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Unusual Officers

Unlike civilian ministers, who work in a local parish where religious participation is completely voluntary, military chaplains must bridge the gap between the modern bureaucratic aims of the military and the personal needs of the individuals who are employed by that institution. They are similar to civilian clergy in that they offer religious services and pastoral care to members of their own denomination. Furthermore, they preside at public commemorative ceremonies, the dedication of ships, the consecration of regimental or squadron colours,1 ramp ceremonies,2 military funerals, and various other formal events. In these things their presence is reminiscent of an earlier era when religion was present in many institutions in Canada. Unlike most civilian religious leaders, however, military chaplains work in a unique context. They are charged with caring for people from a wide array of religious and spiritual perspectives, including non-believers and those opposed to religion. Further, they work in a secular and demanding environment where they might sometimes be expected to be on duty for 24 hours a day for weeks or even months at a time. The chaplains have adapted to today's pluralistic and individualistic society by modernizing their pastoral practices and emphasizing the personal aspects of their Ministry of Presence. While some scholars have argued that pluralism and relativism encourage secularization (Berger 1967, 23-6, 94; Bruce 1990; 1995, 67), military chaplains have actually secured a place for their traditional role by being able to meet the needs of personnel. Through their emphasis on serving the individual, chaplains are able to minimize the sense of alienation and dehumanization that some members experience because of their participation as functionaries in a modern efficiency-based, hierarchical, and bureaucratic system.

Former Chaplain General Ron Bourque, during a lecture delivered at the University of Victoria, explained that military chaplains 'need to have ethical behaviour - to know what they represent beyond themselves. They are servants of a religious body [so] they must act, speak, forgive, [and] counsel in keeping with the church they represent. Without the Church, a Christian chaplain has nothing to offer. When people come to chaplains, they're looking for a direct line to God. Their mandate is to minister to their own, facilitate the worship of others, and care for all' (Benham Rennick 2005b). Retired navy chaplain Bill Howie at the same lecture described chaplains as 'ministers: priests, rabbis, imams ... They are moralists, thinkers, peacekeepers, peacemakers, deliverers of bad news, performers of rites, soul-builders, re-builders, companions of the brave, partners of the necessary, buriers of friends but they are not soldiers' (2005b). While these attributes have much in common with the obligations of civilian clergy, as one trainer at the CF Chaplain School and Centre noted, the military is a very different environment from a civilian parish and requires a person with unique skills: 'Civilian settings are more forgiving but here your problems and weaknesses will get you a hammering from the COs [commanding officers] and the personnel. There's a widely known story of one CF chaplain whose tremendous arrogance got him sent off a ship in a dinghy because the CO was so fed up with him! Sometimes we do get those who are a "bad fit" and they stay on because it's good pay in a good career with good benefits. Some people are here just for the money, but most are here because they're good at it and it's what they love. When you're incompetent in a civilian church you can get away with more, but in the CF incompetence glows in the dark. Incompetence, arrogance, insecurity - these are all personality issues that make people a poor fit for the role.'

The major differences between military chaplains and civilian chaplains are notable in the former's motivations and commitment to their role in the CF. The nature of their duties, which depend largely on their presence and rapport with personnel, is central to their success in this role. Finally, their ability to keep one foot in the military system and one foot outside of it makes them both unique and relevant to military members.

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