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General Impressions

General Impressions

From the very beginning of his naval life, a chaplain learns that a warship is designed primarily for fighting purposes, and that, although provision is made for him and his work and every reasonable facility is granted to him, he is just one of the many spokes in a great wheel, although not an unimportant one, and that he exists for the Service and not the Service for him. An instructor was once overheard addressing his class in these words: ‘Each one of you is a cog in a machine. The captain is a cog. Every officer is a cog. I am a cog. If one cog were to slip, or to falter, or to pause, you know what would happen to the machine. But in the Navy no cog ever slips or falters. It can't, because we are all welded together. We are the Navy’.

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Provided then, that the chaplain does not mind living in a very circumscribed area, in the middle of his parish where he cannot get away from his parishioners and where the only privacy for work and sleep is to be found in a cabin about eight feet square, which is ‘open house’ to officers and men alike; and provided that he is satisfied with spiritual activities that are somewhat more restricted than on shore, he will soon find that he has undertaken a real man's job.

He is far from being a stranger in a strange community, because a very large proportion of his shipmates—officers and men—have been accustomed to having a chaplain alongside them from their very earliest days in the Service. To all alike, officers and men, irrespective of creed, the chaplain can be a trusted friend and adviser. The sailor talks to his chaplain with a frankness that is almost embarrassing until he becomes accustomed to it. Such trust is not to be treated lightly; that it is given at all speaks volumes for the conception of a chaplain held by the sailors. A young petty officer, detailed for a shore job in South Africa, had an interesting experience of Army educational work there. He wrote home in glowing terms of the information officer who was attached to each unit, an officer who could be approached for advice on any subject. The petty officer could find no higher praise for this officer than to describe him as a ‘secular chaplain’. That is not only a tribute to naval chaplains, but also a considered judgment on them.

As was stated earlier, religion is a real and regular background to the men of the Navy. That is, of course, part of the naval tradition, but it is also more than that. The Rev. A. Campsie, MC, senior Presbyterian chaplain in the Royal Navy, sums it up well in an article, ‘The Faith of a Sailor’. He writes:

There is ‘something about a sailor’—something at least about the comparatively ‘ancient mariner’ whose business it has been through the years to sail the seas. The war has brought to his life new hardships and new dangers, and yet, incalculably great as these new trials may be, they have but added to what was already there. Risk and peril are always a part of the sailor's life, in peace as in war. Today he has to contend with the violence of the enemy, but he has always to contend with the violence of the elements. Dangerous living doesn't begin for him page 157 with a war; it's an inescapable part of his normal life. So long as he follows the sea, trouble and danger are following him or lurking in his path. His is a kind of warfare in which there is no discharge until his seafaring days are done. This constant accompanying with risk and danger is one factor in the sailor's life which makes a difference and which makes him different…. And as ‘man's extremity is God's opportunity’, I would reverently say that God has many and unusual opportunities with the sailor. His mind cannot for long get far away from thoughts about God and about the deep and elemental things of life. The sea doesn't breed cynics, or atheists, or men who scoff at religion. Sailors aren't saints (though saints are to be found amongst them); but in the main you will find, beneath their often misleading exterior, men of humble and reverent mind—men with that simple and childlike faith in God which, according to Christ, is a necessary passport to His Kingdom.

And there's another factor in the life of a sailor which makes a difference. Besides his close-up view of the ‘works and wonders of the Lord’, there is also his close-up contact with his fellowmen. Few outside the Navy can realise the confined and cramped-up nature of the life which men are obliged to live in a man-of-war. Day in, day out, and often for weeks at a time, the sailor has no escape whatever to privacy and solitude. His life at sea resembles nothing so much as a non-stop circus! This, I think, is his heaviest handicap, spiritual as well as physical. The soul of man, if it is to thrive, needs its regular seasons of solitude; and yet the sailor, for protracted periods can hardly be by himself for five minutes in the course of a day. But still, though this is a big disadvantage, it has its compensation: no one gets a more rigorous schooling than the sailor in community living, in ‘the art of living together’. And is not this the most important, if the least mastered, of all the arts? I might speak of the discipline of the Service—of that discipline which is imposed from without—and of its moral and spiritual value (when it is wisely administered, as it usually is) to the individual and to the Service as a whole. No ship can be happy without it. But I would rather remind you of this other discipline, this inward discipline of the spirit, which the sailor must impose upon himself if his life at sea is to be bearable at all. He has to learn to consume his own smoke. If he goes about ‘with a face like a sea-boot’, spreading gloom and depression around him, he will soon know about it—not from any higher authority, but from his messmates. A ‘good messmate’ is the best title a sailor can merit. It is one, I am sure, which our Lord would honour. It involves a high measure of forbearance and long-suffering, of page 158 cheerfulness and self-control—all distinctively Christian virtues. Sometimes, of course, it may involve reaction when the restraints are removed. When he sets his foot on shore, the sailor may not always be particular about his company, so long as it is change of company: his self-control may lapse. But this inner discipline goes a long way towards making him the likeable soul he is usually found to be. He's a good companion, considerate of others, tolerant of his fellows, easy to get on with and ready to lend a helping hand. He is cheerful and generous in disposition, and fond of his home above all other things.

The Navy has a traditional respect for religion. Careful provision is made for the observance of divine worship. And you would be wrong in regarding this religious tradition as a formal custom, artificially preserved by a sentimental respect for the past. Nor is it artfully sustained as a useful piece of Service discipline. There is far more to it than that, as you would realise in the simple sincerity and spontaneity of a naval church service. It's a tradition which through the generations is nourished and kept alive by the sailor's everyday experiences as he passes to and fro upon the deep. From these it continually draws fresh sustenance and new life. Some people are always anxious, foolishly anxious, lest religion should perish from the earth. There is still less reason for anxiety lest it should perish from the sea—from the lives of those ‘who go down to the sea in ships and who see the works of the Lord and His wonders in the deep’.