Select Committee on Armed Forces Minutes of Evidence

Examination of witness (Questions 1052 - 1059)

TUESDAY 6 MARCH 2001 Afternoon sitting



  1052. Good afternoon. Can I give a very warm welcome indeed to the Chaplain-General. We are very pleased that you have been able to come along and give evidence to the Committee this afternoon. Indeed, I would say that serving on this Committee has provided me with an invaluable education in the invaluable role that chaplains play in our Armed Services. We certainly had some very useful contact last week when we were visiting Kosovo and Cyprus and it was a bit of an eye-opener in many ways to the very many and very important roles that they can play. A very warm welcome to you, Chaplain-General. Is there anything you would like to say by way of opening comments or remarks?

  (The Venerable John Blackburn) No, other than to thank you for your welcome.

  Chairman: Thank you. Can I open it up to the Committee then and ask who would like to lead off. Mr Key?

Mr Key

  1053. Thank you. Chaplain-General, five years ago when this Committee was doing its work, and I was a Member of that Bill Committee as well, we were quite distressed to discover that there was any question that traditional confidentiality between a priest and anybody else should possibly be interrupted by the chain of command. That was in particular in connection with the issue of homosexuality, which I think is behind us. Nevertheless, it raised a very important issue and we recommended in our report then that things should change and it should be quite clear for padres to know exactly where they stood, not least because, of course, the chain of command situation is different between the padres in the different services because in the Army you have a rank and in the Navy you do not. Did what we say make any difference? Did anything happen to clarify the position of confidentiality in the chain of command?
  (The Venerable John Blackburn) It was clarified in the sense that my predecessor wrote a letter in 1996 on 27 July, and here I speak from the Army perspective, which was signed by himself and the Deputy Chaplain-General and the principal Roman Catholic chaplain pointing out that confidentiality was to be an absolute and that all servicemen needed to be reassured, if you like, that anything that was divulged to a chaplain would not be passed on to the chain of command. I happen to think that this was well understood before but it would appear that there were one or two exceptions to this rule. It is well enshrined now, it is in the Chaplain's Handbook, and that position that Victor Dobbin, my predecessor, applied also has the full endorsement of the Assembly of Churches.

  1054. Thank you. A commanding officer said to us in Kosovo only last week that the chaplaincy had been on the spot in that terrible bombing of the bus carrying Serbs and that, in fact, this was far beyond the apparent duties of Army chaplains, but in the end everyone relied on them wholly and, as he put it, they are always bottom of the pecking order until you discover you really need them. I did get the impression, and I have had the impression over some years, that you are always regarded as bottom of the pecking order when it comes to supplies of very basic things like transport, private rooms in which you can actually give a great big hunk of a man who wants to have a good cry a shoulder to cry on in private. It seems to me you are always going to be bottom of the pecking order unless someone suggests you ought to be otherwise. Do you feel that the Army, Navy and Air Force chaplains are, in fact, adequately resourced for the work that you do?
  (The Venerable John Blackburn) The mounting instruction, for example, for the operations in the Balkans makes it absolutely clear that a chaplain requires a land rover and a driver so he can get around and do his work. Clearly you cannot have a chaplain driving around and then turning up feeling fresh and ready for whatever tasks might be there for him. Equally, in the United Kingdom we do need a private office, a telephone line which is not a shared line, and other matters. Most of my chaplains, I think, now have mobile phones, for example. At regimental and battalion duty they do not have a dedicated clerk but the administrative burden of the chaplain at that particular level of duty is not that onerous. I think overall we are fairly well resourced, but if you were to say to me do we get the brightest, the best kit that comes off the line like tomorrow, I would have to say that is probably not the case. Equally, I would want to say to you, as I think any other Service Director would have to say, I never get all the kit that I would really want.

Mr Keetch

  1055. Chaplain-General, the most ultimate sacrifice that any member of Her Majesty's armed forces can do, of course, is to lay down their lives, and the CDS referred to Bombardier Brad Timmin who was serving with 22 SAS when he was killed in the Sierra Leone conflict, and I know as an MP for Hereford that that regiment looks after its chaplaincy very well and has a very high regard for its chaplaincy and for the family ethos, and sadly last week another member of the regiment was buried who was killed in a car crash. Can you just explain to us what you feel the role of the chaplaincy is when a member of a regiment is killed in relation to their families?
  (The Venerable John Blackburn) When a member of HM Forces is killed there is a Casualty Visiting Officer appointed and it is the duty of the Casualty Visiting Officer to actually go to the next of kin and explain what has happened. In a lot of cases an Army chaplain will go along with the Casualty Visiting Officer, both to be there for the family and to support that officer in a task which is a particularly difficult one. Thereafter we, along with the Casualty Visiting Officer, will take a lead in arranging the funeral if that is the case, that is from the spiritual point of view, and go back and support the family from time to time afterwards. When that family leaves the service environment we would then immediately liaise with the local cleric so he could then pick up that support. Once a family has left the service environment we cannot go on extending any care to that family in the way we did when they were within the forces because we simply do not have the resources to do so.

  1056. You used the expression "next of kin" and I am going to be very deliberate about what I say on this. What I am about to say has already been in the national press and in the public domain. In the case of the incident that the Chief of Defence Staff referred to of the soldier killed in Sierra Leone, he was not actually married but he did have a long-term partner. The Defence Select Committee noted in the report they issued that 12 per cent of the service people now live with their partners as opposed to being married. Do you see that your chaplaincy role extends to partners as well as simply to married spouses?
  (The Venerable John Blackburn) I would expect all my chaplains to deal very sensitively and carefully with anyone who was in a serious relationship, if I can put it that way, with the deceased. It is not my job to go in and be a judge in any way about that relationship, but to recognise that there is a need, and a need which we might have some particular skills in helping them go through. That is the way I would expect my chaplains to behave and it is certainly the way that I have behaved in the past. If there is a need for spiritual support and help I would try to be supportive.

  1057. So, just to make it absolutely clear, as Chaplain-General, as the chief religious chaplain within the Army service, you do not distinguish between a couple, whether that couple is married or whether that couple, as you have said, has a long-term, loving relationships, you regard that couple as the same?
  (The Venerable John Blackburn) I do not think I am saying that. I am saying I am recognising that there might be a need for spiritual support. As a Christian priest, of course, I would wish to uphold the formal state of matrimony. I know, for example, that this Government and the opposition are both seeking ways to strengthen matrimony. What I am saying is that we have to deal with the situation as it presents itself to us and if there is somebody in need of spiritual support I would give it to them. It is the self-same way that Jesus spoke to a woman at the well in Samaria who had been in four relationships before.

  Mr Keetch: I am grateful.


  1058. I know Mr Watts wants to come in.
  (The Venerable John Blackburn) By the way, I am not setting myself up as Jesus when I say that.

  Chairman: I also know that Mr Randall wants to come in but he has to leave imminently so, with Mr Watts' permission, I will give Mr Randall the opportunity to come in and then Mr Watts.

Mr Randall

  1059. Chaplain-General, do you think there are enough Service chaplains?
  (The Venerable John Blackburn) There was a study undertaken into the spiritual needs of the Army by Brigadier Ian McGill and Brigadier Ian McGill took as a base line that every operational unit should have a chaplain. That would enhance my establishment by about 50 chaplains. That report was presented to the Army Board who took note of it. I am now under remit to try to recruit more chaplains. This is a very difficult area because, for example, the average age of ordination is rising, so the broadest age band of ordinations now in the Church of England is between the ages of 40 and 50. The number that got ordained, shall we say, in the 30 to 40 bracket, perhaps it would be wider than that, was 240 last year. Given that I need to recruit 12 out of 15 just to stand still every year, given that the Navy and the Air Force together would need to recruit that number, you can see that this is a pretty heavy recruiting mandate that I am under. Equally, if you look at the Church of Scotland, for example, they ordained 19 men last year, the Roman Catholics about 39. Because of the age barrier, that limits their military service and equally it limits the time that I can take to develop these men. Given that I have to go back to the sending churches, the 50 extra that I need are going to be extremely difficult to get, so the Army have said to me "take between five and ten years to do it". It is going to be an uphill struggle. I have not got sufficient chaplains in answer to your question. I think the likelihood of getting sufficient in the short run is going to be extremely difficult. The fact that chaplains and other professionally qualified officers can now serve until they are 60 will be of some help, but clearly what you can expect of a man of 58 and what you can expect of a man or a woman of 28 is somewhat different.

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