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Unit Chaplains

Unit Chaplains

The principle of unit chaplains was adopted early in 1940 at the request of the GOC. This was a new development: in the British Army the chaplains were posted, primarily, to minister to their own denominations. But the unit chaplain was expected to be the friend and adviser of everyone in the unit and to conduct Church parades on an undenominational basis. There were great advantages in this system, for the chaplain became an integral part of the regimental life. He was known in the unit as ‘Our Padre’ and few more honourable titles can be imagined. He shared the common life of the unit with its experience of danger, boredom, and hardship. He came to know well a large number of individuals, including officials and senior officers; and, after satisfactory service in several campaigns, he had a standing and influence in the unit which could be of inestimable value in his work.

But the principle of unit chaplains had its dangers. Many soldiers imagined that the normal divisions of the Church could be lightly set aside in wartime, and some common form of Christianity laid down for the whole Army, with perhaps some special exceptions made for Roman Catholics. Those who held this opinion page 15 were usually those who knew least about the chaplains' work. The chaplains were sometimes treated as though they were a kind of extra welfare officer, useful for organising concerts and refereeing football matches, and some soldiers would have simplified Christianity till all its essentials were missing. Undenominational services and teaching could be very dangerous, introducing a form of religion without doctrine, worship, or vitality. Unfortunately many soldiers had been brought up with little knowledge of Christian teaching and practice. Their doctrine consisted of a vague ‘belief in the Lord’ and respect for the Golden Rule. They often carried a New Testament in their pocket, not so much for reading purposes, but as a kind of talisman, the traditional protection against the bullet, while their ideas of a liturgical service seldom rose higher than the informal Sunday night song service.

But the chaplains were accredited representatives of specific denominations. They had joined the Army on the definite understanding that they would minister as adequately as possible to their own Church members. While it is obvious that in battle niceties of denominational distinction can be forgotten, the fact remained that only a small proportion of a man's army life is spent in action; and of course it was unlikely that the fifty-odd chaplains in the 2nd NZEF, most of whom were comparatively junior in their own Churches, would find an easy solution to the divisions of the Church, a problem which has baffled the finest theologians for many years. To the outsider these problems of denominational relationship may have appeared trivial in time of war, but they were real problems and they caused much heart-burning to the chaplains. The principle of unit chaplains was made to work and to work well, but it took three or four years, with many trials and errors, before a satisfactory solution was reached in which there was the maximum of co-operation and sound religious teaching.