Former top Navy chaplain calls for secular change across Defence Force

Si Gladman / 23 April 2021

The former head of chaplaincy for the Navy believes the Australian Defence Force (ADF) must now consider replacing the chaplaincy branches in all three services with a new secular wellbeing support capability.

Collin Acton, who last year retired from the role of Navy Director General of Chaplaincy and Principal Chaplain, told the Rationalist Society of Australia this week that change would be needed if the ADF were serious about the wellbeing and mental health needs of an increasingly non-religious workforce.

He warned that maintaining religious chaplaincy branches would become “increasingly divisive and irrelevant” to the majority of ADF personnel.

With almost 60 per cent of ADF personnel now identifying as non-religious, he said it was important for the Army, Air Force and Navy to respect the decision of personnel to choose non-religious care-giving options.

“Given the decreasing religiosity in the ADF, serious thought must be given to retiring the historic Chaplaincy Branch in all three services,” said Retired Principal Chaplain Acton.

“Religious chaplains could continue to have a role but only as part of a more extensive wellbeing support capability, which would include human service professionals and other specialisations that contribute to the workforce’s wellbeing.

“It would be merely an academic matter if the stakes were not so high. The mental health and wellbeing of ADF personnel are critical to capability.”

Retired Principal Chaplain Acton played a leading role in having secular Maritime Spirituality Wellbeing Officers introduced in Navy’s Chaplaincy Branch last year, but the Army and Air Force have not followed suit.

At that time, he argued that theological degrees did little to prepare chaplains for attending to the welfare and mental health needs of service personnel, who are typically dealing with issues such as relationship breakdown, family and domestic violence, anxiety/depression and suicide ideation.

Non-religious service personnel, especially women, are reluctant to seek help from the chaplaincy branches that consist overwhelmingly of older Christian men.

He said that Army and Air Force should follow Navy’s lead and introduce spiritual wellbeing officer roles.

“When nearly 80 per cent of recruits into all three services have no religious affiliation, it is staggering that, except for the Navy, Defence continues to adhere to an exclusive and increasingly irrelevant religious wellbeing support model,” he said.

“Chaplains are the ADF’s first step to care in the ADF’s Mental Health and Wellbeing Strategy. Yet, in almost every case, they are ordained ministers of the Christian religion.

“Churches insist on theology, doctrine and sectarian ethics for their pastors, ministers and priests. Human service professionals have the proper academic training and experience to deliver an identical service to what religious chaplains currently spend 95% of their time providing. “

Interested to find out more about religious discrimination in government-funded chaplaincy programs in schools, in hospitals and in the military? Register here for our webinar, being held on Wednesday 28 April 2021, with Associate Professor Luke Beck of Monash University as the guest speaker.

Si Gladman is Campaigns & Communications Coordinator at the Rationalist Society of Australia. You can contact him at sigladman@rationalist.com.au or follow him on Twitter at @si_gladman.

Photo by Commonwealth of Australia.

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