Testimony given by one of the Australian Defence Force’s top chaplains has further brought into question the employment of solely religious chaplains in Australia's military.

In evidence given to the Defence Force Remuneration Tribunal in early 2020, Navy Director General Chaplaincy and Principal Chaplain Collin Acton said that theological degrees did little to prepare religious chaplains for the provision of pastoral care required in the modern ADF.

The ‘Decision’ document published by the tribunal, which ruled in March to allow secular chaplains into the Navy in the form of Maritime Spiritual Wellbeing Officers, also reveals that 95 per cent of chaplains' time is spent on non-religious pastoral care and wellbeing support.

Evidence provided by Principal Chaplain Acton and Captain S Bowater succinctly identified the problems with the Navy only providing religious chaplains when the majority of personnel are non-religious.

Religious qualification doesn't provide required skills

Religious chaplains were said to be ill-prepared to deal with generally non-religious pastoral care, which requires mental health expertise.

The document quoted Principal Chaplain Acton as saying:

  • “...the role of the Navy Chaplain has completely changed” and that they “have taken on a pastoral care role, of which in the past clergy probably did very little.”
  • “...the types of pastoral care we regularly deal with include such issues as relationship breakdown, family and domestic violence, anxiety/depression, suicide ideation and the wider complexities around members having trouble at work, finding it difficult making friends in a new posting location, being lonely or finding life challenging.”
  • “...there is little in a theological degree that prepares a chaplain for the practical pastoral and mental health related issues.”

The document notes that the ADF’s ‘Chaplaincy Reporting Tool’, which is used to monitor the type of work the chaplains do, shows that about 95 per cent of chaplains' time is spent on non-religious pastoral care and wellbeing support.

Some personnel are reluctant to approach chaplains

The document outlines concerns that serving personnel and their families are sometimes reluctant to access pastoral support from religious chaplains.

The document quotes Captain Bowater as saying:

  • “...in the absence of a neutral member to fulfil the pastoral and wellbeing role currently provided by Navy’s Chaplain, some people would not seek their help and may be troubled and unable to focus on their roles and responsibilities as we need them to do.”
  • “(The Navy) requires a qualified Branch that is focused on the wellbeing of its people, regardless of whether the Branch’s members are religious or not.”

Chaplaincy ranks lack diversity

The evidence provided laments that the lack of diversity among the chaplaincy rank, suggesting it hinders the ability of chaplains to connect with younger service personnel.

Principal Chaplain Acton is quoted as saying:

  • “...gender may also be a barrier to care”, given that the branch consists of 29 men and five full time women.
  • “...another factor that can, at times, be a barrier to care is the age of the Chaplain” as the “median age of the Navy Chaplaincy Branch is low to mid-fifties.”

National Secular Lobby president Peter Monk says the evidence adds further urgency to the need for the Army and Air Force to secularise the wellbeing and support services offered to military personnel.

“If this is what highly ranked people within the Navy have been saying about the taxpayer-funded religious chaplaincy service, then the case is sure to be similar in the Army and Air Force,” he says.

“Australians expect our service personnel to be able to access the best possible range of wellbeing and mental health support. Based on the testimony from these respected officers, it is obvious that a professionally trained secular wellbeing officer is often the best fit for the job.”

Read the full Defence Force Remuneration Tribunal ‘Decision’ document here.

At the National Secular Lobby, we're pleased to have joined forces with a number of pro-secular community organisations in the #DontDivideUs campaign against the proposed Religious Discrimination Bill. Add your voice to the campaign.