Bishop Peter Coffin spent Easter Sunday with Canadian troops and chaplains in Afghanistan on a day that saw six Canadian soldiers killed when their armoured vehicle detonated a roadside bomb.
As Anglican Bishop Ordinary to the Canadian Forces, Bishop Coffin has pastoral oversight for Anglican military chaplains and chose to visit Afghanistan for the first time on the Easter weekend, April 5-8, because “my role is to visit our troops and be a pastor to the pastors.” He is also diocesan bishop of Ottawa.
After he celebrated the eucharist in a plywood chapel on the air base at Kandahar, the terrible news arrived. “The casualties came in to the base. As chaplains, we all report to our duty stations. I just showed up and the medical people tell you what to do,” he related. Chaplains, he said, “are there to support people.”
The bishop gained new insight into field operations in a combat zone. “The medical people are phenomenal. They are incredibly focused. The support soldiers have for each other is phenomenal. They really care for each other in ways that is moving to see,” he recalled.
At such a time, he added, “we are thinking about the folks back home that are going to hear bad news and the folks that are ministering to them, which is also what chaplains do (in addition to ministry on the battlefield).”
(Three days after Easter Sunday, two more Canadian soldiers were killed in Afghanistan, bringing the total to 53 Canadian troops and one diplomat who have been killed since 2002.)
Bishop Coffin and another chaplain, Cmdr. Canon John Wilcox, used civilian and military aircraft to make the long trek to Afghanistan.
The Anglican bishop was invited to share a eucharist with the Roman Catholic chaplain, a move that is, strictly speaking, against the rules of the Catholic church. “It’s a combat zone,” Bishop Coffin offered by way of explanation.
On Maundy Thursday, Bishop Coffin participated in a service at which hands, rather than the traditional feet, were washed, as a symbol of Jesus’ humility. “It’s easier to wash hands, since everyone’s wearing boots,” he noted.
The base saw four or five Easter Sunday services by various denominations, including a prayer and praise evangelical service. “People come in their kit (uniform). They come when their duty is over and park their weapons at the door. It’s pretty informal,” he said. As for the clergy, vestments are simple: “You just wear a stole” over a uniform, he said.