunities to show understanding and respect in a way that can strengthen relationships and create opportunities for progress. "There are still large pockets in our knowledge, which the chaplain can help fill in through staff work and advice." Resnicoff also believes chaplains can become bridges to suspicious ethnic civilians wary of foreign troops. "Again and again I see that civilians ... who are still mistrustful of the military, respond in a much more positive way to chaplains." He notes that British chaplains tell him that chaplains even cross religious and political lines more easily than others in the supercharged atmosphere of Northern Ireland. The rabbi is traveling around the globe trying to gain support for the proposal.[citation needed]

Chief of Chaplains/Chaplain General

Military chaplains are often supervised by a Chaplain General or Chief of Chaplains, on the staff of the leader of the nation's military forces. In some countries, like Israel, Canada, and South Africa, one Chief of Chaplains/Chaplain General serves in that position for all chaplains of all religions, in all branches of the military.[citation needed] In many other countries, such as France, there is a separate Chaplain General/Chief of Chaplains for each faith group represented by chaplains.[citation needed] In other countries, like the United States, there is one Chaplain General/Chief of Chaplains for each branch of the military. So, for example, in the United States, there is an Army, Navy, and Air Force Chief of Chaplains. They meet on as representatives to the Armed Forces Chaplains Board,[7] to discuss issues that cross service lines, but each reports as a staff officer of his or her service, to the Chief of Staff of the Army or Air Force, or the Chief of Naval Operations of the Navy. (In the U.S., Navy chaplains serve Navy, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard personnel, with Navy chaplains also assigned to the Merchant Marine Academy, for Merchant Marine personnel.)

Annual International Military Chiefs of Chaplains Conference

In February 1990, the United States European Command (USEUCOM) convened and hosted a NATO Chiefs of Chaplains Conference, in Stuttgart, Federal Republic of Germany.[8] In 1991, a second conference took place in Church House, British Army of the Rhine, Lubbecke, Federal Republic of Germany. During its discussions, the conference title was changed to the North America/European Chiefs of Chaplains Conference. Participants also discussed the possibility of expanding the forum to include countries from the former Warsaw Pact.[8] The following year, in February 1992, the conference was held for the first time in a location outside of Germany, taking place in Rome, Italy. The conference was co-sponsored by USEUCOM and the Italian Ministry of Defense. Co-sponsorship by USEUCOM and the Ministry of Defense of the conference host nation became the model for future conferences. Additionally, the conference title was changed to the “International Military Chiefs of Chaplains Conference".[8]

In later years, the conference further expanded, to include chiefs of chaplains from other nations within the USEUCOM Area of Responsibility, an area that included many nations in Africa before the establishment of the United States Africa Command (USAFRICOM). Eventually, any chief of chaplains (or chaplain general, an equivalent term used by many nations) was welcomed from any nation's military, and the conference soon included participants from countries as far away from the USEUCOM headquarters as Australia and South Korea. Additionally, some nations that did not have military chaplains began to send representatives involved with issues of religion for military personnel—and in some cases, this participation helped lead to the establishment of that nation's chaplaincy. In 1997, the conference name was once again changed, to the "International Military Chiefs of Chaplains Conference", its current title.[citation needed]

At the 1999 Military Chiefs of Chaplains Conference, outside Vienna, Austria, more than 90 chaplains from 33 nations discussed the possibility of a chaplains council for NATO.[2]

Because not all nations were represented, the Chaplain General of the South African National Defence Force (SANDF), Brigadier General M. Cornelissen—on behalf of the Chief of SANDF—proposed to co-host the first International Military Chiefs of Chaplains Conference in Cape Town, South Africa.[8]

The 2009 International Chiefs of Chaplains Conference was held in Cape Town, South Africa,[8] the first time the conference was held outside of Europe.[citation needed]

Some nations participating in these conferences have one chief of chaplains or chaplain general, as is the case in Canada and South Africa. Other nations, including the United States, have one chief of chaplains for each branch of the military armed forces;[9] In many other nations, one chief of chaplains is designated for each major religion or faith group represented by a significant number of their military personnel.

Church and Faith Group organization

Roman Catholic Church

Monument to Father Francis P. Duffy in Times Square (click for obverse text)

Roman Catholic chaplains are generally organized into military ordinariates, such as the Archdiocese for the Military Services, USA. Potential Roman Catholic chaplains must seek permission from their diocesan bishop or religious superior to serve as a military chaplain. While serving as a chaplain, the priest or deacon remains incardinated in his home diocese, but is temporarily under the direction of the prelate of the ordinariate for the duration of his service.

Protestant denominations

Each of the various Protestant Christian denominations may set its own requirements for certification as a minister.[10]

Military chaplains by country


Army and Air Force

Chaplains in the Australian Defence Force (ADF) have almost the same status as chaplains in the British armed services. Chaplains in the Australian Army and Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) are commissioned officers and wear the uniform of officers of their particular branch of the services as well as the rank to which they are qualified. Chaplains in the Australian Army and the Royal Australian Air Force begin their commission as a Captain (Army) or Flight Lieutenant (RAAF) respectively. There are five levels or "divisions" for the seniority of chaplains in the Australian Army and Air Force with each division corresponding to a worn rank. The highest "division" is Division 5 who are "Principal Chaplains," of which there are three per service representing the three major Christian denominations: Catholic, Anglican and Protestant. The Principal Chaplains of the Army wear the rank of Brigadier and in the RAAF, Air Commodore. Australian Army chaplains, whatever their rank, are mostly referred to as "Padre" by officers and soldiers alike. The title is also widely used in the RAAF for their chaplains.


See: Royal Australian Navy#Chaplains

Like chaplains in the Australian Army and RAAF, Royal Australian Navy (RAN) chaplains are commissioned officers and wear the uniform of an RAN officer, but like chaplains in the British Royal Navy (RN) they do not wear a rank. Rather they wear the same cross and anchor emblem worn by RN chaplains on their shoulder rank slides and do not have gold braided rings or executive loops on their winter sleeve coat or summer shoulder boards. Like other chaplains in the ADF, Navy chaplains have five divisions of seniority. Interestingly, whilst Australian Navy chaplains do not wear rank, they are accorded a certain rank for protocol and ceremonial occasions and for saluting purposes. Division 1, 2 and 3 Australian Navy chaplains are accorded the rank and status as Commander (Lieutenant Colonel equivalent in the Australian Army). Division 4 Australian Navy chaplains are accorded the rank and status of Captain (equiv. of Colonel). Division 5 Australian Navy chaplains are "Principal Chaplains," and these three chaplains, representing the three major Christian denominations: Catholic, Anglican and Protestant, are accorded the rank and status of Commodore. The title "Padre" for chaplains is less common and not officially encouraged in the Royal Australian Navy, although it is known to be used by some sailors and Navy chaplains in preference to the more formal title of "Chaplain" or form of address towards an officer such as "Sir." Like British Royal Navy chaplains, Royal Australian Navy chaplains wear a slightly different peaked cap to other Navy officers which apparently was designed by Winston Churchill.

Heads of Denominations

In the Australian Defence Force (ADF), the heads of military chaplaincy for those Christian denominations and of the Jewish faith that have an official association with the ADF, are also members of the ADF's "Religious Advisory Committee" (RAC). With respect to the Catholic and Anglican churches, their Bishops are members of RAC and they and the other members of RAC have the status of a two star General (US) or Major General (Australian Army), or Rear Admiral (RAN) or Air Vice-Marshal (RAAF).



During the Middle Ages, the relic of Saint Martin’s cloak, (cappa Sancti Martini), one of the most sacred relics of the Frankish kings, would be carried everywhere the king went, even into battle, as a holy relic upon which oaths were sworn. The priest who cared for the cloak in its reliquary was called a cappellanu, and ultimately all priests who served the military were called cappellani. The French translation is chapelains, which is where the English word, chaplain derives from.[11]

Saint Louis was the king who gave legal status to the military almoners, since chaplains supporting their lord into crusades were the first to be militarized. In 1531, during the Battle of Cappel, the Swiss reformist, Huldrych Zwingli, became the very first Protestant military almoner to be killed in a battlefield.

The actual French Aumônerie Militaire (military almonry) status is based on the July 8th, 1880 law, which involves the Catholic, Protestant and Jewish faiths. The 1905 laicity law, definitely rejecting religion out of the French Republic, exceptionally, doesn't apply to the army. The Minister of Defence names three Chief-Staff-linked military almoners - one per faith - in charge of all chaplains. The chaplains, serving in the army, are named by one of these three military almoners. The first Muslim Chaplain-General, Abdelkader Arbi, was commissioned in 2006.1

French military chaplains wear a uniform, since World War II, but don't have any rank nor rank insignia. The modern military almonry is rooted in WWII, where military chaplains were incorporated in almost every Free French Forces fighting units and made of personnel coming from either Metropolitan France, England or from the French Empire. After the war, military almoners where sent to occupation zones in Germany and Austria.

In the 1950s, military almoners where sent in the French Union's territories, including Indochina and Algeria. In 1954, pastor Tissot was one of the last paratrooper volunteers to jump over the besieged Dien Bien Phu fortified camp in northern Vietnam. On May 7, he was made prisoner of the Viet Minh and sent to a re-education camp, deep in the jungle.

Since 1984, French military chaplains are involved in every military operations - including the Gulf War - from Rapid Reaction Force (Force d'Action Rapide) units to navy ships.

In France, the existence of military chaplains has come under debate because of the separation of Church and State; however, their position has been maintained as of 2004.[5]


Rabbi Shlomo Goren, Chief Military Rabbi for the Israel Defense Force, and later, Ashkenazic Chief Rabbi of Israel

The Military Rabbinate is a unit in the Israel Defense Forces that provides religious services for military personnel, Jewish and non-Jewish, and makes decisions on issues of religion and military affairs. The Military Rabbinate is headed by the Chief Military Rabbi, who carries the rank of a Brigadier General.

The Military Rabbinate constitutes the body responsible for religious institutions in the military. In every unit or military base there are Military Rabbinate military personnel assigned responsibility for conducting or coordinating religious services, overseeing the kosher operation of the kitchen, and the maintenance of the synagogue and religious supplies. Actively serving military personnel can request Military Rabbinate representatives to perform marriage ceremonies and brit mila, circumcision ceremonies, for babies. The unit also oversees the legal and religious certification of marriages and divorces of individuals during their military service.

The Military Rabbinate is responsible for treating the bodies of soldiers in accordance with religious law, including the identifications and post-mortem treatment of bodies, and conducting military funerals. The Military Rabbinate also coordinates the burial of enemy soldiers and the exhuming of bodies in conjunction with prisoner exchanges.

The Military Rabbinate was founded in 1948 by Rabbi Shlomo Goren, who headed it until 1968.

South Africa

Prior to 1968, chaplains wore badges of rank as commissioned officers.[12]

Since 1968, however, all Chaplains have been senior officers and accorded the protocol status of Colonel / Captain (Navy). They carry the military rank of Chaplain and the rank insignia, which is unique to the Chaplains Service, comprises a Chi-Rho monogramme[13] surrounded by a triangle. The monogramme represents the first three letters of Christ in Greek. It originates from the days of Constantine, the first Emperor of Rome to grant religious freedom to Christians. His own conversion to the Christian faith was initiated by a dream in which the Chi-Rho monogramme appeared to him. The triangle surrounding the monogramme is the symbolic representation of the Holy Trinity.

During the vision of the monogramme, Constantine heard the Latin words in hoc signo vinces. The English translation of these Latin words is: "In this sign, you will conquer". This is the motto of the Chaplains Service and forms part of the Corps Badge.

In 1998, after working as Chaplain General in Exile for the ANC, the African National Congress, during the fight against apartheid, Fumanekile Gqiba was appointed as the first black Chaplain General for SANDF, the South African National Defense Force. In 2004, Major General Gqiba left the military to accept his appointment as South African Ambassador to Israel.

In the SANDF Chaplain Service, the Hindu faith is represented by a Regular Force chaplain. The rank is Cpln (Vipra) and the mode of address Vipra. The rank insignia is a deepa (lamp) with flame. This is the symbolic representation of enlightenment, the life objective of all Hindus.

The Muslims do not have Regular Force chaplains in the SANDF because they are small in number. They are however served by part time workers through the Chaplains Service of the SANDF and are addressed according to their religious customs as imams.

Christian chaplains are generally referred to and addressed as Padre. They may however, be addressed according to the practice of their religious bodies e.g., Father, Pastor, Umfundisi (Zulu and Xhosa), Moruti (Sotho), Dominee (Afrikaans) etc. The official written form of address is Cpln (for Chaplain) followed by the appropriate ecclesiastical title of the respective chaplain e.g., Cpln (Rev), Cpln (Fr), Cpln (Pastor), Cpln, etc.[14]

Along with chaplains from many other nations in the southern region of the continent of Africa, South African chaplains participate in SARMCA, the South Africa Regional Military Chaplains Association, which is a component organization of SADC, the Southern African Development Community.


United Kingdom

Cap Badge of the Royal Army Chaplains' Department

The first English military-oriented chaplains were priests on board proto-naval vessels during the eighth century A.D. Land based chaplains appeared during the reign of King Edward I, although their duties included jobs that today would come under the jurisdiction of military engineers and medical officers. A priest attached to a feudal noble household would follow his liege lord into battle. In 1796 the Parliament of Great Britain passed a Royal Warrant that established the Army Chaplains' Department in the British Army. The Department was awarded its "Royal" prefix in 1919 in recognition of their Chaplains' service during World War I.

The current form of military chaplain dates from the era of the First World War. A chaplain provides spiritual and pastoral support for service personnel, including the conduct of religious services at sea or in the field. In the Royal Navy chaplains are traditionally addressed by their Christian name, or with one of many nicknames (Bish; Sin-Bosun; Devil Dodger; Sky-Pilot etc.). In the British Army and Royal Air Force, chaplains are traditionally referred to (and addressed) as padre or as Sir/Ma'am (although not the latter in the RAF).

In the Royal Navy chaplains have no rank other than "chaplain" while in the British Army they hold commissioned executive rank. On the foundation of the Royal Air Force Chaplains' Branch an attempt was made to amalgamate these differing systems creating "Relative Rank", where rank is worn but without executive authority. In practice chaplains of all three services work in similar ways using what influence and authority they have on behalf of those who consult them or seek their advice.

During World War II the head of Chaplaincy in the British Army was an (Anglican) Chaplain-General, (a Major-General), who was formally under the control of the Permanent Under-Secretary of State.[15] An Assistant Chaplain-General was a Chaplain 1st class (full Colonel) and a senior Chaplain was a Chaplain 2nd class (Lieutenant Colonel).[16]

All chaplains are commissioned officers and wear uniform. British Army and Royal Air Force chaplains bear ranks and wear rank insignia, but Royal Navy chaplains do not, wearing a cross and a special version of the officers' cap badge as their only insignia.

Chaplains in the armed forces were previously all Christian or Jewish. The first Jewish chaplain was appointed in 1892 and some 20 to 30 were commissioned during World War II.[17] In recent times, the Ministry of Defence (MoD) has employed only Christian chaplains, with the Jewish community providing an honorary chaplain under long-standing arrangements, although Jewish chaplains have served in the Territorial Army. In October 2005 the Ministry of Defence appointed four chaplains to the military; one each from the Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim and Sikh faith communities.[18] The Museum of Army Chaplaincy holds information and archive material relating to the history of the Army Chaplains' Department.

In the era before call signs the radio "appointment title" for the Padre was "Sky pilot".

United States

A Roman Catholic army chaplain celebrating a Mass for Union soldiers and officers during the American Civil War (1861-1865).

In the United States, military chaplains have a military officer's rank based on their years of service and promotion selection amongst their peers. They are identified in uniform by both their rank and religious symbol insignias which serve for example in the US Army as 'branch insignia'. See United States Military Chaplains Association. They also are the oldest branch in the U.S. military to be in uniform, dating back to the Revolutionary War.[citation needed]

Military chaplains must be endorsed by a religious organization in order to serve on active duty. This religious endorsement must be maintained throughout the chaplain's military service and can be withdrawn at any time for religious or disciplinary reasons by the religious body with which the chaplain is affiliated.[19][20]

There is an exception to withdrawal of endorsement at "any time". When a chaplain notifies his or her endorsing agent in writing of intent to seek endorsement in a different faith group, the code of ethics of the National Conference on Ministry to the Armed Forces (NCMAF) - the principal organization of endorsing agents - requires the chaplain's current endorser to continue endorsement until the chaplain is able to meet requirements for endorsement by the gaining faith group. The endorsing agent is not required to continue endorsement in this situation if there is a moral charge against the chaplain that would otherwise have resulted in revocation of endorsement.[21][22]

In the contemporary US military, endorsement is a complex area and many different paths are available.

U.S. Armed Forces uniforms, badges, and insignia

The U.S. Chaplain Corps insignias for Christian, Muslim, and Jewish chaplains can be seen on the arms of three U.S. Navy chaplains.

Chaplains serving in the U.S. Armed Forces wear the uniform of their respective branch of service, and normally only wear clerical attire during the performance of a religious service. The position of rank and chaplain faith group insignia varies in each military department and may vary significantly from one type of uniform to the another within a military department.

On Army Combat Uniforms (ACUs) chaplains wear their rank in the center of the chest. Their distinctive faith group insignia is centered over the name tapes on the right breast of the ACU coat. The distinctive faith group insignia is also centered on the front of the cap. On dress uniform jackets, rank is worn on both shoulders and faith group insignia on both lapels of the jacket. On dress uniform shirts, rank is worn on both shoulders and faith group insignia is centered over the left shirt pocket.[23][24]

On Air Force dress uniform shirts, rank is worn on both shoulders and chaplain corps insignia is centered over the left shirt pocket. On dress uniform jackets, rank is worn on both shoulders and chaplain corps insignia is worn over the left breast pocket.

Chaplains do not wear the ceremonial officer's sword nor do they carry or wear firearms in combat or the normal course of duty (although they may take part in range fire and marksmanship competitions at their discretion). In the U.S. Navy, Chaplain Corps officers also do not qualify for or wear warfare pins (with the exception of the Fleet Marine Force Pin minus crossed rifles), unless these were earned prior to the servicemember becoming a chaplain. Many chaplains are assigned a chaplain's assistant who, among other mainly administrative responsibilities, is required to maintain service qualifications with a primary weapon and at times serves as the chaplain's bodyguard while in hazardous areas.

Controversies within the military

A chaplain's religious beliefs and practices sometimes conflict with military regulations, policies, and procedures.

In January 1991 Lieutenant Colonel Garland Robertson, a US Air Force chaplain during Operation Desert Shield, wrote to the Abilene Reporter-News, asserting that "... the American people are not united in their decision to support a military offensive against the aggression of Saddam Hussein in Kuwait." [6] Robertson was investigated by Air Force psychologists and relieved of his pastoral duties. According to Robertson, a visiting officer from the Chief of Chaplains office "indicated that compromise was essential for becoming a successful military chaplain," and that "if Jesus had been an Air Force chaplain ... he would have been court-martialled."[25] (But, it is not clear that the actions taken against Lt. Col. Robertson were taken based on his position as a chaplain, rather than because of his actions as an officer who wrote a letter to a newspaper without prior approval from his chain of command.)

Jewish Worship Pennant, flying over the National Ensign (American flag) on a U.S. Navy ship.

US Navy Chaplain Lieutenant Gordon Klingenschmitt was reprimanded and fined [7] during a September 14, 2006 court martial for wearing his uniform at a protest in March 2006 held by Roy Moore, after having been given a direct order not to wear his uniform. (Military policies allowed participation in such events by military personnel, so long as they did not wear uniforms or appear to be in attendance in a way that gave the appearance of endorsement by the military). Klingenschmitt was released from the Navy in March 2007. He had been battling military policies that he considered to be an infringement of the rights of every chaplain to "conduct public worship according to the manner and forms of the church of which he is a member." [8] The disagreement centered on prayers in public programs and ceremonies, as opposed to religious worship services. During the latter, chaplains normally pray according to the traditions of their faith groups. In non-religious ceremonies, programs are crafted to include a non-denominational or "non-sectarian" prayer, and chaplains are allowed to refrain from participation if they are not comfortable offering such a prayer.

Some have sensed an effort upon the part of the United States military to put pressure upon chaplains to promote universalism, even if their personal religious beliefs and affiliation do not endorse this. [9] In 2005 the U.S. Air Force published an article on its official website promoting universalism.[10] On the other hand, many military leaders, including senior chaplains,[vague] have taken the position that we must respect the rights of others to their beliefs , without respecting the rightness (or truth) of their beliefs,[citation needed] which is a different position than universalism. Chaplains in the United States, like all U.S. military officers, take an oath to protect and defend the constitution, which includes the right of religious free exercise. Chaplains are expected to support the rights of personnel of all faiths to their "free exercise of religion," while maintaining their own personal right to disagree with the beliefs of others. Such a philosophy is more akin to pluralism than universalism, and, many argue,[who?] part of the democratic tradition of defending the rights of others.

Numerous complaints have been waged against Chaplains for mandatory prayers, coercion, and using government money to promote Evangelical Christianity.[26][27][28][29][30] Atheists, whose religious position would not be represented by references to a generic God or the amorphic "spiritual fitness" initiatives in the Army, have created groups to ensure the separation of Church and State in the military.[31][32] Moreover, groups representing atheists have even pushed for the appointment of one of their own to the chaplaincy.[33]

Criticism of employing chaplains in the U.S. Armed Forces and Congress

At the New York Public Library in May 2007, Christopher Hitchens debated the Reverend Al Sharpton on the issue of theism and anti-theism. During the question and answer period which followed the debate, a question was posed by a male audience member in which the interlocutor mentioned that his brother-in-law was a U.S. Air Force Chaplain. In responding to the man's larger question, Hitchens first responded,

Well, at the risk of being callous...I don't think that we should be paying for Chaplains...I don't think that the U.S. Government should be employing any. James Madison, co-author of the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom and of the First Amendment was very adamant on the point, and very clear; there shouldn't's flat-out unconstitutional to pay or to employ a Chaplain to oversee the proceedings of Congress or to be in the Armed Forces. We can't have Chaplains on our payroll, that's that.[34]

Mr. Hitchens is not the first person to challenge military chaplains. This issue has been the subject of extensive litigation in the past, most notably in 1986 with Katcoff vs. Marsh. The suit was brought in 1979 by two Harvard law students (neither of whom had served in the military) who argued that military chaplains should be replaced with non combat volunteers or contractors. In Katcoff v. Marsh,[35] the courts upheld the right of the military to employ chaplains. This case is the subject of a 2006-2007 University of Toledo Law Review article (Vol. 38) by Richard D. Rosen.[36] One key idea, as stated by Rosen, is "if Congress did not establish an Army chaplaincy, it would deny soldiers the right to exercise their religion freely, particularly given the mobile and deployable nature of the nation’s armed forces."[citation needed] Any religious group that were presented with the cost of keeping a minister in the field, prepared to deploy with an army unit at a moment's notice, and provide for their physical safety and security in modern combat, plus transportation costs, would almost certainly balk at the cost. At best, this would mean only the largest, and wealthiest churches, could send ministers. Another key idea is that the "free expression" clause and the "establishment" clause of the first amendment regarding religion are separate issues. If churches were required to field their own chaplains it would, as Rosen and the court decided, mean denying the soldiers "free expression" of their faith, and, in effect, deny soldiers access to, or opportunity, to practice their faith and infringing on their religious freedoms. The "free exercise" clause has largely become the primary reason chaplains exist. "[T]he Supreme Court has seemingly given the Free Exercise Clause – upon which the military chaplaincy is now largely justified – a preferred position in our constitutional order" (Rosen 1144-1145). In Rosen's conclusion to the law review article it neatly[citation needed] summarizes the current legal and constitutional environment in which chaplains work (Rosen p. 1178):

Ultimately, the price of maintaining a military chaplaincy is strict and abiding adherence to the dictates of the Establishment Clause; specifically:
  • Military officials must fully accommodate the rights of service members to believe or not to believe in any particular religious doctrine (or even a Deity).
  • Military officials must ensure that service members are neither punished for their beliefs nor subjected to unwanted proselytizing or evangelizing from military chaplains or senior officers and noncommissioned officers, even if the proselytizing or evangelizing is intended as a good-faith effort to salvage the spiritual health of the service members.
  • Military officials may not subject members of the armed forces to involuntary worship or prayers, particularly when the full power of the government backed by punitive action under the UCMJ is employed to command their presence and participation.
  • Except when good order and military discipline are threatened, military officials may not discriminate against any particular religious sect or denomination, especially based upon the belief system of the sect or denomination.
While confirming the constitutional foundation for the existence of the military chaplaincy, the Katcoff decision neither immunized the armed forces from Establishment Clause scrutiny nor did it give the military leadership a blank check to administer the chaplaincy or religious practices in the armed forces without regard to the Establishment Clause. Military officials must always endeavor to ensure that they do not squander public and judicial support for the chaplaincy program by ignoring the constitutional boundaries governing the program’s administration and operations.

The Katcoff case partially fell apart due to "lack of standing" of the Harvard students regarding certain aspects of the case. In the Katcoff decision, the door was left open for a servicemember to challenge the constitutionality of the U.S. military chaplaincy based upon "standing" (and, of course, grounds) to do so. For example, there are some religious faiths that do not fully respect the value the civil law places on (civil ceremony) marriage regarding members of their faith community who fall within a characterization of such "constraints". Members of some religious faiths are encouraged to practice partial or complete "shunning" in some cases. When military chaplains, including chaplains of such faith groups, become immersed in boundary issues, the constitutionality of their actions, and of the institutionalized US military chaplaincy, can be called into question.

U.S. military chaplain deaths

Death during service

War Number of Death[37]
Revolutionary War 25
War of 1812 1
Mexican War 1
Civil War (Union) 117
Civil War (Confederacy) 41
World War I 23
World War II 182
Korean War 13
Vietnam War 15
Iraq/Afghan 1 (by September 2010)

Picture gallery

See also


  1. ^ Hugh H. Morgan, The Etymology of the Word Chaplain. International Pentecostal Holiness Church. Retrieved 2010-09-09.
  2. ^ a b Jane Lampman, Taking faith to the 'new' front lines: In all the hot spots - yet rarely mentioned - military chaplains are some of today's unsung heroes (role of chaplains in multinational operations). The Christian Science Monitor, March 4, 1999. Retrieved 2010-09-09.
  3. ^ Chaplain Outreach. Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers (MAAF) website. Retrieved 2010-09-09.
  4. ^ Chaplain Fisher, of the 167th Support Group (Corps), for example, served on the 94th Army Reserve Command's marksmanship team and earned the Distinguished Shooter Badge
  5. ^
  6. ^ The New York Jewish Week, July 23, 1999
  7. ^ See: Armed Forces Chaplains Board (AFCB). Instruction Number 5120.08 (August 20, 2007). U.S. Department of Defense. Retrieved 2010-09-09.
  8. ^ a b c d e Benjamin, S Lt L.A. "Opening of the First International Military Chief of Chaplains Conference". Retrieved 2011-11-02. 
  9. ^ The United States has Army, Navy, and Air Force chiefs of chaplains. These three chaplains serve, along with the three deputy chiefs of chaplains, on the Armed Forces Chaplains Board. Additionally, two Navy chaplains are assigned the position of Chaplain of the Marine Corps (a dual-hatted position for the Deputy Chief of Chaplains of the Navy); and Chaplain of the Coast Guard.
  10. ^ Serving the Lord as a Chaplain in the Armed Forces of the United States of America (adopted by the Home Missions Commission, June 2000). North American Baptist Conference. Retrieved 2010-09-10.
  11. ^ Ducange, Glossarium, s.v "Capella)", noted in Encyclopaedia Britannica 1911, s.v. "Chapel".
  12. ^ See also: Rank Insignia - Army Land Forces: South Africa: Military Chaplains since 2002. International Encyclopedia of Uniform Insignia Association. Retrieved 2010-09-09.
  13. ^
  14. ^ SANDF
  15. ^ C. D. Symons, Chaplain-General to the Forces
  16. ^ Brumwell, P. Middleton (1943) The Army Chaplain: the Royal Army Chaplains' Department; the duties of chaplains and morale. London: Adam & Charles Black
  17. ^ Military Chaplaincy, Christian and Jewish perspectives, November 2005
  18. ^ "Non-Christian chaplains appointed". BBC News. 2005-10-19. 
  19. ^ U.S. Army Chaplain Corps: Requirements webpage. Retrieved 2010-09-09.
  20. ^ U.S. Air Force Chaplain Corps official website. Retrieved 2010-09-09.
  21. ^ [1] NCMAF Code of Ethics. Retrieved 2011-09-06.
  22. ^ [2] NCMAF Procedures for Change of Religious Body (Denomination) Endorsement. Retrieved 2011-09-06.
  23. ^ [3] Army Regulation 670-1, Wear and Appearance of Army Uniforms
  25. ^ Ken Sehested, "Loyalty Test; The Case of Chaplain Robertson," Christian Century, March 2, 1994, Vol. 111 Issue 7, p 212.
  26. ^ MAAF (2009). Military Atheists Agnostics and Freethinkers. Retrieved November, 28, 2010 from
  27. ^ LaGrone, S. (2008). "Soldier alleges religious bias at Lakenheath". Retrieved on November, 28, 2010 from]
  28. ^ Military Religious Freedom Foundation (n.d.) Retrieved on January, 4, 2011 from
  29. ^ Jones, W. (2010). "Air Force Academy Cites Progress In Tackling Religious Intolerance", Huffington Post, Retrieved on November, 28, 2010 from]
  30. ^ Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers (n.d.) Report on chaplains. Retrieved on November, 28, 2010 from
  31. ^ MAAF (2009). Military Atheists Agnostics and Freethinkers. Retrieved November, 28, 2010 from
  32. ^ Military Religious Freedom Foundation (n.d.) Retrieved on January, 4, 2011 from
  33. ^ James Dao (2011-04-26). "Atheists Seek Chaplain Role in the Military". The New York Times. Retrieved 2011–04-08. "Strange as it sounds, groups representing atheists and secular humanists are pushing for the appointment of one of their own to the chaplaincy, hoping to give voice to what they say is a large — and largely underground — population of nonbelievers in the military." 
  34. ^ Full debate between Christopher Hitchens and Rev. Al Sharpton (from which this quote was taken) is available on Google Video
  35. ^ Katcoff v. Marsh (court decision). U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit. Retrieved 2010-09-09.
  36. ^ Richard D. Rosen, Katcoff v. Marsh at Twenty-One: The Military Chaplaincy and the Separation of Church and State. Retrieved 2010-09-09.
  37. ^ Phillips, Michael M. (2010-09-04). "A Chaplain and an Atheist Go to War". The Wall Street Journal. 

Further reading

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