Today Commodore Mark Slawson RN, Commanding Officer (CO) of HMS Sultan, home of the Royal Navy’s Marine and Aeronautical Engineering Schools, will be overseeing the process of informing men and women, Rates and Officers, that they are being made redundant. Elsewhere, his fellow COs will be overseeing similar processes. I don’t know the numbers affected at HMS Sultan, but the BBC has tweeted that at Royal Naval Air Station (RNAS) Yeovilton, there will be 124 job losses. I mention these two places because they are places I have been, places where I have had the privilege of spending time in the company of men and women who serve in the Royal Navy, including Cdre Slawson. And I do consider it a privilege to have met and spent time with these people.
The opportunity to do so came as part of my second placement this summer, my Social Context Placement (SCP) with the Royal Navy Chaplaincy Service, for which our primary base for the week was HMS Sultan. It was an amazing 8 days. It was an 8 days that probably had as much affect on my faith and my opinions as the whole month in South Africa did. And that is not to say that my some of my month in South Africa was wasted or not worthwhile, it most certainly wasn’t, but simply that the experience of being with the Navy was so intense and so significantly positive that for me those 8 days can easily be compared to the full month in Africa. I asked for this placement mainly because my prior experience has been strongly influenced by the input of friends and acquaintances in the Iona Community, of which I myself am a Member. In general the Community is of pacifist leanings, though membership does not require personal pacifist theology. Membership does require being a proponent, whether actively or passively, of unilateral nuclear disarmament (as well as other forms of weapons of mass destruction). It is undeniable that growing up in such a theological environment gives one a particular slant on what the military is like. So I chose this placement deliberately to give myself the opportunity to see things from the other side of the razor-wire topped fence. And what I witnessed and experienced was truly astounding.
Over the 8 days we met a fair range of sailors, from Flag Officers to junior Rates still in training, from those who have a faith to those who state they are atheists. All of them were clear that the Chaplains were a vital part of the Navy. COs were clear they could not do their job without Chaplains, new trainees were clear that Chaplains play a vital role in their development as sailors who are not automatons trained simply to obey orders but rounded people who are fully capable of thinking about what obeying certain orders means – and even being able to refuse orders should it be absolutely necessary (it is hoped illegal orders are never issued, but since “following orders” is not a reasonable defence in Courts Martial and War Crime Tribunals sailors and marines must be able to identify such orders and have the courage and self-belief to refuse them). Chaplains are seen as key parts of the welfare system that the Navy have in place for looking after sailors, from trainee rate to senior officer. And the Navy go to great lengths to look after their sailors – we were told of numerous events where the Navy had gone to extraordinary lengths to ensure sailors based around the world got home in 28 hours or less, from diverting more than one warship to paying for First Class trans-ocean flights because it was the only seat available on the plane.
And of all the people we met, the most inspiring for me were the Chaplains themselves. They were an incredibly diverse bunch, from a variety of denominational and theological backgrounds and traditions. Of course, when serving on a ship or boat (ships go on the water, boats go beneath – ie, boat is the naval term for a submarine, and only a submarine) your denomination is irrelevant to most people on-board – to them you are simply “The Bish” (naval slang for Chaplain). Chaplains are, of course, expected to remain true to their sending church – a Baptist Chaplain, for example, would not be expected to perform infant baptisms – but they operate within a normally non-denominational setting. And in contrast to chaplains in the other two Armed Services, and to Chaplains in many other navies, Royal Navy Chaplains and Royal Naval Reserve Chaplains carry no rank. The Rev’d Joe or Jane Bloggs is known simply as Chaplain Joe or Jane Bloggs RN/RNR. In conversation with a sailor they will simply be considered to take on the rank of the person they are conversing with, so one minute they may be talking on a par with an Able Seaman and the next be talking on a par with a Captain. Unsurprisingly this resonated strongly with me in relation to the Methodist Covenant Prayer, the “traditional” version of which is quoted from in the title of this post. Royal Navy Chaplains are ranked from one moment to the next with whomever wishes to speak with them. It is a significant part of their ministry that they offer a neutral presence, visibly neither subordinate nor superior in rank to those they work with and offer ministry to.
The placement had such an effect on me that I will be thoughtfully and prayerfully considering, over the coming 3 years of my training and probation, whether I wish to offer myself as a RNR Chaplain (I know that the significant periods of ship-based deployment make me unsuitable as a full-time Chaplain). In the meantime, both today as folk receive news both good and bad and in the future, my thoughts and prayers will continue to be with the men and women, Officers and Rates, of the Royal Navy, and with the Chaplains who offer them a living example of God’s presence in the world, even in the midst of activities we as Christians pray will one day cease.
Whatever seas you are currently sailing on, whether clear and calm or murky and stormy, travel well.