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Waning Chapel Life

Another point of contention in the chaplaincy surrounds the relevance of chapels. While chapels were important community centres in the post-war years, increasing secularization has reduced considerably the numbers of people now participating in chapel life at most bases. In Protestant chapels when a chaplain from a different denomination or with a strongly divergent doctrinal stance is posted on a base to replace a departing chaplain, there can be serious disruption to the chapel community. Currently there are 43 Christian chapels on CF bases across Canada. Of these, 22 are Protestant and 21 are Roman Catholic. Many of these chapels share a single building, and, in some cases, modifications have also been made to allow interfaith use. Protestant chaplains struggle with how to best serve the members from various Protestant denominations who worship in their chapels. One senior chaplain asked, 'Should we be providing all the denominational services that civilian churches in the area can provide? Sure we want to continue holding Bible studies, faith-centered recovery groups and celebrations but should we be trying to provide more services that are geared to a military congregation and address problems and concerns of military personnel?'

Chaplains who serve in base or operational chapels across Canada, at sea, and in temporary shelters on operations are called chapel life coordinators. Their role is to ensure the effective operations of the chapel by overseeing all the activities that occur therein, including Sunday services, Sunday School programs, religious rites such as weddings, special events, and any number of other activities. One pastoral associate described the chapel activities in this way: 'I run the Roman Catholic chapel on [this] base. I manage the Catholic Women's League here, I pastor the chapel, and I make sure the priests - we have two priests that come on base - are scheduled for Masses and [I do] other administration stuff. Four times a year I'm allowed to do a liturgy. I'm allowed to baptize... That's an old navy tradition - sailors like to have their children baptized on a ship. I also do burials at sea - usually for retired people who want their ashes strewn at sea.'

Another chaplain explained duties at an air force base this way: 'I am the CLC - that is, the chapel life coordinator - for the Protestant Chapel. I coordinate all the chaplains and the chapel activities, and I oversee all the spiritual activities for the military families here on the base. We are obviously much closer with the families [that attend the chapel] than we would be in a unit because we see them every Sunday or at the activities we have during the week - Bible studies, conferences, picnics or potlucks or whatever activity. Even though I'm responsible for the [Protestant] chapel, I remain in constant contact with the base - with everybody, all military, from different confessions. A lot of them will come into my office and they are Roman Catholic. You need to respect that; it is part of the ministry we're doing here. We're here to help the people, we're not here to convert them to our faith or to bring them to our group. That's not the purpose of this system.'

One chaplain explained that on bases where there are many people from the different mainline churches attending one chapel, 'then you need to mix everybody together to work. That is not always easy because they have different civil, moral, and even biblical perspectives on some issues which makes it very difficult.' For those who attend chapels, community and mutual support are central.

Doctrinal and theological differences between Protestant groups have become a significant hurdle for maintaining continuity within a base chapel. For example, one chaplain explained that when chaplains with different doctrinal stances replaced one another at a chapel, 'it really changes the nature of the chapel. Every three years they move the chaplains out and it creates chaos for the community. Just imagine replacing a Pentecostal with an Anglican. There is such a diversity of theological positions that it just confuses people. Every time the chaplain changes people are left in chaos.' Another chaplain said, 'The chapels are getting much smaller so the Chaplain Branch has mandated that all chaplains must worship on base. In reality that's never going to happen. For example, on some bases there will be several chaplains serving a chapel - like at [CFB] Borden, you could have an Anglican, a Christian Reformed, United, and Pentecostal all serving together. Well, if I'm supposed to worship there and the Pentecostal - I'll pick on the Pentecostals for a minute - is preaching and they're saying that gays and lesbians are an abomination to God and they see women as less than men then I don't consider that a good place for my family to worship.' As a result, in order to accommodate personal religious interests, and for the sake of continuity, many personnel I spoke with elected to attend civilian churches off base rather than attend the base chapel.

In fact, chaplains seem to disagree about the continuing value of Christian chapels on bases. At the Annual General Meeting of the Protestant Advisory Group in 2005, one senior chaplain commented that '50% of chaplains are saying we don't need chapels "the way they are now,"' while another suggested, 'Chapels do really well at the Big Event moments - reacting to crises in life. There needs to be room for both chapel life and other ministry opportunities.' Another chaplain argued that chapels remain important to many military families, asking, 'How do we live out our life of faith if we don't have a worship community? There has to be a place for people to go to back home when there are problems. Some chaplains don't see themselves as responsible to the families and they refer them elsewhere - to family ministries. This has always been central to our ministry. The chaplain and the chapel are both powerful symbols that people turn to. How many chapels are staying in touch with their people? - sending notes, praying for them, offering family support, etc. The biggest question is how we meet the needs of the member and their family.'

Although many insist that the chapel can be the heart of the Christian community on a large base with an effective chapel leader, others remark that in an increasingly secular and interfaith environment, Christian chapels make little sense. One Anglican priest remarked that most military personnel 'are not interested in chapels. I don't think the chapels will remain as they are but I hope they will transform themselves. We need a sacred space on every base and every mission - a place specifically set apart and sacred. When I'm on a mission, I set up a sacred space and educate people about how it is to be used. There will be no icons, no visible indicators of any one faith group. It will be for everyone.' I asked how his denominational authorities would feel about this stance and he replied with some surprise, as if the thought had never occurred to him, 'I don't know!' He threw up his hands. 'But it would be pretty foolish for me to set up a chapel for the five Anglicans that will be out there!' He laughed, then added solemnly, 'People need a place on a mission where they can go to heal mentally and spiritually because the task they do hurts them in ways civilians don't understand and don't ever have to encounter. We need these spaces on missions and on bases. They need to be for everyone. In this sense, I'm a military chaplain before I am an Anglican priest. It has to be about their needs first.'

When I asked one female chaplain about the ongoing value of chapels, she stated, 'In 20 years . . . ? I don't know . . . With the shortage of priests and the lack of interest in churches, it's hard to say. If they closed the chapels and sent people to local churches that would be ok in a big centre but if you're up in Cold Lake that could be a problem. One of the military's strengths has been that it always provided for all its members' needs - doctors, social workers, religion.' Another Protestant chaplain said, 'Yes, there is value in maintaining the chapels, but they need to be handled more thoughtfully and intentionally. We need to see if there are better ways to meet people's needs. In times of crises, in times of deployment, people really turn to the chapels and the chaplains, but I'm not sure the chapels should be the same as they have been for the last 30 to 50 years.'

As we have already seen, some of the military's Christian chapels now also accommodate personnel of different faith groups, and others, such as CFB Shilo, have opened faith centres. At the opening ceremony for that centre, Army Command Chaplain Lieutenant-Colonel John Fletcher said, 'It's important that if we're going to take seriously the responsibility to care spiritually for all our soldiers and families, then we need to provide the resources and facilities in which everyone can come and worship' (Power 2007). This precedent-setting move is likely to set the tone for future prayer, worship, and meditation centres at bases across Canada.

Problems of discontinuity in chapel life, decreasing relevance of traditional religious practice, and growing religious diversity are some of the problems that late modern society poses for traditional chapel life. Even while some personnel continue to use the chapels as places for Christian worship, other military chapels have been modernized in step with growing multifaith needs and have opened their doors to others who need a place for worship. Still others have gone a step further by creating a distinct place for non-Christians to worship. A number of CF personnel made it clear that a 'sacred space' for meditation and refuge is helpful to them. Although chapels continue to fill a role, if only a small one, in the current context, it is not clear how they will be transformed in the future. The evolution of base chapels will be interesting to watch as Canadian military demographics change in the coming decades.

 
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