Chaplains to the fleet

An Archdeacon of Taunton designed the defences of Portsmouth Dockyard. The new Archdeacon for the Navy is not involved in these. But the Venerable Martin Poll RN, who took office last November, has a wide remit, beyond that of Archdeacon, ultimately responsible to the Archbishop of Canterbury, who is the Bishop for the Church within the Armed Services.
Martin Poll is 48 and married with two children.
“The Royal Navy has 70 chaplains in post at the moment, made up of Roman Catholics, Church of Scotland and Free Churches and Church of England chaplains,” he says. “We have 38 Church of England chaplains at present.
“I have an ecumenical job for all chaplains as their ‘career manager’ or ‘appointer’, to use naval-speak. So I manage the deployment of all the chaplains, ultimately being the one who says: ‘You go and serve in this ship or that establishment.’ But as the archdeacon I also have responsibility for chaplains in the same way that any archdeacon would have for priests within the diocese, but also for the congregations we have for the various churches that we have around the country.”
The Royal Navy has Anglican churches in Portsmouth and Devonport Naval Bases, in training establishments – the Britannia Naval College at Dartmouth and HMS Raleigh, where ratings are trained – and at air stations, Yeovilton (where the church is a redundant historic former parish church) and Culdrose. The Part II training establishments, HMS Sultan and HMS Collingwood, also have churches, on a smaller scale but with regular worship and congregations.
The church in the Royal Navy is part of the synodical structure of the Church of England. It feeds in to the Forces Synod, equivalent to a diocesan synod. The Archdeacons to the three Services, the Navy, Army and Air Force, are elected to the General Synod, and one layperson from each Service is also elected to General Synod. Although the Archbishop of Canterbury is the ordinary to the Services there is a Bishop to the Forces, who acts on his behalf, rather like a suffragan. The present Bishop to the Forces is the Rt Rev Dr Stephen Venner, recently retired Bishop of Dover.
In each of the Armed Forces there is a senior chaplain. The present Chaplain of the Fleet, the senior chaplain in the Royal Navy, is a Church of Scotland minister. “So we are an ecumenical organisation as well as having our denominational groupings,” explains the Archdeacon.
Chaplains are deployed with the ships. Typically a Naval chaplain will have two to three frigates or destroyers as his ‘parish’ for a two-year period. He or she will typically serve for a month up to six months away at sea with one ship, come back, join another ship, planning his programme to suit the operations of the fleet. Capital ships have a chaplain on board all the time.
“I have previously been chaplain to HMS Invincible and HMS Illustrious,” says the Archdeacon. “Whatever the ship was doing, I was there. In that situation you have a ‘parish’ of 600-plus people and do everything that a parson in a parish would do. You are heavily involved in the life of the ship in a pastoral way.”
At present there are no chaplains serving in submarines. In the past chaplains have qualified to serve on submarines, a necessity for safety reasons. There is a chaplain linked to submarines at the base in Faslane in the Firth of Clyde. “When submarines deploy there is an issue with space on board and also the length of time they are away, and whether or not it’s worth having a chaplain deployed for up to six or seven months and not being able to return,” explains the Archdeacon. “We have a ministry to submariners but it is different from that with the surface fleet.”
Chaplains are the only people in the Royal Navy who can offer total confidentiality.
“A very useful tool for supporting our people,” stresses Martin Poll. “The Royal Navy understands and acknowledges that unique responsibility and privilege. We are able to help in many situations because of that.
“We also have the privilege of not having to wear uniform. So I, day-to-day, for example, ashore dress in a dog collar and suit. When we are deployed or at sea it makes sense to wear a uniform for practical reasons. But even then all we have is a chaplain’s badge as an insignia on our shoulders – a cross and anchor. We hold the Queen’s commission, which just commissions as a chaplain.”
Of course naval chaplains are where the action is. They have been with the Royal Marines in Afghanistan. When the next deployment of Marines takes place there will be up to five naval chaplains across the denominations serving with them. Apart from wartime action, if an accident takes place, the chaplain inevitably gets heavily involved in the aftercare of those involved. Funerals and bereavements in which naval chaplains are involved are doubly tragic because they involve young people – if there is a death on board ship it is inevitably going to be a young person. An additional emotional strain on being a naval chaplain.
“We take our role in the formation of people seriously, so as well as pastoral care we have a role in the teaching of recruits,” says Poll. “We will be involved in teaching, particularly dealing with the Royal Navy’s core values; for example courage, commitment and integrity. It enables us to deal with these within the Christian context. While it is inappropriate to use general teaching sessions in an overtly evangelistic way, clearly our faith informs all that we do. So when we are looking at things like courage, commitment and integrity, our Christian understanding of those values come into these lessons.”
Chaplains get involved with families if a service man or woman wants them to do so. They also work closely with naval social workers. “We refer to them, they refer to us,” says the Archdeacon. “It is a fruitful relationship.”
The Royal Navy is a young world. The average age of those at sea is mid-20s. The average age of the commanding officer of a frigate is 30s-mid 40s.
“In terms of chaplains it is a difficulty for us that not enough young people are being ordained: the average age for ordination is now early 40s,” explains Archdeacon Poll. “I joined the Navy 20 years ago at the age of 28; we haven’t had anyone of that age for some time. We are lucky if we get someone in their mid-to-late 30s now. It has quite an impact on our ministry, because it is an active ministry. There is a level of fitness required and a level of robustness which obviously comes with being slightly younger.”
Wisdom, of course, comes with age, but that was provided in the past by older chaplains who had done all the operational jobs.
The need for women Anglican chaplains is another contemporary problem. There is a Methodist and a Church of Scotland woman naval chaplain, but no Anglican female chaplain. “Approximately 10 per cent of the naval service is female,” reports Poll. “So it would certainly be very desirable to have one or two female Church of England chaplains.” Women of course have served at sea since the early 90s.
Why did Martin Poll become a naval chaplain and what does he think you don’t want to be if you are thinking of becoming one?
During his training for ordination at Cuddesdon he had found fascinating his one-day a week placement with the Army but did not feel the atmosphere was quite right for him. It was seeing an advertisement when serving a curacy in London which recruited him to the Navy. “I was whisked around the fleet. I discovered the Navy had that quite different style – not wearing any rank and doing things slightly differently, and that appealed. I was asked if I would like to join initially for four years. Twenty years later, here I am still.”
But he has a warning: “To be a service chaplain you have to be happy working in an institution, and understand there are battles you fight and battles you don’t fight. If you think you are going to come in and dramatically change how the institution works, then you are going to be rather unhappy. We achieve a lot of change on a gradual process as chaplains, changing attitudes, changing opinions, changing lives, hopefully, but if you think you are going to come in and radically change the set-up of the Royal Navy and all its traditions, you will be an unhappy priest very quickly. You have to be at home working in an environment which is institutional, where there are rules and regulations and ways of doing things.”
There are compensations, of course. One which the Archdeacon values is working with people who are not necessarily ‘church’ yet having a role in their lives. “It is the church focused on the majority. And of course we have got those young people. It is a great privilege really.”
But what about the defence cuts? “If the numbers in the Royal Navy decrease it is possible that fewer chaplains may be needed, but whatever shape the fleet takes, there will be a place for us. We have to wait and see like everyone else. This is the point I am making. We are really all in the same boat. I work in the naval headquarters at Portsmouth. There are civil servants as well as service people with concerns for the future, and part of our work here as naval chaplains is to help those people in every way we can.”

One Response to "Chaplains to the fleet"

  1. Graham Baul   29/10/2013 at 19:44

    The article about Archdeacon Martin Poll’s work as a Naval Chaplain was very informative. I appreciated his honesty in telling it as it is without glossing over the challenges.

    When I was in my final year at University I started to explore the possibility of joining the Navy as a Supply Officer. After gaining experience in this role I then wanted to train as a Naval Chaplain which if my plans had succeeded I would have become a Chaplain in my late 20’s as Martin Poll did.

    I am now in my late 50’s and often wonder what could have been if I had gone down tht route !