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Ministry to Our Nation’s Heroes: The Episcopal Diocese of San Diego’s Commitment

The Episcopal Diocese of San Diego (EDSD) is committed to providing ministry and support to the men and women (and their families) who wear the cloth of our nation. Working alongside military chaplains and commanding officers responsible for the Command Religious Program (CRP), the diocese is actively developing programs to serve the needs of the military community, active duty, retired, and veterans. In later articles, we will outline specific initiatives and a how-to guide for individual churches. This article lays a foundation for military ministry.   

I arrived in Afghanistan early in the twilight hours of 4 September 2004 at Bagram Air Base, north of the capital Kabul. My new assignment was as the Theater (Command) Chaplain for Combined Forces Command-Afghanistan. For the previous four years, I served in Washington, D.C. on the staff of the Commandant of the Marine Corps and later with the Chief of Naval Operations. Everyone remembers those years, starting with 11 September 2001 and the War on Terror. I certainly do. 

On the journey to Kabul, in a convoy of military vehicles, I looked back on my years as a Navy Chaplain. Chaplains are unique in the military as the only group of officers whose primary identification is with a non-military institution. But they are also unique in the church, as the only large group of the clergy whose vocational identification is with a non-church social institution. The fact that a chaplain is not just affiliated with, but is fully part of, two major social institutions—is a key to understanding both the problems and the opportunities of the chaplaincy.  Outreach to the military community by the church begins with an understanding of the role chaplains play in the military structure. First, a little background on chaplaincy.    

The motivations that drive individuals and nations into war and sustain them during it are many and complex—especially when one considers the complexity of human nature as part of the equation. War has been the subject of intense thought since antiquity—the Iliad of Homer, the histories of Thucydides, Tacitus, and Josephus treat war with much insight. Their purpose was to commemorate great events and inspire courage and virtue. Heroic adventures of warriors lined the pages of these works. 

In his seminal treatise On War (Vom Kriege), the noted Prussian military theorist Carl von Clausewitz (1780-1831) observed, “Military action is never directed against material force alone; it is always aimed simultaneously at the moral forces which give it life, and the two cannot be separated… [for] moral values can only be perceived by the inner eye, which differs in each person, and is often different in the same person at different times.” He also declared; “Theory becomes infinitely more difficult as soon as it touches the realm of moral values.” Religious and ethical sentiments are most assuredly part of the domain he termed moral values. The church and military chaplains stand at this critical intersection. They play a crucial role in providing a balance “as a force within the total institution standing for human values and the dignity of the individual.” 

By the fourth century, there was evidence of Christian clerics accompanying Roman army units and attending to their spiritual needs. And by the mid-fifth century, Christian priests and deacons accompanied military units providing for the spiritual needs of the men. 

The modern term “chaplain” comes from this period. Walafrid Strabo, a monk and scholar born in the ninth century, served as a royal chaplain to Holy Roman emperor Louis I the Pious. He records that the Latin word capellanus derives from the great royal relic of the patron saint of the Franks, the cappa. This cape, according to Strabo, was the very cape St. Martin sliced in half and shared with a homeless man who turned out to be Christ. Martin, a soldier with a group of well-dressed companions, met an importunate beggar shivering in his rags on a bitterly cold night at one of the city gates of Amiens. The others passed by heedless of the cries for alms. Martin, touched with compassion, opened his purse but found it empty. He drew his sword and, with it, divided his heavy cloak with its ample folds. One-half he gave to the beggar and kept the other for himself. That night,  in a dream, Martin saw Christ clad in that half cloak and was so moved by the vision that he sought baptism. Soon afterward, he abandoned his military career and devoted himself to the church. 

As a result of the Reformation and the subsequent Wars of Religion (1517 to 1598), and the religious upheaval of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, propelled an established institutional chaplaincy, with a single confessional model, into a multi-confessional institution made up of numerous creeds and ecclesiastical practices. It was this model that was transplanted to the shores of America. 

Historically, the evolution of institutional religion—institutional as opposed to religion in the ranks—mostly followed a western path of development and flourished in the clerical hierarchy of Christianity. Faith and religion in the non-western traditions of warfare and conflict leaned more toward the non-institutional or lay lead model. The influence of Islam, Judaism, Buddhism, and Hinduism (non-Christian religions represented by chaplains in military chaplaincy today) on the development of chaplaincy is a relatively recent phenomenon. The first Muslim chaplain commissioned in the U.S. military was in 1992. Jewish chaplains first appeared on the landscape in American military chaplaincy during the Civil War, serving with the U.S. Army. The first Jewish chaplain to serve the U.S. Navy was during the First World War, and the first Buddhist chaplain was commissioned in 2003. 

From the pre-institutional days of warrior-priests, religion has occupied a place in the annals of warfare. Institutional military chaplaincy in the United States is a direct descendent of the office of chaplain formally established in the Carolingian era. The Crusades, Wars of Religion, European colonial expeditions, and the American War for Independence were its proving grounds. 

The Episcopal Diocese of San Diego strives to be a welcoming community for those who are facing the unique challenges related to military life. Our churches are developing programs to support active military members, military families, and veterans. Simply speaking with chaplains who understand their experiences can be of immense help for military professionals. Military families, who are often new to a neighborhood, can benefit from the support of the church community, helping them navigate the stresses of deployment and separation. And veterans can find a place to find connection and understanding with others who have shared experiences. Our churches are well equipped to serve these individuals.

In EDSD, we are called to serve, and what better way than to help those who have served in the military? 

If you would like to learn more about how your church can serve active military, military families, and veterans, please contact CAPT Tierian (Randy) Cash, CHC, USN Retired at tcash@edsd.org or phone 703-609-3238. 


Category: #Military

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One reply to “Ministry to Our Nation’s Heroes: The Episcopal Diocese of San Diego’s Commitment

  1. Babs M Meairs | on May 3, 2023

    Dear Chaplain, I had hoped for a response from the email I sent you a few weeks ago welcoming you to your new ministry. Perhaps you have been very busy getting started. As a USMC veteran, retired VA chaplain and former member of the staff of Bishop Packard when he was Bishop for the Armed Forces, I retain a personal interest in ministry to our military and veterans. If we might meet sometime to discuss support for your current call I will make myself available. There are several activities coming up regarding support for military women as well as contacts I have with Honor Flight. Are you a member of The Military Chaplains Association? Their newsletter is a great resource.
    Semper Fi!
    The Rev. Babs M. Meairs

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