British Army Chaplain Padre Uniform Photo ID 45152621 Credit MOD
Military Life

What Role Do Chaplains Provide In The Armed Forces?

The conflicts may change but the care, compassion and moral support remains the same.

British Army Chaplain Padre Uniform Photo ID 45152621 Credit MOD

For centuries, Britain's Armed Forces have taken a person of faith with them to war to provide moral support, guidance and pastoral care for troops who witness the most horrific and traumatic sights that most civilians will never have to face.

On the frontline, service personnel risk their lives to forge ahead into battle, prepared to make the ultimate sacrifice for Queen and country. 

Meanwhile, at home, military spouses, children, parents, relatives and friends are left wondering if they will have to live their lives without their loved one.

The now much-appreciated role of chaplain we see today was not always considered as important.

Army Chaplain Memorial Service Forward Operating Base Shawqat Afghanistan SFW Defence Imagery ID 45152440
An Army chaplain holds a memorial service in Afghanistan (Picture: Crown Copyright).

During the Crimean War, tens of thousands of troops were initially deployed along with one solitary chaplain, the Reverend Henry Press Wright.

It was Irish war correspondent William Russell's graphic reports back from the frontline in 1854 that led to the Church of England's Society for the Propagation of the Gospel to ask the Government to jointly fund more chaplains. 

Today, there are approximately 260 regular and 58 reserve chaplains with each branch of the armed forces currently recruiting or offering people the chance to register their interest in the role. 

The role of chaplain continues to go from strength to strength as the vital part they play in the mental wellbeing of service personnel and their families is increasingly being seen as invaluable. 

While the importance of those chaplains has shifted over time, what role do they play now?

Sikh Chaplain Armed Forces Mrs Mandeep Kaur leads the audience in a commemorative prayer Credit MOD Crown Copyright Sgt Ross Tilly RAF
Sikh chaplain for the Armed Forces, Mandeep Kaur, leads the audience in a commemorative prayer (Picture: MOD/Sgt Ross Tilly RAF).

What Do Military Chaplains Do? 

Reverend Clinton Langston, Chaplain General of the Royal Army Chaplains' Department, is quoted in 'Military Chaplaincy in Contention: Chaplains, Churches and the Morality of Conflict', edited by Andrew Todd as saying: 

"My job as a padre... is not to oil the wheels of war but to help the humanity caught up in it." 

To do that vital job, the multi-faith role sees chaplains serving wherever service personnel go – from Korea and The Falklands to Sierra Leone and Afghanistan. 

However, these men and women are non-combatants and do not bear arms.

Rabbi Reuben Livingstone Jewish Chaplain HM Armed Forces Credit UK MOD © Crown Copyright 2021 SSgt Rupert Frere
Rabbi Reuben Livingstone, Jewish chaplain for the UK Armed Forces (Picture: MOD/SSgt Rupert Frere).

Their job is to be there for people with and without faith. To be a familiar, friendly face to help spiritually guide service personnel wherever they are. 

However, just like a civilian parish vicar, chaplains also preach the word, administer the sacraments, visit the sick, baptise, confirm, marry, bury, and counsel the bereaved, anxious and lost. 

They wear the same uniform as their colleagues and do not carry rank. A Royal Navy spokesperson said:  

"Royal Navy chaplains do not carry rank, they share that of the person they're talking with, from Rear Admiral to the most junior rating." 

Who Do Chaplains Care For? 

Chaplains minister to soldiers and their families in three different ways:

  • Spiritual support 
  • Pastoral care at home and abroad 
  • Moral guidance through formal teaching, counsel, and personal example 

Chaplains are not solely a military role. They also minister for the police, prisons, schools, hospitals, fire service and so on. Sometimes the job is voluntary and the person has a full-time position elsewhere. 

Military chaplains, however, get paid a full wage if they are in the regulars and a reserves day rate will differ depending on their role and experience.

100 Years Since End First World War HMS Queen Elizabeth Remembrance Service Chaplain Alastair Mansfield Credit UK MOD Crown Copyright 2021 LPhot Jay Allen
Chaplain Alastair Mansfield conducts a remembrance service on board HMS Queen Elizabeth (Picture: MOD/LPhot Jay Allen).

Why Do We Have Chaplains In The British Armed Forces?  

Chaplains from all branches of the Armed Forces are licensed by their Church Authority and commissioned by the Queen. 

The chaplain is a vital member of any naval or commando unit, regiment or battalion, squadron or wing with an incredibly unique congregation. 

No one day is the same for a chaplain whose role is to be there for the extraordinary men and women of Britain's Armed Forces, wherever they are in the world, 365 days a year. A Royal Navy spokesperson said: 

"Chaplains welcome people who practise all faiths (including those with none) and are a friend, adviser and spiritual guide to them all in a multi-faith environment.

"They are there for whoever needs them to be. They serve the people who serve our nation." 

Muslim Servicemen Muslim Chaplain MOD Main Building Armed Forces Day Flags Credit Crown Copyright Sgt Pete Mobbs
Armed Forces Day (Picture: Crown Copyright/Sgt Pete Mobbs).

What Faiths Are Represented In Each Of The Services? 

Armed Forces chaplains minister to serving personnel and their families who do and do not have faith. 

Chaplains are currently recruited from an approved group of churches called the Sending Churches. These are as follows: 

  • Anglican 
  • Roman Catholic 
  • Church of Scotland 
  • Congregational 
  • Presbyterian 
  • Baptist 
  • United Reformed 
  • Assemblies of God 
  • Elim Pentecostal 
  • Methodist 
  • Churches in Community

In addition, there are also five civilian chaplains who advise the military on the following faiths:

  • Muslim 
  • Hindu 
  • Sikh 
  • Jewish 
  • Buddhist 
HMS Albion's Chaplain on the bridge at State 1 action stations during a WASEX exercise Credit UK MOD © Crown Copyright 2021 LPhot Paul Hall
HMS Albion's chaplain on the bridge during an exercise (Picture: MOD). 

How does Someone Become A Chaplain In The Armed Forces And What Training Do They Need? 

Potential chaplains need to be aged 25 to 48 – although applications from older people might be considered – and have a theological degree or an equivalent recognised qualification. 

They also need to be employed by a church at the point of application, with a view to having three years of experience by the time they complete their training. 

They need to be able to pass the fitness test of each branch of the Armed Forces and if they wish to join the Senior Service they need to pass the Royal Naval Swimming Test (RNST).

RAF Chaplain Runnymede Air Forces Memorial Credit UK MOD Crown Copyright SAC Beth Roberts RAF
The RAF chaplain at the AIr Forces Memorial at Runnymede (Picture: MOD/SAC Beth Roberts RAF).

They must also be a national of the United Kingdom, a Commonwealth citizen or have dual nationality. 

To apply, chaplains will need to register their interest with a recruiter, attend an Acquaint visit to get a taste of military service and what it means to be a military chaplain. 

They must also seek approval from their Sending Church before submitting an application via the website of their chosen branch of the Armed Forces. 

After this, they will be asked to attend and pass an interview stage that does not assess their vocation in general. Instead, it is a competency-based assessment that confirms physical ability and their aptitude for exercising that vocation in a military context. 

Chaplains will then complete several weeks of military and chaplaincy training to become professionally qualified for working in the Armed Forces. 

The finer details differ slightly according to which branch of the Armed Forces they wish to apply for. See below for links to help further your understanding of these differences.

Royal Navy 

British Army 

Royal Air Force

Cover image: MOD.