On the role of religion in the Armed Forces

On the role of religion in the Armed Forces

08 Nov 23
Posted by: Canon Theologian James Hawkey RNR
Message from the Editor

Canon James Hawkey frames the debate ahead of the BRNC Naval Review lecture on 14 November. The moral conduct of war in the 21st century remains an imperative. The author maintains that the Church has a role to play transcending politics and acting as a beacon for all faiths. A 5 minute read.

In an address given to mark the end of military operations in Iraq in 2009, Rowan Williams reflected, “The moral credibility of any country engaged in war depends a lot less on the rhetoric of politicians and commentators than on the capacity of every serving soldier to discharge these responsibilities with integrity and intelligence.”[1]

The role of religion in the Armed Forces is not dissimilar to the role of religion in society more broadly. What shapes society? Its judgement, discernment and priorities? What informs its conscience? Can a society – an institution or organisation – relate itself to fundamentals deeper than short-term decisions, or truths more valuable than passing fads? As Williams highlights, the answers to these questions will be found most visibly in the behaviour of people within societies. There is no point in discussing grand narrative theories if they don’t cash out in the habits and patterns of life. The shape of a culture will depend on the instincts, judgement, and behaviour of those within it. So, perhaps the first role of religion in the Armed Forces is to try to ensure that those serving within the Armed Forces are equipped not just with the practical and intellectual ability needed to fulfil their role, but also with an inner life – a spiritual life, if you like – which can resource a fast-moving operational mindset.

And yet, such patterns have to be formed. Especially if values and priorities are to be held in common, they need common points of reference, and a philosophical framework able to support robust decision-making with integrity. So the ethical framework offered by religious traditions can provide major contributions to the architecture of recruitment, training, camaraderie, policy-making, and operational judgement.

In Section Three of Chapter Three of the Allied Joint doctrine, we read of the moral component of fighting power. “Commanders are duty-bound to ensure that the highest moral and ethical standards are maintained by their subordinates and they can achieve this through a robust ethos, personal example, and training and education. Ethical and moral behaviour are key aspects of narrative-led execution.”[2] Yet such standards cannot be developed or sustained in a vacuum. If they simply remain values unrelated to deeper reflection, they may become transactable or disposable in the face of demanding or swiftly-moving situations. The western commitment to human rights and dignity, the ‘sanctity’ of life, and rule of law, all find their origin in the Christian tradition which has shaped so much of western culture. Part of the role of religion in the Armed Forces is to act as a reminder of the broader essential context of such commitments. These are the basic building blocks not just of military doctrine, but of the broader society and culture which military power seeks to defend.

On the same occasion in 2009, Rowan Williams spoke of some of the temptations offered to those in military service, as well as in wider areas of public life, “The invisible enemy may be hiding in the temptation to look for short cuts in the search for justice – letting ends justify means, letting others rather than oneself carry the cost, denying the difficulties or the failures so as to present a good public face.”

This may be especially true, he argued, in “the anxious, fast-changing world of modern military operations, with the intense, even harsh, scrutiny they get from observers and commentators worldwide.” When religious reflection is deployed properly in the Armed Forces, it can remind all ranks, those in policy making as well as those in operational theatres, that they have a responsibility which relates to values – truths, even – beyond the straightforwardly political.


The visible presence of chaplains within and alongside the Armed Forces ‘incarnates’ such principles. It allows for friendship and trust to develop in conversations around the nature of the human being, and for the major questions of life, service, and death to be considered within particular contexts. There is also the possibility of a long-view, without quick fix or shallow answers to particular issues, but rather presenting an opportunity for pastoral care and accompaniment throughout service. Alongside our greater awareness of the need for positive mental health and building emotional resilience, chaplaincy offers care for the spiritual dimension of the human person, including opportunities for non-judgemental pastoral care outside the chain of command or reporting. This care outside the chain of command reveals another dimension of the role of chaplains, and faith work more generally, within the Armed Forces. This is advocacy well beyond the political. It is realistic about the cost of military service and the wide-ranging impact which is frequently felt on the inner lives of those who serve, whether or not they are particularly conscious of specific religious faith.

The Church of England

During a speech at Lambeth Palace in February 2012, HM Queen Elizabeth II referred to the Church of England as a protective force for the free practice of all faiths. The Late Queen said, “The concept of our established Church is occasionally misunderstood and I believe commonly under-appreciated. Its role is not to defend Anglicanism to the exclusion of other religions. Instead, the Church has a duty to protect the free practice of all faiths in this country.”[3]

Over the subsequent decade, the Church of England has shown itself resilient in this role. From services of national commemoration and thanksgiving to Her Late Majesty’s Funeral and the Coronation of HM The King, the Church of England has held open a space not only for those of other faiths, but for all who seek to remember, to mourn, or to give thanks. With its diverse work across our national communities, including hospitals, prisons, and the Armed Forces, the Established Church seeks to serve the whole, rather than a section of the nation. It is, by definition, beyond the partisan, and against ideology. At its best, it is the part of the glue which holds together an increasingly diverse series of British cultural contexts.

It is sometimes able to do so when there is serious disagreement in public. For example, the service held in Westminster Abbey to mark the 50th anniversary of the Continuous At Sea Deterrent in 2019 occurred in the context of serious disagreement over the morality of keeping such a nuclear deterrent. This debate characterised both church and wider society. Westminster Abbey was able to say something different, giving thanks for the maintenance of peace and security between nations, and focusing in particular on the sacrifices made by generations of submariners and their families in the cause of the Nation’s safety. The text of the service recognised the moral complexity of such terrible weaponry, whilst also celebrating the commitment and courage – within a fallen world – of those who selflessly give of their own expertise and time to monitor and maintain peace in demanding times.

For those who live with constant questions of life and death, service and sacrifice, the religious dimension of the world is likely to be present in all sorts of ways, some expected, some less obvious. We do them a disservice if we do anything other than support the best possible religious chaplaincy, ethical reflection, and pastoral care.


[1] Rowan Williams, Sermon in St Paul’s Cathedral, 9 October 2009

[2] https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/1148298/AJP_01_EdF_with_UK_elements.pdf.pdf 3.38

[3] https://www.royal.uk/queens-speech-lambeth-palace-15-february-2012