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Interview: Simon Rowlands,part-time Army chaplain

04 October 2013

'I've been exposed to challenges and opportunities on a physical and mental level I never dreamt of'

I'm Priest-in-Charge of St Mary of Charity, Faversham, and a reservist Army chaplain.

We have to come from a sending church, with a licence from our bishop. We have to do the same military training as other reservists, so, though we don't carry weapons, we can work alongside other soldiers.

We run the same risks as they do. It's both physically demanding and mentally and spiritually rewarding.

I'm currently serving a three-month tour at the UK Med Group Hospital in Camp Bastion, in Afghanistan. With pre-deployment training, and post-tour leave, I'll have been away from my parish for six months. I should be home and back to church for Advent Sunday. I only came to Faversham in February; so they have been very generous.

This is my first active service deployment, having been in the Reserves for seven years.

As a young child from North Wales, I explored the ruins of Valle Crucis Abbey near Llangollen. Something there spoke to me of God's presence and call. That call was eventually fulfilled at HQ - Canterbury Cathedral - at my ordination in 1999.

Before that, I was a highways engineer for accident investigation - mainly statistical work, used in the designing of road layouts after clusters of accidents.

The hospital is similar to a UK major-trauma centre. It's purpose-built, not a field hospital, but it's staffed by Army, Navy, and Air Force personnel, including American and Danish staff. I've been humbled to witness world-class medical care being delivered around the clock by a dedicated multinational team. There are about 14 chaplains deployed here at the moment.

The biggest difference is that the  patients mostly come in by aircraft. They're taken straight in to emergency department. As chaplains, we are completely integrated into the team; so we're paged in and stay alongside the patient if there are any concerns. Because we train alongside our soldiers, wherever they go they expect us to be. We're immensely privileged to have that welcome.

It's a completely holistic approach to medicine. Yesterday in intensive care, an American consultant was talking to me about his faith, how he is finding things, and that's important. When a nurse or a doctor finishes their shift at home, they go back to their family and talk about things with them; but here they would reflect on their day alone in their bed space; so that ability to share things is immensely important.

And for the soldiers, too. We sit next to them, and they talk to us about things they don't want to share with home and worry their family. They say things like: "I only had a scratch. . ." So I'm the person they will talk to.

In any ministry, either here or in the parish, being alongside those who are suffering is emotionally challenging. I'm supported by chaplains from all three services, and we work as one team supporting each other. Morning Prayer and shared meals are important times to meet - with a level of humour that is highly developed.

When an injured patient comes into the hospital, if they remind you of family or friends, either because of age or physical likeness, it can become emotionally very difficult. Being part of a team that cares for one another helps, but going to the hospital chapel for Evening Prayer to lay all my burden down in prayer makes the real difference.

Serving in the Reserves has expanded my ministerial horizons beyond what I thought was possible. I've been exposed to challenges and opportunities on a physical and mental level I never dreamt of - from initial training at the Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst, parachute training in Holland, to military exercises in the US and Cyprus.

The tempo and work pattern here is hard, because we receive patients round the clock. You also see things you'd rather not see. But I'm based with a team who are completely committed to what they do, and who involve you in the decision-making.

Time and again, the words "love your neighbour as yourself" echo through my mind. Patients of different nationalities and ages come to the hospital. It's a multi-national force here; so there are Estonian, Jordanian, US, Danish, Australian troops on the ground, among others, and we also treat the Afghan police and army, and occasionally some civilians. The international troops will have a liaison officer if they don't speak English, but we have sufficient language skills to manage in the hospital.

Two Jordanian imams came to say hello to me yesterday. We have an international chaplains' meeting once a week. Yesterday, there was an Orthodox Jordanian priest, the American rabbi, and a Lutheran Danish minister joining us.

The most important decision of my life was marrying Gail 28 years ago this November. She keeps the strain of all this to herself, but she's part of the parish, and has a great support network around her. Although she isn't with other army wives, it's amazing how many people from the Forces come out of the woodwork to give support.

Without the love and support of my family I would simply be unable to function as I do. On a very simple level, prayers, letters, emails, and morale boxes with sweets and biscuits is manna from heaven.

The thing I'm most looking forward to when I get back? A cup of tea. And my family - that goes without saying.

I am thankful that I believe in miracles, as I have now watched Wrexham FC lose in the play-offs for promotion back into the football league on two successive years. Come on, guys: man up!

I'd like to be remembered as someone trying to be alongside others, even if unsure of what to say or do.

Thomas Merton and Benedictine spirituality have influenced me a lot. Merton's writing is both contemplative and grounded in the honesty of human frailty.

I love to explore the rugged coastline of Northumbria with my wife for a holiday. Canterbury is my spiritual home, with the majesty of the cathedral and the quiet contemplation and friendship of the Franciscan community at Greyfriars.

Jesus's encounter with blind Bartimaeus comes immediately to mind. We can be so blind to God's presence in our lives, his love for us and what he calls us to be, to simply be our-selves.

Being dyslexic, I was always worried as a youngster in church about mispronouncing a family or place name when I was reading the lesson. So any person who reads in church who stumbles over a pronunciation has my sympathy.

I'm happiest re-reading The Lord of the Rings with a glass of single malt in my hand, and The Sixteen on the CD player. Or on a family dog-walk with my wife and son to Faversham Creek to see the moored boats, stopping to enjoy a pint of Shepherd Neame en route. The brewery sits between the vicarage and the church; so the smell of hops and beer brewing is part of my normal pattern of life at home.

When I heard the radio broadcast reporting the vote in the House of Commons over possible action in Syria, I was saddened to hear the cheering of some of the MPs when the result was announced. Whichever way the vote went, lives were at risk, and that's such a solemn prospect that it deserves respect.

I use the Jesus Prayer as a route into prayer, and then try and have both silent contemplation and petition for those in my care, both in the parish and in the regiment; and, especially being away from home, placing my family into God's care.

I'd choose to be locked in a church with the Channel 4 commissioning editor, to try and persuade him or her to rethink the decision to drop Time Team. A winter Sunday evening after evensong is just not going to be the same without it.

The Revd Simon Rowlands was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.

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