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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
The Revd Simon Rowlands was talking to Terence Handley