Friday, July 8, 2011

Musings on military chaplaincy - part 1

A friend, who is a senior active duty Air Force officer, and I have exchanged several emails regarding military chaplaincy. The conversation reveals some of the problems that the shift toward a more evangelical Christianity in the United States as a whole and the military in particular poses for non-evangelical Christians in the military. I have sanitized the conversation to avoid any complications for active duty personnel and use it with my friend’s consent. I have also added some additional reflections to this two-part post.

My friend wrote:

We have a small on-post Lutheran Chapel Service here in [an overseas] community which has become our temporary Church home. While we have always had an assigned unit chaplain (last one was a Mormon), most of our weekly ministers have been rotating English speaking [host country] ministers from the local community up till now. The congregation is mixed but predominately ELCA (Evangelical Lutheran Church in America with whom the Episcopal Church has intercommunion with), obviously open communion, tolerant, etc. -- we have really enjoyed it!

Out of the blue, we were just assigned a Missouri Synod Lutheran (MS) minister. Nice guy – young – in his late 20s -- he suggests we keep the [host country] ministers coming but he preaches half the time. As I suspect you are well aware, the ELCA and MS "cooperate" in the military chaplaincy program from way back when the denominations were a "bit closer." While that agreement stands, the denominations have "moved apart" over the years. They are not in communion. As a simple congregant, none of this is a problem for me. I am happy to be challenged. I don't consider the chaplain less Christian than I.

What bothers me is that he has stated to our chapel council (I'm the current Treasurer) that he is unable in good conscience commune with us. In the only service he has attended, he and his wife would not "come to our table." He has stated that he is "reluctant" to hold communion on Sunday's when he is preaching, and suggests we curtail our weekly communion on those Sunday's to resolve this problem. He has tenderly stated that he doesn't believe that women are appropriate for the pulpit, and perhaps won't be able to attend Sundays when females are preaching. I think you get the general drift here! I understand that military chaplaincies don't get to "call" a minister as at our home church, but I wonder why would he or the Chief of Chaplains (a Baptist, I think) believe this is a good fit.

I replied to my friend as follows:

Sadly, the situation you describe is pretty common. The number of Missouri Synod military chaplains was increasing at the time of my retirement five years ago and, I suspect, has continued to do so. Obviously, these individuals must be assigned some place.

In parallel with their increasing numbers, the Missouri Synod chaplains seem to have become more inflexible. I worked for a MS chaplain while on the staff of the Navy Chief of Chaplains in the late 1980s/early 1990s (he a CAPT, I a LCDR). He and I shared in an Ash Wednesday service, which was radical for his faith group even though we did not have communion as part of the service. The MS does not have pulpit and altar fellowship (their term) with any group except the Wisconsin Synod Lutherans (ironically, the Wisconsin Lutherans do not reciprocate, meaning that the MS in fact has pulpit and altar fellowship with nobody).

What changed the chaplain for whom I worked was his serving in Vietnam with a Marine regiment. He realized one day that if he did not offer all of them Holy Communion, then some might die without having had an opportunity to receive because he was the only Protestant chaplain available. Apparently, service in Afghanistan and Iraq has not had a similar, liberalizing effect on current MS chaplains.

My thoughts move in the direction of making the best of the situation that you can. From your description, the chaplain sounds more flexible than some MS chaplains whom I have known, e.g., wanting you to continue with the civilian clergy and being present when not conducting the service. An ELCA chaplain and I shared in an Episcopal-Lutheran service in the early 90s; one of us would preach, the other celebrate communion, reversing roles every week. When an MS chaplain reported for duty, he refused to attend when the ELCA chaplain and I were officiating and begrudgingly granted us permission to attend when he officiated, but only if we did so as lay people. The service was the responsibility of the MS chaplain; the ELCA chaplain and I had been covering until this pastor reported. The ELCA chaplain and I ended our participation, feeling unwelcome; most of the congregation then quit attending. Because this was at Pearl Harbor, people had more options than in a foreign country.

I'm lunching with the Episcopal Bishop for the Armed Forces today. His EA is a retired ELCA Navy chaplain. I know they both want to establish closer ties between the Episcopal and ELCA chaplaincies because they think that far greater commonality exists than between the ELCA and the Missouri Synod.

My friend responded:

Many thanks for your thoughts. I assumed that it might be an issue you have "lived" in the past.

I agree that closer ties between the Episcopal and ELCA chaplaincies (and perhaps the Presbyterians, Methodists, etc.) is long overdue.  In fact, I would go so far to say that traditional denominational brand loyalties are no longer helpful inside or outside the military. Seen as negatives by some, they may actually be dividing us and hampering our efforts to spread the true gospel. And I am more than willing to embrace a diversity of views as we work to come together, although but there ought to be a few areas of norms and acceptance -- LIKE OPEN COMMUNION!!!

On the issue at hand, my proposal may be that we consider having lay communion during the service so we can continue to offer open communion on a weekly basis. My memory is that this is acceptable in ELCA tradition if there isn't a pastor available to administer it -- that is effectively the position we appear to have been placed in. 

Thanks again for doing the blog. I am enriched by your thoughts and perspectives on a multitude or issues.


Ted said...

I have relatives who are MS and one is a minister. The very thought of the MS Chaplin pushing HIS type of religion while ignoring the others in the military is abysmal.
Why would he ever volunteer to minister to troops who may be from a variety of religions?
As I have sat through some MS meetings, they don't like anyone who is not MSUnbelievablele!!!
My question for the MS is if Jesus came to their church, could he receive communion?
The military has no color or creed. Lets keep it that way.

Chuck Till said...

Gail and I first visited an Episcopal church in 1986, after telephoning in advance to ascertain whether we could receive Communion. If the answer had been no, I doubt we would have attended. Closed Communion is an abomination.

Bill Gnade said...

Dear Fr. Clifford, et al.,

I am new here; I was referred to this blog by a FB friend.

I would like to comment about something Ted said in his comment. Here is what he said:

The very thought of the MS Chaplin pushing HIS type of religion while ignoring the others in the military is abysmal.[...] The military has no color or creed.

I would like to point out that this itself is a religious idea; there is a very politically active religious tradition in America that believes that a non-creedal faith is the very acme of religious sophistication. That tradition is Unitarian Universalism.

In other words, the MS chaplain in question, should he speak in a non-creedal, "pluralistic" and "inclusive" way, would be acting like a good Unitarian; he would, in fact, be applauded by UUs for being, well, like them. (And most if not all of them would cringe if he prayed specifically according to his own "faith tradition" in public.)

What shocks me -- well, what used to shock me -- is how blind liberal Christians (and other liberal religious folks) are to the undeniable fact that non-creedal expressions of faith are a religious position; and that the imposition of such a "neutral" expression is STILL an imposition of a particular religious view on others.

Lastly, if Americans of all stripes, and stars and stripes, are indeed tolerant and pluralistic, then it seems obvious that those who hold such qualities as virtues would have NO problem listening to a religious man exercise both his religious and free-speech rights when he publicly prays in "Jesus' name." (Of course, censure and censorship are also a form of free speech.)

Just some thoughts.

Thank you for your service, religious and otherwise.

May the peace of the Lord be always with you.

George Clifford said...

Bill, Welcome aboard and thanks for your comment. I disagree that the idea that the military “has no color or creed” is a religious idea. Not every idea or belief is religious. The position is philosophical and ethical but does not refer to any form of a higher power. As you probably are aware, scholars of religion vigorously debate what constitutes a religion. I personally like to apply Wittgenstein’s concept of family to the thorny task of defining religion. Unitarian-Universalism, like atheism and Theravadan Buddhism, are religions. Arguing that the military should not endorse a particular religion is not inherently a religious concept, although I suppose that some people might reach that position based on religious beliefs. I find my emphasis on a creedal free military rooted in the First Amendment to the Constitution. A number of religious traditions are non-creedal in addition to the Unitarian-Universalist, e.g., the American Baptists, the Quakers, many Buddhists, and many Hindus. The problem with praying in Jesus’ name occurs when people are ordered to attend the event: they then have no choice but to participate in what is at least partially a religious observance that may be at odds with their own tradition.

Bill Gnade said...

Dear Fr. Clifford,

I have just returned from traveling and have not had a chance, until now, to reply. Forgive me.

First, I hope you're doing well.

Second, I will stipulate (for sake of argument) that the military's "no color, no creed" position is not a religious one. But permit me to focus on something you wrote:

The problem with praying in Jesus’ name occurs when people are ordered to attend the event: they then have no choice but to participate in what is at least partially a religious observance that may be at odds with their own tradition.

It strikes me as problematic that you should construe the problem as you have. After all, the people who have been "ordered to attend" were not FORCED to enlist for military duty. These folks volunteered to be ordered to do X, Y, and Z. And what were they ordered to do, in the example you've given? They were ordered to attend a meeting wherein someone exercised his or her free speech right to pray in the name of Jesus.

Aren't military personnel fighting to protect free speech? Aren't they in reality supposed to be tolerant, capable of listening to words they may not approve? Isn't it true that soldiers give their lives to protect freedoms they themselves may find offensive? Surely there are soldiers who loath pornography and yet will die to maintain the freedom of artistic expression we enjoy in the US, no? How is it, then, that soldiers would be offended when they attend a meeting wherein someone -- ANYONE -- exercises his or her free speech? Are you suggesting we need to dilute speech, that we need to expunge from language all references to what a speaker may find personally meaningful and true because that speaker's sense of meaning and truth might differ from his audience's?

I hope you get what I am saying, and what I am saying, sadly, is rather complex. If I am truly tolerant, I will be able to handle exclusionary speech, even if it offends me. But, since I am an advocate of free speech, taking offense and wishing for a more diluted form of speech is within my free speech rights. In other words, free speech must be intrinsically at odds with itself.

Since you are a former chaplain, to what do you attribute this weakness on the part of some in the military (and the ministry) who haven't the apparent strength or capacity NOT to be offended by the free speech of a devout evangelical Christian, or who can't help but call for the dilution of certain forms of religious speech? I mean, it is a weakness, don't you think? (And it should be noted that diluted religious language may offend folks who are also "ordered to attend" a religious, or quasi-religious, event.)

Thanks for the warm welcome, and peace to you.


George Clifford said...

Bill, you and I have a fundamental disagreement on this issue. I believe that the Constitution protects people from being forced to attend, and by implication, participate in a religious ceremony to which they object. Military personnel surrender many basic rights while serving, e.g., the right to free association and the right to free speech. Although the military does not totally abrogate those rights, the military will not allow formation of a religious group or organization on military property (or any other group or association) without approval from the military chain of command. Similarly, in order to preserve good order and discipline, the military circumscribes allowable religious speech (except for that in religious events conducted by approved organizations/associations). Voluntarily participating in public discourse in which religious viewpoint(s) are voiced is one thing. Being order to attend a military function such as a change of command, and thereby implicitly participate, in a prayer to which one objects is a different matter. The chaplain who feels it necessary to pray in Jesus’ name may do so by inviting others to pray or reflect in their own tradition during the chaplain’s prayer. This approach honors diversity without presuming everyone is a Christian.

You reference pornography and artistic expression. The U.S. rightly regards pornography as free speech. However, in the military personnel are not allowed to display pornography because it may adversely affect good order and discipline, e.g., respect for members of the opposite gender who are part of the unit and who do not wish to see that material.

The Courts have granted the military wide latitude in circumscribing individual rights, recognizing that the unique mission of the military and its demand on the total person require significant sacrifices. As a chaplain, I always sought to minimize the number of times and ways that this occurred, knowing how much people give up to serve in the nation’s armed forces.


Ms. G said...

Dear Fr. Clifford,

Yes, yes, it seems we do have a fundamental disagreement. But that's just fine, really.

I simply think that mature people should have no problem attending a service of any kind wherein someone might use language that is not precisely the language of everyone present. If I accept and even defend free speech, hearing someone speak -- mere sounds! mere symbols! -- in words different from my own should not only be fine, it should be something of a treat. Why the protectionism? Why the fear? Why the umbrage?

And where's the love?

Peace to you, this day.

Bill Gnade said...


I've just submitted a comment to this thread under the moniker, Mrs. G. This is the result of someone else using my computer and my not logging out and in properly. It is indeed MY comment, but Mrs. G., technically, did not submit it.

Just thought you should know.


George Clifford said...

A great many military personnel, the majority of whom are under 21, lack maturity. Indeed, many enlist in the military seeking structure and maturity. Additionally, objecting to coercive participation in religion is one of the limited ways in which military personnel can voice their opinions freely.

Anonymous said...

George, I thought I would update the original post. Seems that the LCMS Pastor turned out to be more rigid that advertised. Yielding to pressure from congregates, local host nation ministers who have served us, and falling attendance (average Sunday attendance fell from around 45 to around 15), the Chief Chaplain here has just replaced the LCMS Pastor with Presbyterian Minister who had serviced us before and is widely embraced. However, for this to happen, the congregation had to agree to define the service as a general “Liturgical" Service rather than a “Lutheran” service. What remains of the congregation was happy to comply. We will still be served by host nation ministers a portion of the time and don’t expect much to change with the service.
I think this is an excellent outcome all the way around except for a personal issue. Though I remain the Treasurer of the Lutheran (now Liturgical) congregation, my family has already established ourselves in the local English-speaking Anglican Congregation and now we are split on where we ought to attend!
I am told that the LCMS Minster is now being reassigned help support the general Protestant congregation at a different garrison. He is a nice fellow and a good preacher but entirely inflexible. I have had lunch with him a couple times and enjoyed his company immensely. I am baffled how he came to be so rigid in his beliefs. Perhaps he feels that I am the one mixed up!

George Clifford said...

Kevin, thanks for the update. I'm sorry to learn that things did not go better. Unfortunately, many interpret inflexibility as a sign of faithfulness. As in much of life, the challenge is learning how and when to bend.