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The Official Attitude towards Religion in the Royal Navy

The Official Attitude towards Religion in the Royal Navy

A thousand years of recorded history lie behind the Royal Navy, and so it need surprise no one to find that tradition plays a great part in naval life. But what is tradition? It is something we all recognise when we meet it, but equally it is something we are content to recognise without defining. Tradition is that which has been delivered or surrendered to the present generation by their predecessors in the Service. The modern sailor is the heir to a great tradition.

We have briefly sketched the evolution of the naval chaplain to his present status. We have seen that from early times there has been a close connection between the Church and the Royal Navy, and so we shall expect to find this connection maintained in the official regulations.

It is noteworthy that the whole of the lengthy first section of the chapter dealing with discipline in King's Regulations and Admiralty Instructions is devoted to the holding of Divine Service in His Majesty's ships and the responsibilities of commanding officers and chaplains in relation thereto. Another chapter sets out the ‘instructions to chaplains and officiating ministers’.

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It is laid down that the ship's company ‘is not to be employed on Sunday in any work or duty other than that which may be strictly necessary for the public service’. The captain ‘is to take care that the chaplain is treated at all times by the officers and men with the respect due to his sacred office and that he is not required to perform any executive duties in connection therewith, so that nothing may interfere with his being regarded as a friend and adviser by all on board’. For his part, the chaplain ‘is to be most careful that the morality of his conduct and the propriety and regularity of his manners and conversation are such as become his sacred office and inspire the officers and the ship's company with reverence and respect towards him’.

The first of the ‘Articles of War’ states that ‘all officers in command of His Majesty's ships of war shall cause the public worship of Almighty God according to the Liturgy of the Church of England established by law to be solemnly, orderly and reverently performed in their respective ships, and shall take care that prayers and preaching by the chaplains in Holy Orders of the respective ships, be performed diligently, and that the Lord's Day be observed according to law’.

King's Regulations expressly provide that Presbyterians, Methodists, Roman Catholics, and others who entertain religious scruples in regard to attending services of the Church of England, are to have full liberty to absent themselves from these services. When no chaplain of their denomination is borne, and no opportunity offers for them to attend their own services, these men are to be allowed to remain in their mess spaces or such part of the ship as may be appointed by the captain, ‘who will take care that the place appointed is so situated as not to give the appearance of their being obliged to form part of the congregation….’ If a chaplain of their denomination is not borne, officers and men who are not members of the Church of England must be given every opportunity to attend Divine Service on Sundays at their respective places of worship on shore.

The captain of a ship is also required to take care that on every weekday, after morning quarters or divisions, short prayers from the Liturgy of the Church of England are read. In ships in which no chaplain is borne, the prayers are read by the captain. One of page 146 the prayers is that unmatched one, the first of the ‘Forms of Prayer to be Used at Sea’ in the Book of Common Prayer. It was composed, probably by Bishop Sanderson, somewhere about the middle of the seventeenth century, a period when the English language was at its noblest. It has been well said that it is ‘as sonorous as the sounding seas upon which it is daily recited’:

O Eternal Lord God, who alone spreadest out the heavens, and rulest the raging of the sea; who hast compassed the waters with bounds until day and night come to an end: Be pleased to receive into Thy Almighty and most gracious protection the persons of us Thy servants, and the Fleet in which we serve. Preserve us from the dangers of the sea and from the violence of the enemy; that we may be a safeguard unto our most gracious Sovereign Lord, King George, and his Dominions, and a security for such as pass on the seas upon their lawful occasions; that the peoples of our Empire may in peace and quietness serve Thee our God; and that we may return in safety to enjoy the blessings of the land, with the fruits of our labours, and with a thankful remembrance of Thy mercies to praise and glorify Thy Holy Name: through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

And as those magnificent words sound forth, one sees three centuries of British seamen, bareheaded at prayer on their quarterdecks; and one begins to feel, in part at least, the sense of tradition that inspires the Royal Navy.

That the Admiralty, in spite of its many preoccupations at the time, fully appreciated the importance of religious observances as a prime factor in the maintenance of morale, is shown by the following ‘Message from the Board of Admiralty’, promulgated as an Admiralty Fleet Order on 28 November 1940:

In the conviction that the present war is a struggle between good and evil, and that in the practice of the Christian Religio may be found today the same support experienced by our Forefathers in establishing in the Royal Navy those ideals of service and sacrifice which we have inherited, Their Lordships, whilst appreciating that under conditions of war the instructions regarding Sunday work can seldom be realised, wish to emphasise the need for observing the instructions for the holding of Divine Service and Prayers. They further direct that in battleships and cruisers all possible steps should be taken to provide a space set apart for the worship of God.

Religion is a real and regular background to the life of the Royal page 147 Navy. Many instances could be cited in support of this contention, but let one suffice as an illustration of how the spirit of the foregoing order was obeyed. It concerns the Royal Marines who formed part of the rearguard during the evacuation of Crete in May 1941. Here are the words of the Admiralty account of the achievements of the Royal Marines from 1939 to 1943; ‘The losses of the rearguard were severe, and it was not possible to take off all the survivors. Once again, however, the Royal Marines' initiative and powers of improvisation rose to an emergency. One officer discovered a boat and, taking a mixed party of sixty survivors with him, set out for the North African coast. Food ran out on the sixth day, the last rations being a lump of margarine dipped in cocoa. On the eighth day, during Divine Service, the party made a landfall and finally got ashore in the Sidi Barrani area’.

A naval chaplain who had six years' service during the war, has recorded that every officer and petty officer with whom he had any dealings did all in their power to enable him to carry out, as far as circumstances permitted, and often in the face of difficulties, the spirit of the Admiralty instructions concerning religous observances. On one occasion at a new training establishment, where no building was available, he decided to hold a celebration of Holy Communion in the open air. The Chief Petty Officer in charge of the church party was somewhat surprised: ‘Bit like Hollywood, isn't it, sir?’ but he arranged a little chapel most fitting for its purpose.