By Vexen Crabtree 2011
Technically, the British Army no longer has compulsory Church Parades, neither weekly nor on calendar events. They were abolished1. I have to point this out at the beginning of this page, because it is a surprise to many soldiers within the British Army. This page is about the reality of compulsory and pseudo-compulsory Church Parades, and about communal Christian events in the British Army. We also discuss the frequently-repeated notion that atheists should have to do work duties over Christmas and Easter holidays 'because they don't believe'. Memorial Services should be secular, enforced Christianity should be abolished, and religious beliefs should be respected in accordance with existing Army literature such as the British Army Values and Standards booklet.
Beliefs can be very personal, especially when it comes to metaphysical ideas such as the existence of god, and the type of God that one thinks exists. As such, forcing people to worship one particular type of God over others has always been a dominant feature of the majority of totalitarian, immoral, oppressive regimes. For example: Communist totalitarianism enforced strict atheism. The Christian Roman Empire enforced a strict Pauline Christianity on its empire, leading to massacres of the gnostics and other religious groups: Previously, the Roman Empire was tolerant of a host of religious beliefs. The Dark Ages was a period of violent, murderous abuse by Christians who did not accept any belief but what they thought was orthodox, witness the wholesale slaughter of the Cathars, Bogomils, etc, which were all wiped out completely. Multiple Islamist states enforce strict Islamic worship. Such regimes are what we, the military and political forces of the Western world, fight against. The British Army should be setting a good example in the world and distancing itself from any forms of coerced participation in any religion.
That we continue to have Church Parades - that there is (lots of) pressure to attend and sometimes punishments if you don't - is a hallmark of a historical era of oppression between Protestants and Catholics that is long forgotten by mainstream British society. The soldiers 'on the ground' are often not in a position to protest. The end of church parades should come from the top, and be properly enforced.
It is easy to see how Christian ideas of original sin - that women bleed because of Eve's misdemeanours, and men 'work the soil' for the same reason, is insulting to many who do not share similar beliefs. To have Christian beliefs assumed for the duration of, even, hymns, can be disturbing and offensive to those who take their own religious, or secular, beliefs seriously.
It is right, healing, educational and value-enforcing to remember those who have died in conflicts. This is done principally on Remembrance Sunday, and typically every single military unit either holds its own or attends a wider garrison event. But across the board, non-Christians have found funerals, memorials and regular church events to be divisive, with an atmosphere that excludes non-Christians and those with no beliefs. A letter of complaint to the National Secular Society newsletter by a senior soldier saw three weeks of letters of distress from those who have also experienced this for themselves2.
Memorial services should remind us of the horrors of the past and therefore hint at the potential horrors of today that soldiers may face in the line of duty. They should also serve as solemn appraisals of the valiance of fallen soldiers and quiet condemnation of the futility of war. It is right that such proceedings are led by a Padre, whose job it is to preside over such events as it is what he is paid for. The Chaplaincy's remit is an "all-faiths" ministry and not intended to be just a Christian outfit
Importantly, memorial events should be inclusive so that all can remember, in peace, those of the past. In the British Army days such as Remembrance Sunday are taken very seriously and it is compulsory to attend. This compulsory nature, and the universalism of tragedy, both imply that the mourning be conducted in a way that does not exclude any particular people.
There is no need to add religious teachings, worship or religion-specific commentary to these days. If, for examples, Hindus in the Army want to hold their own Remembrance Sunday to include their own religious methods of reflection, then they can, but religion-specific preaching should be absent from the compulsory & universal central events.
However, this is not the case. In the British Army memorial events are heavily Christian. The Padre does not lead a universal and inclusive ceremony. He invariably leads a Christian service, with the mentions of fallen comrades taking second-place to the promotion of Christian religion. For example, in the 2005 Remembrance Sunday service in Javelin Barracks, all ten pages of the ceremony timetable include references to God and Jesus. There are far fewer mentions of the victims of war, than there are Christian comments on God and Jesus. This has been the case in all of the (many) services I have attended. Maj. Cummings says that although compulsory Church parades are officially abolished, in practice this is not often the case. To quote more fully:
“The British Army ended compulsory attendance at worship shortly after the new Second World War, though even today this policy is occasionally honoured as much in the breach as in the observance. Chaplain-led prayer at parades and military funerals, notably Remembrance, often reflects a degree of sectarian Christianity, rather than an ecumenical or pluralist inclusion of those of 'all beliefs and none' in a societal rite.
Efforts to build comprehensive models of collective spiritual activity remain patchy, and invariably exclude those who do not subscribe to mainstream religious sentiment. That this marginalisation of participation might cause offence and foster a sense of anti-institutional grievance is recognised only in those areas where the full implications of diversity are understood.”
British Army Review (2007)1
It is not only the quantity of Christian-specific elements in many of these events; it is also the tone which is a problem. The tone implies that only Christians are worthy to be present. In 2005, the Chaplain, Rev. Brian Millson's first three paragraphs all state that proceedings go on 'before God'. "We meet today, to remember before God all who have died" and "We bring before God in penitence the hatreds of our world" are two examples. There is no hint that non-Christians might also want to express penitence for mankind's ills; and for those that aren't religious at all, it's almost stating that they have no right in being there! The service on page 7 even instructs the assembly to pray for those who have no faith in Jesus Christ. How offensive and inappropriate, on a day of mourning, to be shoving religion down people's throats! This is not peculiar, but is a feature of all such parades. Of the many Remembrance Sunday events I report on, all of them have been the same. The references to "praying", to religious beliefs, overwhelm the other emotions of the service. This is wrong. The service should be victim-orientated, not god-orientated, and certainly should not be an opportunity for a Christian to preach hir beliefs to others.
Every year I like to report on one of the major Remembrance Parades held by the Armed Forces. In total I have attended half a dozen myself, and received reports from close friends for some others. Analysis has been from the HQ of the Royal Signals in 2004, Germany in 2005, Afghanistan in 2006 and 2008, Headquarters Land Forces in 2009 and 2010, and Blandford Camp in 2011.
The 'Order of Service' was a printed leaflet detailing 8 pages of speech plus one page of notes on the Flanders Fields poem. All eight pages of the ceremony was about Jesus Christ 'our Lord' and about worshipping God. Only on the forty-sixth line of text does anything to do with Remembrance occur, comprising of only a few sentences. After that, comments on those we are remembering are slightly more frequent. The service included several Christian hymns, most of which had no relevance to remembrance. For all intents and purposes, the remembrance speeches were, in entirety, a Christian sermon, catering only for Christians.
The soldiers had to attend - it was a "Scale A" parade that cannot be missed. Yet present were atheists and many Ghurkhas, most of whom are Hindus and Buddhists. Words were repeatedly spoken such as "let us confess to God" for our sins, "Almighty God, who forgives all who truly repent ... through Jesus Christ our Lord", "in honesty and pride let prayers be said". Did non-Christians attend the service dishonestly? Most of those who attend can't "truly repent" in the name of Jesus, because the majority of soldiers aren't actually Christian and don't believe in God. If they were listening to the Padre and understood theological words, they would be appalled at the way the sermon clearly excludes non-Christians.
The very first words of the Padre were: "We are here to worship Almighty God, whose purposes are good; whose power sustains the world that He has made; who loves us, through we have failed in His service; who gave Jesus Christ as the light and life of the world; who by His Holy Spirit leads and directs us in His way."
It is thoroughly unfair to force so many people to attend a Christian sermon so they can be preached at on a day when most of them want instead to remember the dead and departed - their colleagues and friends, known and unknown, who have died fighting for freedom. During every military Remembrance Parade I have attended I have spent most my time feeling ridiculed, excluded, annoyed, irritated and offended by the sectarianism coming from the front. Remembrance Day is not the time for preaching.
"Let us remember before God ... all who have lived and died in the service of mankind" ... anyone who understands the values and standards of the British army - being based on equality and inclusion, and rejecting religious discrimination - knows that sentences like that should read "Let us remember ... all who have died in the service of mankind". Why is it necessary to exclude non-god-believers, with all the God talk? It is inappropriate.
"We pray for an end to the destructive hatred of war [...] In the name of Jesus, Prince of Peace. Amen." The hypocrite who spoke those words may genuinely want an end to destructive war, but, I sincerely advise them to start with ending religious discrimination. That means, admitting that perhaps the majority of those remembering the dead should not be forced into a Christian sermon "in the name of Jesus", and perhaps the Padre should not be saying such things, when there are many present who hope (not 'pray') for an end to destructive war, in the name of compassion and remembrance, not in the name of 'Jesus Christ'. It is hypocritical to separate out non-Christians on a day like Remembrance Sunday, as many of our enemies are separatist religious extremists doing what they do in the name of God.
The official answer in defense of this Christian prejudice is that soldiers can exempt themselves from these parades for religious reasons. But this is unknown to many and to do so is strange. To exclude oneself from a parade that everyone else has to attend goes against all training. Most do not dare.
There should be a compulsory parade of Remembrance Sunday in all military camps for the soldiers there. It should be a time of serious reflection, remembrance, solemnity and togetherness, no matter what the religion and beliefs of the soldiers. There should also be a voluntary, separate, Church sermon for Christians who hold to Christian beliefs. The compulsory universal parade, for all, should never be mixed with the voluntary Christian parade, for Christians. That way, those who religious beliefs can opt in to a parade appropriate for them, and, by default, everyone else attends the secular and inclusive Remembrance Parade.
The refusal to accommodate the needs of the non-religious is not purely a case of a traditionalist military hierarchy refusing to bow to modern society. There is also a lack of push from the government to promulgate its own equality and diversity policy into Defence. There are some signs of progress in that in 2010, Humanists were allowed to represent the non-religious and place wreaths at Remembrance Sunday in Edinburgh and Belfast and in many local events in England. But this progress was gained only with significant effort by the British Humanist Association and others.
“For the first time humanist representatives laid wreaths at the official Remembrance Sunday commemorations in Edinburgh and Belfast this year. However a request from the BHA for armed forces humanists to be included at the Cenotaph in London has again been refused. The Department for Culture, Media and Sport dismissed the BHA's request, citing 'limited space at the Cenotaph' and a need to receive permission from the Royal Household as reasons to continue the exclusion of representatives of humanist servicemen and women. In its response, the government stated that it had invited 'fourteen faith leaders' to participate. [...] The BHA will continue to work with the UK Armed Forces Humanist Association to encourage humanist representation at national events of remembrance.”
BHA newsletter (2010)3.
The Remembrance Sunday service in Javelin Barracks, Elmpt in Nordrhein-Westfalen, is a major Remembrance Day parade, catering for multiple units in the British Army who are stationed in Germany. In 2005 it was presided over by Chaplain, Rev. Brian Millson. The parade is the principal means by which the units (16 signal Regiment, 7 Signal Regiment and others) respect and remember the victims of war.
All ten pages of the ceremony timetable include references to God and Jesus and strangely there are far fewer mentions of the victims of war, than there are Christian comments on God and Jesus. The Chaplain's first three paragraphs all state that proceedings go on 'before God'. "We meet today, to remember before God all who have died" and "We bring before God in penitence the hatreds of our world" are two examples.
There is no hint that non-Christians might also want to express penitence for mankind's ills; and for those that aren't religious at all, it's almost stating that they have no right in being there! The service on page 7 even instructs the assembly to pray for those who have no faith in Jesus Christ. How offensive and inappropriate, on a day of mourning, to be shoving religion down people's throats! This is not peculiar, but is a feature of all such parades. The references to "praying", to religious beliefs, overwhelm the other emotions of the service. This is wrong. The service should be victim-orientated, not god-orientated, and certainly should not be an opportunity for a Christian to preach hir beliefs to others.
Christmas and Easter are both originally pagan festivals, the former based around the Winter Solstice when the days begin to get longer (Sun worship), and Easter which is an ancient pagan fertility festival. Strict Bible-based evangelicals campaign strongly against Christian celebration of Christmas and Easter because of their pagan nature. Christians should volunteer themselves for Guard Duties over Christmas.
Christmas is a multicultural, multi-religious festival. It combines sun worship, polytheism, pagan nature religions who have venerated the natural cycle for many thousands of years, Christianity and other myths and traditions. When Christians complain it is too pagan, or when lay folk complain it is too religious, or when both groups complain it is too commercial, then they are all in need of realizing that Christmas is a commercial fusion of diverse nature-based festivals. The date of the 25th accords with Sun Worship thousands of years old, the Christmas tree and some of the decorations are pagan, even the Nativity stories are originally pagan, Mithraistic, Roman and Christian.
The main outstanding issue in the West is the Christian assertion that Christmas has something to do with the Christian figure of Christ or his birthday. These elements should be disclaimed. Firstly, the paganism inherent in Christmas, such as decorating trees, is warned against in the Bible (Jeremiah 10:2-4). Second, there are no Christian birthday celebrations in the Bible. Thirdly, early Christians celebrated Christ's birthday in April or May - it was only changed to match with 25th of December, a major pagan holiday, by Emperor Constantine, in order to harmonize Christianity with paganism. It is certain that Christians should not attempt to celebrate Jesus' birthday, and they certainly shouldn't do so at Christmas.
In addition to its rich history, Christmas has now become largely a secular holiday, a social festival based on the family, and a commercial enterprise. Critics largely concentrate of the portions of Christmas they don't like, and claim that those portions ruin the rest of it. As long as no-one tries to "capture the flag" and exclude others, then there need be no modern conflict over the nature of Christmas. The non-religious can celebrate the commercial and social event, Christians can pretend Christmas has something to do with Christ, pagans can celebrate nature, and all can be happy. There are even alternative and well-known names for Christmas, such as Yuletide, which can be used according to taste. Whether or not one choses to celebrate Christmas is mostly a matter of mood!”
Now the shoe is on the other foot, I would like point out where the sensible land lays, inbetween the land of 'non-Christians should work over Christmas' as some in the Army say, and the land of 'but actually Christmas is pagan, so Christians should work it", as I have pointed out. Neither stance is sensible.
Christmas and Easter are public holidays. This means, in common law, that employers (including the Army) cannot make their workforce work on these days unless there are exceptional circumstances and in addition, prejudice based on religion is also illegal, as tested in courts of law. This means that you cannot force people of a certain religion to work public holidays.
Also, many soldiers are parents. It doesn't matter what religion they are, school holidays occur over Christmas and Easter. It is immoral to force people away from their families during these times, on account of their religious beliefs. Our society has institutionalized these events as public holidays no matter what religious belief people have. They are secular holidays.
It is illegal in UK law to discriminate on grounds of religion. Attempts at "reasonable accommodation" must be made by employers to avoid indirect discrimination against religious groups. And, in UK law, it is stated quite clearly in the Equality Act 2006, section 44, that these laws cover belief and non-belief, faith and non-faith. European Law has similar articles (EC 20064, TEU Articles 6, 49).
Padres know that religious beliefs can be important parts of person's identity. A chaplain serves, as part of his job in the British Army, as both a religious acolyte and also as a Welfare officer. Padres are frequently the ones who give the lectures on equality and fairness to soldiers and officers. Every soldier has to have one such brief every year. The Padre is stated as one of the principal people to whom you turn when you suffer discrimination. Padres know, above all, what discrimination is.
Also mapping out the moral ground are various British Army publications, such as the "Equality & Diversity in the British Army" booklet that is issued to all Army recruits. On page 4 it states that "Direct Discrimination [...] occurs when a person is singled out for less favourable treatment because of such things as gender, race, sexual orientation, or religious belief." It also states that "Prejudice is based on preconceived opinions that are often irrational [and] results in the unfair treatment of a person or group" and that Harassment can involve "the misuse of authority". The Equality and Diversity handbook also explains correctly that sometimes, those who are acting in prejudiced or discriminatory way "may not realise that they are causing you offence"5.
Looking at the issues raised on this page, we can see that coercive religion, such as Remembrance Sunday being more of a Christian service than a sombre memorial, and bias against atheists regarding holiday leave at Easter and Christmas, and compulsory Church parades, are all cases that involve direct discrimination, harassment and prejudice. These are the exact things that a padre should be fighting against, and not participating in!
To back up the Padre in hir struggle against religious coercion, is the fact that the "Equality & Diversity in the British Army" booklet contains on nearly every page the statement that all people in the Army have a responsibility "to ensure that all individuals are treated fairly" and specifically states in its description of direct discrimination that this must take religious beliefs into account. On page 2 it says that "you also have a responsibility to act if you see another soldier being treated unfairly", and backs up the padre and others' in the fight against religious discrimination when it says that "Equality and Diversity" does not mean "giving unfair advantages to people with certain characteristics, or minority groups", i.e., you can't let Christians sit in a Church Parade and force atheists to stand outside in the rain: Either everyone has a parade suitable to their beliefs, or, there should be no such compulsory parades. Religious people are free to attend church in their own free time.
If religious prejudice isn't the Padre's perfect chance to battle discrimination, he is not doing hir own job or upholding British Army values and standards.
Religious beliefs are an important part of many peoples' lives. So are some secular beliefs. It can be intensely insulting and offensive to have religious beliefs imposed upon you. Memorial services such as Remembrance Sunday should proceed in a secular and universal manner, centering on the victims of history who we are remembering. There is no reason to impose religious beliefs upon people during these events, and in the multi-faith Army, this should never occur. But it does in a consistent and insensitive manner.
Public holidays such as Easter and Christmas should be available to all and there should be no pressure for atheists to perform duties over these periods. Christian parents should not have priority over atheist parents when it comes to seeing their children during school breaks such as Easter. As both these festivals are pagan in nature and origin, it makes no sense to say that Christians should be given priority. The Army Values and Standards, Equality and Diversity ethos, and UK culture all recognize the immorality of lack of respect for religious beliefs. For all these reasons, the Army should not discriminate on account of religion. All commanders and staff should ensure that no pressure exists for people to attend religious services, and that duties over Christmas and Easter are distributed fairly, not based on religious prejudice.
British soldiers frequently fight against governments that enforce religious principles on its population: It is ironically sad and wrong that soldiers who die defending the rights of individuals against religious theocracy are remembered in a parade where participants are forced to attend services that are contain religious preaching.
The Army Values and Standards enshrines respect for fellow's beliefs, and UK law outlaws discrimination on grounds of religion. Those that coerce people to attend religious ceremonies in the Army are therefore breaking two moral codes.
It is the Padres role to fight discrimination, and yet many padres preside over compulsory ceremonies that are religious in nature; they therefore are breaking their own welfare mission.
Current edition: 2011 Nov 19
Second edition 2006 Jul 27
Originally published 2003
Parent page: British and International Military Issues
The Bible (NIV). The NIV is the best translation for accuracy whilst maintaining readability. Multiple authors, a compendium of multiple previously published books. I prefer to take quotes from the NIV but where I quote the Bible en masse I must quote from the KJV because it is not copyrighted, whilst the NIV is. Book Review.
(2008) "The True Meaning of Christmas: Paganism, Sun Worship and Commercialism" (2008). Accessed 2017 Mar 08.
(2013) "Legislation and Faith: Religious Rights and Religious Wrongs" (2013). Accessed 2017 Mar 08.
(2006) Religion and Belief Discrimination in Employment - the EU law. Directorate-General for Employment, Social Affairs and Equal Opportunities, Unit G.2.
Relevant Government and Legal Publications [As listed by the Equality & Diversity booklet, p10]: