The new Chaplain of the Fleet, Reverend Andrew Hillier, has only been in the job for a matter of weeks but already has a clear vision for what he wants to accomplish in the role – to establish a world faith chaplaincy and employ more women.
"Female chaplain numbers are woeful at the moment and I'd like to see that dramatically change over the next few years because that is only good for the service."
The former NHS nurse turned naval chaplain is full of admiration for the young men and women in the Royal Navy who, when called upon, do the most extraordinary things.
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Rev Hillier talked about his varied career, what makes a good chaplain and what his ambitious plans are for naval chaplaincy. He is passionate about moving with the times and providing the care sailors and marines need now and in the future.
To achieve this, the new Chaplain of the Fleet has made recruiting more female chaplains one of his major priorities. He admits the Royal Navy is struggling to recruit women into naval chaplaincy. He has only been in the role since July 2021, but Rev Hillier is already arranging for a group of people to look at developing a strategy for what is needed to change and reverse that.
Out of a branch of 60 Royal Navy chaplains, only three are women.
Rev Hillier suspects that one of the key things putting female clergy off from joining the Senior Service is timing.
WATCH: Rev Andrew Hillier speaks to Forces News about needing more female chaplains
Navy chaplains are usually recruited when they are in their 30s or 40s – a time when many clergy will have young families so joining the Royal Navy and being deployed for months at a time might not look like an appealing option.
Even though he considers life in the armed forces to be great for young families, he understands it might be daunting for someone unfamiliar with the military lifestyle to deploy for months at a time, saying:
"That's quite a tough ask and so all of these things we have to work on.
"How we get that message across, how we sell the positives, how we don't sugarcoat the negatives but call them what they are."
As seen above, two female chaplains were serving on HMS Albion in 2019
World Faith Chaplains
Rev Hillier is also passionate about transitioning from being a purely Christian Chaplaincy to being a World Faith Chaplaincy. The plan is to have Buddhist, Hindu, Sikh, Muslim and Jewish chaplains.
The MOD employs five civilian chaplains from the other major world faiths as subject-matter experts (SME) to help military chaplains if they cannot help a service person who is not a Christian.
There is also work going into how chaplains can help non-religious people, as Rev Hillier explains:
"We need to be thinking about how we change. We're not set in stone as we are.
"We need to be able to be responsive to changes in the way that people think and what people want and need within the military so we can respond to those needs."
Hatch, Match And Dispatch
The head of naval chaplains did not start his career in the military or ministry.
He was, in fact, a nurse for 15 years before getting ordained. In his National Health Service role, Rev Hillier cared for patients in operating theatres, major trauma, orthopaedics and intensive care.
Eventually, the former nurse felt a call to ordained ministry so became a qualified Church Of England Priest. After his formal training, he worked with an experienced parish priest in a little market town called Castle Cary in Somerset. About his time at the start of his ministry career, Rev Hillier said:
"That's where you cut your teeth doing 'hatch match and dispatch' or the baptisms, weddings, funerals - all the things that that local clergy do in parishes all over the country."
However, after 15 years of an intense work hard, play hard career in nursing surrounded by colleagues his own age and younger, Rev Hillier found his first year in Somerset to be "a little bit sedentary and quiet". He said:
"One day, about halfway through my curacy, I thought you know I'm interested in exploring and ministering somewhere else and just down the road was Royal Naval Air Station Yeovilton."
WATCH: Rev Andrew Hillier speaks to Forces News about world faith chaplains
What Is The Training Like?
Rev Hillier was 37 and had a six-month-old daughter by the time he trained at Britannia Royal Naval College, commonly known as Dartmouth. The officer cadets he was training with would complain about the lack of sleep but his experience, as a new dad, was very different. He said:
"It was wonderful because ... for me, with a six-month-old at home, four or five hours in my rack without getting disturbed was absolutely wonderful."
Rev Hillier found having 18-year-olds tell him how to fold his socks "slightly galling" but soon realised that having a sense of humour and not taking yourself too seriously is crucial when you join the military.
After spending seven weeks at Dartmouth, Rev Hillier spent some time on HMS Ocean with his mentor Reverend Mike Brotherton whose nickname was ‘Mad Bish’ due to the entertaining ways he would boost morale - he once dressed up as Charlie Chaplin while on HMS Ark Royal and would ride his scooter everywhere he went.
What Is A Career In The Royal Navy Like?
One of the benefits of being in the Royal Navy, according to Rev Hillier, is that your career can be incredibly varied.
He describes his first job on small ships, minehunters and fishery protection as "vomiting for Queen and Country", adding:
"If you're going to get seasick on anything, you're going to get seasick, on a Minehunter - they roll on wet grass."
His career then took a varied path.
He spent time at HMS Raleigh and RNAS Yeovilton; deployed to Afghanistan twice on Operation Herrick 9 and 11; worked at Navy Command as the recruiter for naval chaplaincy; lived in America while working with the US Navy and eventually ended up being the chaplain of HMS Queen Elizabeth before taking over as Chaplain of the Fleet on 16 July.
Imposter Syndrome Affects Us All
You might think that with all that career experience under his belt, Rev Hillier felt confident he was the right man to become Chaplain of the Fleet. Like many people, the opposite was in fact true.
He did not expect to get the job so when he accepted it, he felt a huge amount of imposter syndrome - the inability to believe you deserve to be where you are, despite all the hard work you have put in to achieve it and that you might be revealed as a fraud. He said:
"I did feel this huge amount of impostor syndrome.
"Oh golly I have been making up as I've gone along for years and years and years, and now all of a sudden I'm going to be found find out."
But Rev Hillier's experience of being there for so many others during times of crisis and disbelief has taught him that people in all walks of life and in all sorts of different roles can find themselves feeling the same at times. He said:
"I'm just really lucky. I mean, I've got 60 chaplains in the Navy and they're all off doing amazing things and having a fantastic time I hope.
"And I just now get to bask in their glory for three years because what they don't realise they're making me look good."
What Makes A Good Chaplain?
Rev Hillier believes that as long as you are highly professional and can get the job done, having a sense of humour and not taking yourself too seriously is a crucial personality trait to have if you want to become a military chaplain.
Keen to not sugarcoat the role, the new Chaplain of the Fleet admits the job can leave you feeling a bit lonely at times. You have to be self-reliant, disciplined, have common sense and be able to use your wits because, when you are in the role and deployed, you are on your own and don't have a team of other chaplains around you. He said:
"We all know people who are incredibly bright but can't tie up their own shoelaces."
"Some of the most interesting and challenging experiences I've had in my 16 years weren't in any book, they're not in any handbook, they're not in any guide to being a chaplain or anything else."
Military chaplains advise everybody from the most junior sailor to the Commanding Officer and can sometimes find themselves being a "little bit of grit in the mill". A commanding officer friend of Rev Hillier once said:
"The great thing about a chaplain is he doesn't have a career to worry about".
Due to joining the Royal Navy later in life after civilian careers and being educated at theological colleges, Rev Hillier says that often military chaplains find they can challenge authority sometimes, saying:
"We're not in the same sort of hierarchy as the rest of the Navy.
"We can just ask the stupid questions and get away with asking because they're like "oh that's just the Bish, that's okay."
Are Military Chaplains Rank Free?
Unlike Royal Air Force and British Army chaplains, Royal Navy chaplains are unique in that they hold the Queen's Commission, but purely as chaplains and have always operated based on assuming the rank of whoever they are talking to. It does not matter whether it is the most junior sailor or an Admiral, military chaplains can speak on equal terms.
When Rev Hillier worked in America with the US Navy, he experienced a different way of working which he disagreed with. US Navy chaplains are Officers first and chaplains second and they have executive authority with their ranks. He said:
"They are very much are Naval Officers and it's horrible.
"It just doesn't work, it just gets in the way."
How Important Are Chaplains?
Rev Hillier believes that, quite often, civilians do not have to face the death of another person until they are in their 50s and even then, the experience is very clinical. However, lots of young sailors and Marines often face the brutal reality of death in their early 20s which might cause people to pause and think about their own mortality and reflect on their loved ones. He said:
"We're sending people into environments where they are often having to make these really quite difficult, very crunchy decisions where there is perhaps no right or wrong.
"They need to be thinking ethically, about how they make these decisions, and I think that's all part and parcel of what we as chaplains are there to support, and underpin, and offer guidance with."
WATCH: Rev Andrew Hillier speaks to Forces News about the important role chaplains play
Early on in his career, Rev Hillier completed a master's degree and for his dissertation spoke with several commanding officers - those with and without faith - to understand the relationship with their chaplain and they all said that having a good professional chaplain with them improved operational capability and was a force multiplier. He said:
"We are very much about operational capability.
"It would be wrong to think that naval chaplaincy is just a nice to have, that we're tagged on to the service and they roll us out on Remembrance Sunday and at Christmas."
The vast majority of Rev Hillier's working life has been dealing with issues that are not remotely religious or spiritual in any way shape or form.
In his opinion, the religious side is a very small part of what chaplains do. They provide pastoral support and care to people of all faiths and of those of no faith. The armed forces send people of all ages to do the most extraordinary things like warfighting, disaster relief in the Caribbean in hurricane season or doing migrant operations in the Mediterranean.
Serving personnel are faced with life and death in all its different shades and colours and chaplains are not employed to convert people - far from it – they accompany soldiers, sailors, aviators and marines to help them in their own life journey of exploring the big questions in life they might have.
What Is It Like To Be A Chaplain On Board A Ship?
The average day of a Royal Navy chaplain is not as straightforward as starting at 9am and finishing at 5pm.
Rev Hillier's day onboard HMS Queen Elizabeth would usually start at 7:30am in the chapel with morning prayer and end at 10pm with evening prayer - with breaks in between to get some fresh air or phone home and connect with his family.
However, as the new Chaplain of the Fleet explains, you are never off duty:
"There were times when I would ... set my alarm to get up at 1 or 2 o'clock in the morning, have a shower and get back into uniform and then have a walk around the ship.
"There will be people on watch, of course, all night and if you're in the Ops room and it's 3 o'clock in the morning, and you're staring at a computer screen, having someone who turns up and makes you a cup of tea and is there to have a quick chat - it was always worthwhile doing."
WATCH: Rev Andrew Hillier speaks to Forces News about the strange hours chaplains sometimes have to work