- A.N. Other
- History - general
- RAN Ships
- None noted.
- December 2013 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
By Rev Dr Melissa Baker RAN
…the drenching spray as the ship thudded into each on-coming wave and then rose upon it, the loneliness amid the dull green or grey-black expanse of the ocean all around, the occasional appearance of the long black shape of a shadowing German bomber, the care that had to be exercised on the wet and rolling deck, especially by the torpedo tubes, where the guard rail did not exist, the smell of oil which in proximity to the galley was augmented by that of cooking, the nausea which, until sea-legs had been gained, caused every opportunity of remaining in the open to be gratefully accepted, and the abiding necessity of having to perform assigned duty.
Chaplain Gordon Taylor HMS Arrow, April 1941
Over centuries, Australians have served in the military through wars, terrorist threats, peacekeeping activities and natural disasters with chaplains standing alongside military personnel. The role of the navy chaplain, also known in ages past as the sea chaplain, has not changed much throughout history. Chaplains have provided pastoral care for the spiritual, physical and emotional health of their constituents, sometimes through difficult circumstances as described above by the Chaplain in HMS Arrow during World War II.
The etymology of the word chaplain comes from medieval Latin ‘capellanus’. Priests travelled with armies and would carry relics of the saints, including the soldier’s cape known as Cappa St Martin, as they performed mass, heard confessions, assigned penances and provided last rites before men went into battle. Chaplains carried out the role of Almoner, which comes from the Greek ‘eleimosyne’ meaning pity, compassion, kindness and almsgiving.
The Bible recorded the earliest sea chaplain in 60AD, when Paul the Apostle led a communion service on board an Egyptian ship headed for Italy. It was during the midst of a fourteen day storm that Paul broke bread and encouraged the two hundred and seventy six sailors onboard. As Christianity spread across the Mediterranean, the governments and rulers of the day provided sea chaplains to care for sailors and soldiers afloat by using the Word of God as their swords.
The rank of Chaplain is one of the oldest ranks in the Fleet, along with Boatswains and Gunners, dating back as far as 1298. The first named paid sea chaplain recorded in Royal Navy history was Robert of Sandwich, appointed during the reign of Henry VIII on 6 pence a day, twice the pay of a sailor and half that of a Captain. It was not until the reign of Charles I in 1626 that a formal naval chaplaincy began when, by Royal Decree, no king’s ship was to go to sea without a preacher onboard. At this stage, Chaplains were classed as Warrant Officers. Over this next century the number of chaplains increased and by 1793, there were 58 chaplains serving in the Royal Navy with their pay and status largely remaining unchanged.
The Reverend Richard Johnson – Chaplain to the First Fleet
In keeping with the tradition of providing chaplaincy services to military units, John Newton (Church of England minister), William Wilberforce (politician and advocate for abolition of slavery) and William Pitt (Prime Minister) were instrumental in ensuring that an evangelical Christian would be Chaplain as part of the military establishment of the Colony of New South Wales. Thus, the first appointed sea chaplain was a Church of England minister, the Reverend Richard Johnson (1753-1827). Johnson received a military style commission on 24 October 1786 and arrived as part of the First Fleet as an official along with crew members and marines and their families and convicts on 26 Jan 1788. From his letters it seems loneliness and frustration as a chaplain was a common theme.
The first chaplain to the Colony of NSW discovered much about himself in his ministry and other roles in education and social issues including the welfare of aboriginal people, through dangerous and hard conditions throughout his twelve years in the colony. Rev Johnson was a young man of 35 years of age, he had completed three years of Bible College at Cambridge and three years as a Church of England minister before taking on this chaplain role into new territory. His farming background certainly put him in good stead with the harsh land and food shortages by sowing pips he obtained in Brazil, beginning the colony’s first citrus orchard. Interestingly he named his first child with an aboriginal name, Milbah, which illustrated the love he had for anyone he met.
In his first few years since leaving England on 30 October 1792, Rev Johnson had already performed more burials (854) than marriages (220) and baptisms (226) combined. He struggled to encourage others to take up the Gospel which he fervently lived by, and eventually opened Australia’s first church on 25 Aug 1793. The church was subsequently burnt down, although is remembered by a monument on the site at Richard Johnson Square on the corner of Bligh and Hunter Streets, Sydney.
Reverend Samuel Marsden (1764–1838, Anglican Minister) arrived on 10 March 1794 as an assistant chaplain to Johnson. In 1801 Johnson, in poor health, sold his land at Ryde and returned to England. Reverend Marsden, who had settled and established a church in Parramatta, became a wealthy land owner, rivalling John Macarthur in developing the wool industry. He was also a magistrate whom the Irish Catholics called the ‘Flogging Parson’ due to his excessive sentences of corporal punishment. In 1814, he made the first of many visits to the then lawless Bay of Islands and claimed to have conducted the first Christian service in New Zealand.
Changing Role of Chaplaincy at Sea
The role of chaplaincy at sea remained largely unchanged for many years, as a Church of England sea chaplain from 1840 described his sea time, similar to chaplains today serving their on board an operational warship:
‘A sea life is at best a life of privation; and a Naval Chaplain must naturally have his share of it. He is alone, as it were, in the midst of a busy world; he has no one of his own profession, as all around him have, with whom to converse; even the technical phrases whichever and anon meet his ear are, for some considerable period, as unintelligible to him…while he enters the service when it is all but too late to alter his habits so as to accommodate them to his new mode of life, without in some measure compromising his character as a Minister of the Gospel.’
How the chaplain carries out his/her duties is dependent on cultural and social structures that are important to society at the time. Social structures are essentially where we draw our behaviour, knowledge and experiences, which includes aesthetics, ancestry, heritage, language, patterns, religion and traditions. One then tends to socialise within groups within the culture that has shaped our characteristics, such as age, gender, ideology, neighbourhood, religion, social class or work. This perhaps explains why sailors tended to socialise together, as no one can ever quite understand what they go through other than another sailor.
Until recently, churches used to be a central connection place in the town where majority of people would attend on Sundays as their social gathering. This tradition carried itself on board naval ships, where up until 1946 in the Royal Navy it was compulsory for the ship’s company to attend church and the chaplain read prayers as part of the daily divisions. Today, chaplains at sea would be lucky to get ten sailors attend church.
Chaplaincy in the RAN
Prior to 1901, chaplains were attached to naval and army units of the colonial forces, such as the Naval Artillery Volunteers of the NSW Naval Forces. Rev Isaac Armitage served for six years in this role and then was one of the few who carried on in active service into China during the Boxer Rebellion when he accompanied the Naval Contingent. Soon after the inauguration of the RAN in 1911 initiatives were undertaken to form a chaplaincy, drawing upon centuries of Royal Naval experiences. The task was not made easy with much scrutiny from the various churches, with significant internal divisions between denominations.
In Melbourne on 26 February 1912, Church of England Archbishop Clarke met with the Naval Board to formulate a chaplaincy proposal for the Royal Australian Navy. This resulted in an agreement being reached that each ship and establishment should have one chaplain and the system was to be ecumenical with the appointment of Protestant Chaplains ‘who had no extreme views’. Other agreed terms included the appointment of five chaplains (three Church of England and two Protestant denominations) appointed for two years with a six month probation period, paid 15 shillings a day and only half the rations allowance of other officers. A committee was established representing the three largest denominations (Church of England, Presbyterian and Methodist) to make appointments of chaplains.
The Roman Catholic Archbishop Carr of Melbourne was disappointed with this decision and wrote to the Minister for Defence to ensure Catholic participation on the same footing as other denominations. A formal agreement on the appointment of chaplains with the Anglican and Protestant churches and a separate agreement with the Catholic Church were approved on 17 June 1912.
The first two chaplains to serve in the Royal Australian Navy were the Rev Garnet Eric Shaw (Church of England) and the Rev Alexander Tulloh (Presbyterian); both were commissioned on 8 August 1912. CHAP Tulloh was the first to serve at sea in HMAS Melbourne in 1913, part of a new ship, a new navy and a new nation. The first Roman Catholic fleet chaplain, the Rev Patrick Joseph Gibbons, was appointed shortly after with a seniority of 16 August 1912, he also served in HMAS Australia. They were later joined by the Rev Vivian Agincourt Little (17 December 1912); the Rev Frederick Riley, a Church of England priest (4 February 1913) who served firstly in Australia and later became a Senior Naval Instructor; the Rev William Hall, a Church of England chaplain on loan from the Royal Navy and a Naval Instructor (4 November 1912) who served at the Naval College, then at Geelong. By the end of 1913, there were six full-time chaplains and sixty-three reservists; the latter attended land camps at their own cost, in most ports around Australia.
In keeping with their Royal Naval counterparts the new RAN chaplains wore no badges of rank. The RN dress code of chaplains introduced in 1891 was more in keeping with the dress worn at an English Victorian rectory and unsuitable to naval service, especially afloat in varying climates. Over time this was unofficially modified by the wearing of plain naval jackets with a clerical collar being the only distinguishing feature. Early chaplains are often shown sporting mortar boards but this may have more to do with their often ancillary scholastic tasks. While naval instructors wore uniform from 1916 (which then included the Reverend Riley) it was not until 1929 that agreement was reached on uniform to be worn by naval chaplains. Interestingly chaplains wear a slightly different peaked cap and cap badge to other naval officers, said to have been designed by Winston Churchill when he was First Lord of the Admiralty. Their proud motto is ‘For God and Country’.
CHAP Tulloh and other RAN chaplains maintained the centuries-old practice, preaching and praying were a major part of the chaplain’s duties as was the celebration of Holy Communion. If no chaplain was present on board, then the Captain, often twice daily, read prayers. Other activities of sea chaplains included: taking charge of the ship’s sporting clubs; running the seamen’s library; visiting the ship’s sick bay and cells; visiting the homes of parents in appropriate ports; answering letters from anxious parents and wives; organising ship visits; and listening to the problems of sailors and families. From the beginning, RAN chaplains considered a major part of their role was the promotion of moral values, especially in dealing with the detrimental effects of the behaviour of naval personnel after excessive consumption of alcohol, marital stress caused by lengthy separation, and grief counselling.
By the early part of the 19th century the pay of naval chaplains and schoolmasters had not increased and it was becoming increasingly difficult to attract and retain suitable applicants. As a result in 1812 the so called ‘Chaplain’s Charter’ was introduced whereby HM Ships carrying greater than twenty guns were entitled to carry a chaplain. There were significantly increased salaries of £150, plus an allowance for a servant, provision of a cabin and messing with the officers. An added bonus of £20 was paid to chaplains willing to accept the additional duties of schoolmaster. While this was quite a handsome package many senior clergy took exception to a seemingly lower status of school duties. Every chaplain that served greater than eight years of actual sea service, and not absent more than six weeks, with recorded good conduct and moral behaviour by respective Captains, was entitled to half-pay or pension, which was 5 shillings per day.
Chaplains as Schoolmasters
Schoolmasters, who later became known as naval instructors, and chaplains coexisted for many years. The attached extract from a 1913 Navy List shows Chaplains and Naval Instructors listed together and it was not unusual for the former to be employed as naval instructors and where no instructor was borne the chaplain was obliged to fulfil these duties. As previously mentioned CHAPs Hall and Riley had done so. It can also be seen that CHAP Hall was listed separately to the other chaplains.
Even as late as 1918 the annual report of school instruction in the aged cruiser HMAS Encounter, which in that year became a training ship (firstly without a naval instructor), was submitted by CHAP Vivian Thompson and subsequently forwarded by the Captain without comment to the Naval Secretary. Within this correspondence Thompson says:
‘The work is hampered, too, by an inadequate stationery allowance. In a ship that carries a large number of Boys, as this ship does, I beg to suggest that the Stationery allowance be increased. I have supplied necessary items from my own pocket because they were not within the scope of the allowance.’
Thompson had transferred to the RAN from the Army. He was a tall, thin man, who conducted services in a large clerical outfit which complemented the university graduate’s gown. Perhaps this is how the Cassock, which Protestant and Anglican RAN chaplains receive today, was established. When Thompson joined the RAN there were fewer than fifteen university graduates in its ranks. Naval chaplains were usually the best educated and continued to undertake the traditional functions of Naval Instructors long after they ceased to hold both titles formally.
CHAP Tulloh’s report from HMAS Canberra bears similarities to the experiences of chaplains today. First, it was a two year posting as majority of our postings are now. Second, the progress report is recognisable in today’s Naval Officer Performance Appraisal Report (NOPAR). Third, as described by the Captain, a chaplain’s personality and interests in performing the role of a sea chaplain is not much different some 75 years on. One notable difference however is that Tulloh had been in the service for 26 years and was still actively undertaking a full sea posting.
Working on a warship takes a toll on every sailor including the chaplain. Whether it was a century ago or today, the chaplain is alone in their role and it is also difficult to find quiet space to do counselling, worship on Sunday or deliver workshops. Space is at a premium with many competing interests and chaplains need to make the best with what they have.
Chaplain Pendleton-Stewart who joined in May 1913, carried on with integrity through difficult work conditions on board Encounter without adequate space to care for and support men and conduct instructional classes. In his annual reported dated 18 February 1914 he writes:
‘There is no quiet place set apart within the ship where the men can meet for classes conducted for their moral and mental improvement. Under present conditions it is not possible for the Chaplain to conduct voluntary religious services or classes with any degree of satisfaction. I submit that more effective work could be done by the Chaplains in the Royal Australian Navy if they were granted a measure of independence in carrying out their efforts for the benefit of the men.’
This is not too different to today from my experiences onboard warship HMAS Melbourne in 2013: ‘It is certainly a balance game in finding the appropriate spaces as a chaplain on board a ship. You have to be a very good reader of people and decide advantageously what is the best direction forward on many things including where and when one sits, reflects, works, stops’.
Chaplains on active service
Like their colleagues, sea chaplains have also entered battles, been killed in action during wartime and achieved courageous acts. The New Zealand Maori War called for an increased naval presence which included the 21 gun screw ship HMS Orpheus. Making for Auckland in February 1863 she struck the bar at the entrance to Manakau Harbour on the west coast of the North Island where she broke up. Of the ship’s company of 256 only 69 were saved; among the dead was her chaplain Charles Haslewood, the first naval chaplain to die on active service in Australian waters.
Shortly after the declaration of WW I coded German signal traffic in the Pacific region was being intercepted. This was passed to Dr Frederick Wheatley, a Senior Naval Instructor, for decoding. The task proving difficult, the services of a naval chaplain the Rev Frederick Riley were called upon who helped decipher these important messages leading the Allies to predict the intentions of the German Pacific Fleet. Unfortunately for the church Riley became a full-time Naval Instructor.
CHAP Tulloh was serving in HMAS Melbourne at the time of the Sydney/Emden engagement of 9 November 1914; he was also employed as the ship’s Intelligence Officer. The non-combatant roles of the clergy and the tasks assigned to both Tulloh and Riley, because of their foreign language skills, may have compromised their status.
A world away in the bleak and cold waters of the North Sea, Australia was unfortunately involved in a collision and unable to see action at Jutland. Her chaplain Patrick Gibbons was lent to the battlecruiser HMS Indomitable, becoming one of a handful of members of the RAN to participate in this great naval battle in May 1916.
The Second World War was particularly severe on ships and men, and chaplains too paid the ultimate sacrifice. CHAP George Stubbs, RAN died on 19 November 1941 on board HMAS Sydney with the entire ship’s company of 647 men when the ship sank after a fatal engagement with the German raider Kormoran off Shark Bay in the Indian Ocean.
In March 1942 HMAS Perth was sunk in the Battle of Sundra Strait and with the 353 men lost was CHAP Ronald Bevington. A few months later in August 1942 HMAS Canberra was sunk in the Battle of Savo Island. Her chaplain Lawrence Nash who had only been in the cruiser for three months survived when he was rescued by a USN destroyer.
Another chaplain to lose his life in Australian waters was Ernest Laverick, an Army Chaplain who was serving in the hospital ship HMAHS Centaur when she was torpedoed and sunk off the Queensland coast on 14 May 1943.
One of the ironies of war occurred to CHAP Keith Mathieson who was a passenger in Perth on his way to join HMAS Hobart. Perth refuelled at Batavia (Jakarta) on 23 February and when Hobart arrived a short time later a boat was lowered to take Mathieson and his gear to his new ship. Half way across the boat was recalled as both ships made for sea owing to an imminent Japanese air raid. Mathieson, now once more in Perth, survived her sinking but was captured by the Japanese and interned as a prison-of-war serving on the notorious Burma Thailand Railway where he was affectionately known as the ‘Navy Padre’. Here he demonstrated true courage and commitment in helping maintain morale and survival in deplorable conditions with under- nourished men driven to hard labour and, suffering from disease, dying in large numbers. Being a good communicator Mathieson sought out sympathetic guards and gained extra food to help the sick. He ministered to the many that fell ill and buried with dignity those who died. He maintained a diary and as a survivor when he later returned to Australia he wrote wonderful comforting letters of compassion to the next of kin of those that he had buried, giving details of where they lay. Much debilitated by his experiences, Keith Mathieson was an unsung hero of a cruel war.
RAN chaplains have continued to support their comrades in all wars and conflicts from both World Wars, through Korea and Vietnam, Confrontation and Peacekeeping roles in which the RAN has participated.
Chaplaincy in today’s Navy
Navy chaplains are expected to have completed three to four years of Bible College training with their church denomination, be an ordained minister, completed at least two years of pastoral experience, be deemed suitable by the appropriate denominational Principal Chaplain and be endorsed by the Religious Advisory Committee to the Services. It is through this extended process and the Officer Selection Board that the Royal Australian Navy can assess whether the chaplain will uphold the Navy values and be a responsible leader before attending the New Entry Officer Course at HMAS Creswell.
Essentially, sea chaplains are bridge builders and through being available they become a minister of presence and a peacemaker in a troubled world. Recently, whilst at sea, I reflected upon my role as a sea chaplain: ‘What is it to be a chaplain at sea?’ It is a hard gig for chaplain standing alone in a fortress of war trying to bring peace to young sailors who at this time are focused on a role that is sometimes beyond them. The young are learning weapons of war in peaceful times through aids and games: if it actually came to the crunch would we succeed? Everyone is doing something that trains towards one goal. Here the chaplain stands, but separated, providing moral support to those on board so they can best attaint their goals. But then there are special moments, in being in the right place at the right time, being there for someone when their world caves in. Giving advice or a suggestion to someone who is unsure which route to take – that’s precious.
Not only do cultural social structures and learned behaviour dictate the way roles change over years, even in the various generations we see differences. For instance from my doctoral studies, the Baby Boomers, who are the majority of today’s navy chaplains, believe that the way they look (i.e. their dress code) is more important than behaviour, whereas Generation X rates image to be the lowest denominator and the way someone behaves is far more important (i.e. morality). The majority of sailors today, Generation Y, will think differently again. This, and the way society now connects with others outside of the village church, has meant that ministers, albeit chaplains, need to think differently in the way they ‘do’ church. New models such as emerging church and organic church are being constructed in some societies as a new phase in the community, moving away from the traditional, and yet most chaplains in their seagoing service on a Sunday at sea continue to practice the old traditions of church that have been part of the navy since its inception with the majority of sailors having NRel (no religion) on their ID tags.
In a rapidly changing world of increased personal freedom of multiculturalism in a largely secularised society, the conservative nature of the armed services and the church has to change in order to remain relevant. Chaplains remain an important part of the Armed Services, even though the culture of the church has changed significantly. Governments and hierarchy have seen the impact chaplains have made over time and they are just as integral to the system as other categories. In more recent times, women have been encouraged to join the ministry and we now have a chaplain from outside the Christian faith.
The role of sea chaplains is a lonely and sometimes isolating task, nevertheless with great rewards. Whether serving as a chaplain in the early RAN times, through World Wars or in today’s new generation, chaplains fought through hardships and difficulties, shared similar lonely experiences and difficult times sometimes at cost to their own lives. Today however we are better resourced and prepared for the tasks ahead. The chaplain stands as a secure and dependable friend willing to serve, care and support those in need. As we learn from our history the standards to which chaplains operate should never fall below the exacting standards set by our predecessors all those many years ago.