Eternal Father, strong to save,
Whose arm hath bound the restless wave,
Who bidd’st the mighty ocean deep
Its own appointed limits keep;
Oh, hear us when we cry to Thee,
For those in peril on the sea!
Peril on the high seas is nowadays only one aspect of the Royal Navy’s defence commitments. There is also the time spent flying the flag as ambassadors for Great Britain, as well as shoreside tasks such as refitting ships and career training development opportunities for ratings and officers
In amongst all of these are a remarkable bunch of people, without rank or obvious promotion agendas; who hatch, match and dispatch with the best of their civilian counterparts, but who also serve alongside those whose main occupation is to learn and use the skills of warfare – Navy chaplains!
For the last ten days I have been privileged to shadow and observe the chaplains and pastoral workers as they go about their different roles as part of HMS Nelson’s chaplaincy service. Based within HMS Nelson, Portsmouth they care for and provide spiritual welfare to all who require their services; at the same time as making themselves known and available to the wider dockyard groups and ship’s companies.
The Chaplains also come into their own when they join a sea-going ship and become part of the ship’s company; so that whilst the Captain has ultimate responsibility for the the pastoral care of his men and women, like any good leader he delegates this in a great part to the chaplains, who become a sounding board to all on board. The ship then becomes the chaplain’s ‘parish’ but without a church building worship services can be held in many surprising places – the mess hall; the library; the upper deck (a particular favourite in good weather and sunny climes) or even the engine room – and it’s notable that many on board will join in with these, who may not have considered doing so on land
An ecumenical presence, they are also able to offer support to the lonely and the troubled regardless of their religious beliefs or lack of them and offer both spiritual and practical advice. Perhaps one of the loneliest position to be in on board is that of the Captain, and here, because of the lack of hierarchical boundaries, the chaplain can act as a critical and compassionate ‘friend’
Back on shore, the pastoral workers are also very busy. They are part of Aggie Weston’s, a charity set up in 1876 by Agnes Weston, a Christian who started by writing letters to lonely sailors at sea and then provided them with a home from home when they came ashore
This active and dedicated group of people help provide a welcome at The Haven and The Waterfront in the dockyard, as well as running a very successful ‘Bacon Butty’ morning on a Thursday at HMS Collingwood, and in the process raise hundreds of pounds for charity. They also work out in the community at places like Hilsea, Portsmouth and Rowner, Gosport where many naval families live.
This very brief overview hardly does justice to the multiple tasks that the chaplaincy service undertakes and doesn’t really look deeply at the tension in which Christian values and beliefs are held in an environment where people are ultimately trained to kill. I think that will definitely need a lot more reflection. Maybe something for another blog!
However, what I can say is a huge thank you for being allowed to enter this short time of ‘service’ and being made most graciously welcome.
* ‘Lusty’ refers to HMS Illustrious, who returned home after an extended deployment after she was diverted just before Christmas to offer aid in the Philippines following Typhoon Haiyan
http://www.royalnavy.mod.uk/The-Fleet/Medics-and-Chaplains/Chaplaincy-Services – Details of the Royal Naval Chaplaincy Services
http://aggies.org.uk/ – Details of the Work of the Aggie Weston’s charity