Life

The loss of his own faith led navy chaplain Collin Acton to push for more secular support for Defence Force personnel. What followed was a lengthy battle with senior officials and a religious lobby group that would upend his career. By Amy Fallon.

How religion dominates the ADF

Collin Acton during the dawn service on the Gallipoli Peninsula in Turkey, 2018.
Collin Acton during the dawn service on the Gallipoli Peninsula in Turkey, 2018.
Credit: LSIS Chris Beerens

In his almost 25 years as a chaplain in the Royal Australian Navy, Collin Acton can rarely recall pulling out a Bible. Religion became “less and less relevant to my personal life”, he says.

“[Some] fundamentally believe that someone without faith cannot care for another human being,” Acton, who is 60, tells The Saturday Paper. “I’ve always used compassion and empathy.”

Acton’s career of more than three decades with the Australian Defence Force earned him a medal for deployment in the Middle East and a Medal of the Order of Australia (OAM), among other distinctions.

But in August, he was “kicked in the guts” and claims he was forced to quit the military, after an “ugly” four-year battle with a “handsomely taxpayer-funded religious lobby group” that had the ear of senior Defence Force figures and religious chaplains.

Last week, top ADF officials were quizzed in parliament about whether the military’s spiritual and pastoral support care model is appropriate and adequate for its workforce. The overwhelming majority – 80 per cent – of new recruits now have no religious affiliation, Greens Defence spokesperson Senator David Shoebridge told a senate estimates committee.

As of a 2019 survey, the ADF says the proportion of permanent members with no religious affiliation was around 60 per cent – that’s substantially higher than the 40 per cent of the broader population who declared “no religion” in the latest national census. And though religious affiliation among the forces has been declining, the ratio of chaplains to members has increased substantially since 2003, and “more than doubled relative to the number of members affiliated with Christianity”, a recent study showed.

According to Acton, the ADF’s Religious Advisory Committee to the Services (RACS) and a number of religious chaplains – mainly Christian – have their “teeth and claws well and truly around Defence”. He claims that they are “protecting the interests of the church” by blocking important reforms, which threatens the mental health and wellbeing of the military’s workforce. Acton says this has potentially disastrous consequences.

RACS was formed in 1981 and its 10 members include a rabbi and an imam, although half of its members are Christian. All have a notional two-star status, or the equivalent rank of a general. Appointed by the minister of Defence, the department pays $778 a day for the committee’s advice. In the Anglican News magazine shortly after his 2020 RACS appointment, current chair Bishop Grant Dibden said he wanted to “encourage the chaplains to make disciples who make other disciples”. In a speech last year,  he described chaplains as “missionaries in the Defence Force”.

The ADF has roughly 158 full-time chaplains, more than 150 of whom are ordained Christian ministers. Currently, they must have a three-year theology degree with two years’ experience in a parish before joining the force – where they work alongside members and deploy with them – although the vast majority of their daily work is not religious.

Despite an “implacable RACS” and “significant opposition” from religious chaplains, Acton says he successfully led the introduction of the navy’s first secular “maritime spiritual wellbeing officers” (MSWOs) in 2020. Acton himself introduced a Buddhist and a Hindu chaplain, and today Defence employs seven navy MSWOs and chaplains from other faiths, including Islam and Judaism.

After the introduction of the secular ministers – although Acton had “no intention of removing religion” from the military – he continued to speak out about the need for the ADF to further diversify its pastoral care and wellbeing support to include secular professionals. Earlier this year, he wrote to Chief of the Defence Force Angus Campbell about the issue. Two months later Acton received a response from personnel manager Major-General Wade Stothart, who said, “Army and Air Force will examine the lessons from the MSWO implementation with a review due in 2024.”

Acton also spoke out about abandoning his own faith. He had found religion after joining the navy at age 16, was ordained an Anglican minister, and later pursued both undergraduate and postgraduate psychology degrees and counselling qualifications. In an April ABC Radio story, Acton labelled himself an “atheist and humanist”.

But in June, Acton became aware that chaplains had raised a number of “vociferous” written complaints about him, stemming mainly from the interview. Several weeks later, he was summoned to a meeting by a staff officer from the deputy chief of navy.

Acton learnt he was the subject of what he calls a “high-level investigation” by RACS, despite the body never having asked to interview him.

“There was a gun on the desk … and I was meant to use the gun on myself – that’s what it felt like,” says Acton. “I was basically being told to resign. I did that, and it was a really awful way to finish up my 34 years in the ADF.”

Until then, Acton says he had been “extraordinarily supported” by the navy’s senior officials, who had demonstrated “bold leadership” in introducing secular chaplains. “What we’re not seeing in [the] army and air force, at the very senior levels in Defence, is bold leadership to do the same.”

“Defence’s most senior leaders are scared of starting a religious war, and that’s just bullshit,” Acton says. “Real leadership faces up to that and deals with it.”

In response to questions from The Saturday Paper, a Defence spokesperson said, “Defence employs a multidisciplinary support team to care for its people. These teams are made up of doctors, psychologists, social workers, counsellors and religious chaplains. When providing support, chaplains and maritime spiritual wellbeing officers respect freedom of conscience and all religious and non-religious perspectives. They will assist all members of the ADF, regardless of faith expression (or none), to pursue their religious or spiritual traditions. ADF members who do not want to engage a religious chaplain always have options for other support.”

 

Open Arms, a counselling service with the Department of Veterans’ Affairs, provides valuable free and confidential counselling. But in some cases, it can take weeks and even months to see a therapist, Acton says. Defence Member and Family Support, an organisation that Acton now works for in a civilian role, has a 24/7 helpline. But there are only 50-60 Defence social workers, he says, and while they play a valuable role, they don’t have an insider knowledge of the military. If members want in-person support after-hours or on weekends, they have to rely on the padre, Acton says, and often they want to be promised that “the padre ‘won’t do religion’ on them”.

Acton remains concerned that the ADF’s requirements do not equip chaplains to deal with a range of complex issues. “You can’t just pull out a Bible,” he says. “When Christian chaplains do counselling, it’s… ‘Let’s have a look at what the Bible says about how to deal with sin.’ [But] there’s nothing in a theology degree that prepares someone to deal with, say, family violence.”

Some people in the force “do not want to see a religious minister, for all sorts of reasons”, Acton says. “I don’t think that’s controversial. The workforce [deserves] a non-judgemental space in which to unload and get support.”

“You don’t have to go and see the padre, you can actually suffer in silence,” he says. “You can try and deal with the problem yourself … and that’s a real risk.”

David Shoebridge tells The Saturday Paper that the ADF’s mental health support team of predominantly Christian pastors “misses the point”.

“It’s about time the ADF realised it’s no longer 1950 and came up with support services that reflect modern multicultural Australia,” he says, noting that the Royal Commission into Defence and Veteran Suicide also highlighted “huge gaps in the ADF’s care model”.

“If you don’t believe in God then heaven help you in the ADF.”

Major-General Wade Stothart told senate estimates that the army and air force were considering introducing spiritual wellbeing officers, and Vice Admiral David Johnston said “we recognise the needs of our people are changing”.

Dr Meredith Doig, the president of the Rationalist Society of Australia which has been campaigning on this issue for a year, says changes would be welcome, as “there’s a huge gap between the world views of the top leadership and the young ones coming into the army, navy and air force”.

Acton says that though he’s no longer in the ADF he will continue to be “a voice” for the growing majority of secular Defence men and women.

“I intend to speak with parliamentarians – people who are influential – to actually raise this issue, so that we get an appropriate support service that affects members,” he says.

“Being secular doesn’t mean we hate religion, it just means a genuine separation of church and state, so that all of us can live together.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on November 19, 2022 as "Gods of war".

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