Monday, June 16, 2008

Inaugural Conference of Anglican Military Chaplains

The peaceful grounds of Daylesford Abbey retreat center outside Philadelphia were the setting for an inaugural spiritual formation conference May 12–16 for traditional Anglican chaplains to the Armed Services.

Nine military chaplains, representing each of the uniformed services and a variety of Anglican backgrounds, gathered from several states to meet each other, some for the first time, share their unique experiences, learn from each other, and gain new insights into their chosen ministry from conference speakers.

This first-ever gathering of traditional Anglican military chaplains was organized and convened under the initiative of Chaplain (Captain) Jerry Sherbourne, US Army, stationed at Ft. Benning, Ga. Host for the event was the Church of the Good Shepherd, Rosemont, Pa., and its rector, the Rt. Rev. Dr. David L. Moyer, who also serves as Bishop of the Armed Forces for the Anglican Church in America (ACA), a Common Cause participant through its membership in the Federation of Anglican Churches in America.

The five day fellowship and spiritual formation retreat conference was heralded by participants as a “great start” and “very much a success.” A number of chaplains representing different Common Cause affiliate members responded positively to the idea of the conference but were unable to participate this year. Plans are already in motion for next year’s gathering, to be held again at Daylesford Abbey from March 16–20, 2009.

Military chaplains have a broad and unusual constituency, trained to provide spiritual aid, counseling and support to all men and women in uniform, regardless of an individual’s own faith or denominational background. In conducting religious services, however, Protestant, Catholic, Jewish and other chaplains lead in their own tradition, drawing any who seek that worship style or who may be members of a particular faith.

In today’s military, many different Protestant groups and worship styles are represented in the chaplaincy, which differs markedly from decades past when mainline denominations were prevalent. As such, today’s traditional Anglican military chaplains find the service a somewhat “lonely” existence, with few peers of a similar liturgical and theological background with whom they can share professional fellowship. The Traditional Anglican Military Chaplains Conference was created to help overcome this situation.

The conference chose as its theme “The Anglican spiritual tradition and the modern chaplaincy,” with workshops and discussions on “the chaplain as prophet and counselor” (with insights on how to counsel both the soldier and the commander), “the Anglican spiritual tradition and the chaplain’s spiritual growth,” on “pastoral care of service members and their families,” and “the Christian doctrine of just war: development, principles and application for today.”

Much talk, formal and informal, centered on subjects familiar to Anglican clergy in or out of uniform: the state of the Anglican Communion, hopes for healing and similar concerns and topics. Additionally, the chaplains discussed developing a distinct, uniform liturgy for use by Anglican military chaplains as well as a soldiers’ prayer book.

The presence of Anglican chaplains scattered throughout the Armed Forces is having a particularly interesting impact on the Protestant community in uniform. With the prevalence of non-denominational and non-liturgically-trained chaplains rendering service to the military, two of the unique “gifts” that Anglican chaplains bring are the ability to draw on the richness of traditional liturgical prayer, especially in times of need, and the ministry of the Sacrament. For example, in times of death or crisis when words often fail, and when many soldiers do not feel comfortable praying out loud by themselves, the simple practice of leading them in the Lord’s Prayer can be a most moving and powerful experience. It allows soldiers to lift their hearts in prayer with words that somehow most still seem to know - and to be touched by the Holy Spirit in a way that often just doesn’t happen otherwise. Similarly uncommon among many of the Protestants in uniform is the more formalized liturgy and regular celebration of the Eucharist, which are also warmly received as meaningful worship staples. “Because of the exposure they get in the military, soldiers (and chaplains) from non-liturgical traditions often learn to respect and appreciate the liturgical approach to worship,” according to Chaplain Sherbourne, who sees his ministry in the military as a surprisingly enriching and rewarding experience both personally and pastorally.

While many chaplains are former members of the military who had been spiritually enriched or awakened by their time in uniform, left the service, went to seminary and have returned in this new capacity, others believe chaplaincy is a call as much as any other clergy position might be. “It is amazing,” Sherbourne notes, “the military chaplaincy’s exposure to the depth of ministry as opposed to a more normal parish position.” He says he conducts more counseling in a month in the military than he might in two years in a civilian position. “The personal development for me has been quite rich and rewarding,” he added.

As Bishop Moyer remarked in a letter to his parish, “These men work very hard and under difficult situations. They are totally dedicated to God and country, and to the full orthodox Faith and Order of the Catholic Church in the Anglican Tradition.” As for the conference itself, the Bishop concluded that the meeting was “an incredible success,” affirming that the participants “were all challenged and deepened spiritually, intellectually, and vocationally; and a deep sense of fraternal affection and support began.”

If the 2008 conference success is an indicator, the 2009 retreat should be richer still, fulfilling Bp. Moyer’s sense that this year’s gathering “was exactly what we needed,” adding that it serves as a “great foundation for years to come.”

Source: SEC - Anglican Communion Network, P. O. Box 57983, Jacksonville, FL 32241

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