THE centenary of (AO) No. 92 was marked in the Guards’ Chapel, London, on Friday with more ceremony, one imagines, than Army Orders 1 to 91.
Number 92, issued by King George V, bestowed the prefix “Royal” upon the Army Chaplains’ Department on 22 February 1919, in honour of its service during the First World War.
The King’s granddaughter attended the service: in a message printed in the order of service, the Queen praised the way in which army chaplains “have remained quietly dedicated an steadfast in their calling, providing spiritual support, moral guidance and pastoral care to all soldiers, wherever they serve”.
The chapel was packed with chaplains and their supporters (later praised by the Chaplain General, “CG”, the Ven. Clinton Langston, as the people who “have a coffee and put their arms round the padre”) — the largest gathering of forces chaplains since the service to commemorate the bicentenary of the department in 1996.
Any service would be moving in that chapel built on the foundations of the one destroyed by a flying bomb that killed 126 worshippers on 18 June 1944, and festooned with the gossamer-thin standards of former campaigns. Adding to the effect was the music played by the Band of the Grenadier Guards, including Elgar and Barber.
On Friday, moreover, the service was interspersed with accounts by chaplains who had served in the past century. All were concerned with bereavement or burial. It was a reminder that army chaplains are often called upon when people and situations are in extremis.
A one-page handout exists that sums up the Royal Army Chaplains’ Department: the number of serving chaplains (129 regulars, 53 in reserve, 92 available to the cadet forces); medals awarded to chaplains (three VCs, 72 DCOs, 542 MMs, etc.); the chaplains’ motto (“In this sign conquer”), and so on.
The key statistic, though, is for chaplains killed in action: 179 in the First World War, 96 in the Second, and more since. This is not a requirement of the job, but, as the preacher at the service, the Rt Revd Paul Mason, reminded the congregation, Christ’s example was that of the shepherd who lays down his life for his sheep.
During the service, the last chaplain to be killed by hostile action was remembered: Fr Gerald Weston. A Roman Catholic priest, he was one of seven people killed by the IRA bombing of the Aldershot barracks on 22 February 1972, 47 years ago to the day.
The message was that a chaplain who was unwilling to endure the same privations, the same danger, as the soldiers do will not command their respect. It is not a vocation that suits everyone, and CG, in his address to the assembled chaplains after the service, took the unusual step of recalling with gratitude those who had tried out a ministry in the department and failed: “those willing to give it a go and test their vocation. It is not always easy to be an army padre.”
He was most concerned, though, with enthusing the chaplains present as they faced the years ahead. In the shadow of their wartime predecessors, whose work had been so tied up with death, he urged them to be people who lived life to the full.