New chaplain general: ‘Religious faith matters’

The Chief of the Defence Staff, General Tom Lawson (L), shakes hands with Brig. Gen., the Venerable John Fletcher (R), after the latter’s appointment to Chaplain General of the Canadian Armed Forces. Photo: Cpl. Anthony Laviolette, CFSU(O) Imaging Services
The Chief of the Defence Staff, General Tom Lawson (L), shakes hands with Brig. Gen., the Venerable John Fletcher (R), after the latter’s appointment to Chaplain General of the Canadian Armed Forces. Photo: Cpl. Anthony Laviolette, CFSU(O) Imaging Services
Published November 6, 2013

Spiritual care and counselling for ill or injured soldiers, and their families, will remain an important focus for the office of the Chaplain General of the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF).

But its new chaplain general, Brig. Gen. John Fletcher, wants to take that a step further by investing in what he calls “spiritual resiliency.” Fletcher defines it as building up the resources and strength of those have not been wounded in action and those who will be called upon to undertake military missions in the future.

An Anglican priest who has been a military chaplain for over 25 years, Padre Fletcher was installed as the forces’ new chaplain general at Beechwood Cemetery’s Memorial Centre on Sept. 4.

One month into his term, Fletcher spoke with the Anglican Journal about his new role as head of the multi-faith military chaplain branch responsible for supporting the religious needs of CAF members and their families in Canada and overseas.

Fletcher sees promoting the importance of religious faith as one of his goals.

“One of the things that I really want to emphasize is that religious faith matters,” he said. ” It matters in our own lives as individuals; it matters in the lives of those we meet and care for; it matters in the life of our communities; but it also matters geopolitically.”

It’s important for CAF leaders not to underestimate the importance of religious consideration in the exercise of their leadership, he added. “I want to look for opportunities to engage people in conversations, [to] broaden their awareness of the dimensions of religion and spirituality in our communities and in our lives.”

He has also pledged to “pursue with intent” the chaplaincy’s 2008 strategic plan, which focuses on three key objectives with corresponding projects: operational effectiveness, creating a “learning chaplaincy” and “a calling of choice.”

Operational effectiveness means ensuring that the chaplaincy embraces diversity and that chaplains are equipped to perform “in any military environment and in a team context.” It also means looking at the question of sacred space in bases and wings. Most chapels are “fairly Christian” in structure, and the chaplaincy will look into how they can be modified to allow flexibility for use by different faith traditions, says Fletcher.

Creating a learning chaplaincy involves enhancing the skills of chaplains in areas such as pastoral care, counselling, advice on areas of ethics and religious accommodation, among others.

The third priority deals with projects ranging from governance to chaplains’ well-being, particularly for those affected by vicarious traumatization-the process of being spiritually, emotionally, psychologically and physically affected by the hurt and trauma one witnesses in others.

Fletcher doesn’t see the spiritual needs of military men and women as fundamentally different from those of ordinary people. “We all have the same questions, the longing for a sense of meaning and purpose; [we deal] with loss and fear, [and seek] to find hope in places and contexts where anything but hope seems possible,” he says. “…It’s just the context in which we place them, and the places we send them to, that make it more difficult for them to access resources” that can help them.

He is grateful, says Fletcher, that the military leadership sees spiritual well-being as “an integral dimension of soldier well-being” and that they make provisions for the chaplaincy, allowing it to be wherever soldiers and their families are deployed. The CAF has 220 chaplains in the regular force and 130 in the reserve, who come from 20 different Christian denominations; it also has Jewish and Muslim chaplains.

The CAF doesn’t gather statistics concerning the religious affiliation of its 65,000 men and women on active duty and 25,000 reservists; it relies on census data to give it a general sense of the makeup of the Canadian population, says Fletcher. “There’s a desire to have the Canadian Forces, as a whole, be reflective of the society it serves,” he says. “The more diverse Canada becomes, the more diverse the Canadian Forces will become. Our goal is to try to provide a chaplain service that is also reflective of the diversity that exists in the nation.”

Diversity is an issue that has deep meaning for Fletcher, who made history by becoming the CAF’s first openly gay chaplain general. Among those present at his installation was his spouse of 16 years, Nelson Usher, whom he thanked in his speech.

“None of us can do what we do without the support of those who surround us in life,” says Fletcher. “We always say that…if it weren’t for the families who serve the nation with us, in a sense, we won’t be able to meet the challenges of the work that we do.”

Fletcher says he was aware that his status as a gay military chaplain who is married to a same-gendered spouse was bound to pique media interest. But while his personal life may have been surprising to some, he says, “it’s not a surprise to my family, not a surprise to my bishops and not a surprise to my colleagues.”

In an interview with Global TV shortly after his installation, Fletcher says his appointment is a testament to the fact that the CAF doesn’t discriminate based on gender, religion, ethnic origins or sexuality. “It’s an honour to live in a country and to serve in a military where that kind of diversity is fully respected.”

He adds: “There’s so much energy wasted in life when we’re not able to live authentically [as] who we are. The energy that I have I want to invest in the ministry that I’m called to, not in trying to worry too much about who I am identified with as an individual or a human being.”

Fletcher underscores the fact that the chaplaincy is an ecumenical, multi-faith endeavour. “Each of the chaplains come with the credentials and the polity of the tradition that they represent,” and as such the unique gifts of leadership that their communities share are celebrated. “How each of those faith groups determine who’s eligible to exercise religious leadership in their communities is for them to decide.”

The Anglican Church of Canada has over 40 chaplains in the regular force and over 30 in the reserve force. “Most every parish in the country has a family member or knows someone in the military,” Fletcher notes. His hope, he adds, is that people will have an awareness that the military community is much larger than what most think.

More than anything, Fletcher says he appreciates the prayers that Anglicans offer to those who serve in the CAF. “For me, it’s been the prayer support faithfully offered right across the church that is a source of strength and encouragement for me.”

With Remembrance Day coming up, Fletcher is urging Anglicans to take the time to make sure that a moment of silence is incorporated into the liturgy, to underscore “the importance of remembering those who gave their lives for the freedoms that we so often take for granted.”

For more information about the Anglican Military Ordinariate, click here.





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