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Home  >  News  >  Emotional Tributes to Military Chaplains

News

Emotional Tributes to Military Chaplains

Wednesday May 25 2022

The Rev Dr Marjory Maclean, convener of the Committee on Chaplains to HM Forces


In a sometimes emotional Wednesday morning session of the General Assembly, the convener of the Committee on Chaplains to HM Forces recalled praying with a bereaved refugee while she was serving as a chaplain.

The Rev Dr Marjory Maclean said that in 2016 she had been chaplain on the Navy vessel HMS Enterprise as it rescued migrants trying to cross the Mediterranean from Libya.

She said: “On that unforgettable day, with over 700 migrants eventually squeezed onto our quarterdeck, we discovered that two women had died – probably crushed – in the lower layer of humanity crammed two deep onto one of the inadequate inflatable craft. And tragically, each of the two was travelling with family members who were distraught. The sister of one of these ladies was an East African woman, French-speaking and wearing a wooden cross round her neck – her only possession.

“Space was found for her in the makeshift first aid station under the cover of a workshop near the deck, to allow her to grieve. I was called for to pray with her, and I brought with me a young Catholic officer whose recent degree happened to be in French, as I knew my schoolgirl French wouldn’t be up to it.

“We must have looked ridiculous, he and I, wearing full white paper PPE long before we have all become used to it in more recent times, and kneeling on the uncomfortable, hot metal deck in front of the woman, as I held her hands in mine. I extemporised a prayer, with my young colleague at my shoulder translating as best he could. And then, suddenly, the sorrowing figure took a breath and began to pray; desolate, lamenting prayer, desperate, fast prayer, too fast for the young lieutenant beside me to keep up with the translation. He looked at me in panic, and I waved him away. It didn’t matter to me what she was saying; she was praying now her own sorrow and need, and I only needed to keep holding her hands.

“That, Moderator, is what these Church of Scotland ministers do.”

As usual there were several Church of Scotland chaplains in the hall for the report of the committee, and they heard a succession of speeches praising their work.

The Rev Craig Dobney, who served in the RAF before being called to ministry, said: “When I joined up I was lost to God. Throughout my career my faith slowly came back, mainly through the support and care we get from our chaplaincy teams.”

He added that his son was now in the Army, and that: “To him, the Chaplain is the parent looking after those boys and girls in the combat areas.”

And the Very Rev Dr John Chalmers, whose son JJ was seriously injured while on service in Afghanistan 11 years ago, said military chaplaincy was a key point of ecumenical work in the Church: “When we arrived at the hospital it was a Roman Catholic chaplain, Father Michael Sharkey, who held our hands… in that moment all that matters is you have someone holding the hand of God when you don’t know how to do that.”

As is customary on ‘Chaplains’ Day’, the General Assembly was addressed by a senior member of the British military. Lieutenant General Nick Borton, Colonel of the Royal Regiment of Scotland and Colonel Commandant of the Army Air Corps, said that the war in the Ukraine had shown again that war ‘is still fundamentally an activity of the human heart’ and that for the Armed Forces ‘the most important thing is the human spirit and morale of your soldiers’.

He added: “We are enormously fortunate in the Army, and in the Royal Navy and Royal Air Force, that amongst the things that we do really well, is our wonderful Royal Army Chaplains Department, who have a long and glorious history of providing pastoral care, spiritual support and moral guidance.”

Referring to notable historic Church of Scotland chaplains, he added: “Great challenges undoubtedly lie ahead for our forces; there will be tough times ahead, and the history of the British Army and the other two services, has not, sadly, come to a sudden end in 2022.  We have constant need of our Woodbine Willies and Padre Thornes every day, and we couldn’t do it without them.”

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Dr Chalmers again exhorted the Church to continue the pace of change, as the Assembly passed the final sections of the Assembly Trustees deliverance.

These will bring a further reform of the central church structures, creating a single Active Faith Leadership Team with four Programme Groups: Mission, People & Training, Public Life & Global Justice, and Resource & Presence. The detailed proposals will be brought next year.

The Rev Iain Majcher said he was concerned that ‘we are rushing forward with change without taking breath’, pointing out that the last reform, creating the Faith Nurture and Faith Impact Forums, was only two years ago.

Dr Chalmers said that he expected things to change again over the next five years ‘as the different elements of change going on across the Church finally come together’. He added that some people who wished to slow the pace of change were like the people of Israel who thought they might be better off back in Egypt. “We need to make the changes because the answer isn’t ‘back there’ – either the forums or the councils or anything else we have done in the past.”

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The convener of the Social Care Council (CrossReach), the Rev Thom Riddell, said that ‘thousands of lives have continued to be transformed over the past year’ by CrossReach services. He urged the Assembly to get involved and make their voices heard as the Scottish Government presents legislation for a National Care Service in the next few weeks: “We all need to play a part in ensuring that the social care services of the future will be there for all who need them.”

In response to a question, he also said it was the committee’s ‘sincerest wish’ to be able to pay the Scottish Living Wage to all employees. 110 of the 1600 staff are currently paid below that level, and a meeting next week will consider whether they can afford the ‘final step’ to become a Living Wage Employer.

The Principal Clerk, the Rev Dr George Whyte, broke protocol by speaking to praise the work of CrossReach’s care staff and their management. Saying his daughter had worked in a care home during the pandemic, he said: “I think sometimes those of us who visit care homes don’t really think through what the care staff do. They welcome people in, prepare care plans, and they become not only the carer of that person but the link between that person’s care and their family. And when it comes to end of life, they do the preparation for that journey.

“I also want to say in public that management of CrossReach are fantastic for their staff. When they show signs of emotional strain the staff at CrossReach understand that, and go to great lengths to look after that person’s wellbeing.”

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The National Convener of the Church of Scotland Guild, Margaret Muir, said the last two years have proved the movement is ‘not afraid of challenge or change’. She said: “If you had asked what would happen to the Guild if a global pandemic closed everything down for 18 months not many people would have thought we would survive, but survive we have. We adapted, we learned to use technology, we kept in touch by phone, by enews, by door step deliveries, with angels and chicks and even Guild in a bag.”

She said the Guild had taken heart from the response to the pandemic, and is ‘enthused in new ways about the importance of the Guild in the wider mission of the church locally, nationally and internationally’.

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During the report of the Iona Community, there was applause for the musician and worship leader John Bell, who retires later this year. Community leader Ruth Harvey said: “For over 40 years John Bell, along with the late Graham Maule and others, has brought light, challenge, depth and joy to the lives of millions as they have sung his lyrics, grinned at his gospel reflections, and had their lives changed through encounters in workshops and worship, festivals and seminars… It is important to acknowledge here in this forum the remarkable impact that John Bell has had on the life of the church and on the ability of millions of people to sing their truth to God.”

Mrs Harvey also used her speech to confirm that the MacLeod Centre on Iona is to be retrofitted as as a ‘state of the art centre for young people and families, particularly for those who are excluded or marginalised in society’.  


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