A chaplain is typically a priest, ordained deacon or other member of the clergy serving a group of people who are not organized as a mission or church, or who are unable to attend church for various reasons; such as health, confinement, or military or civil duties. For example a chaplain is often attached to a military unit (often known as padre). In recent years many non-ordained persons have received professional training in chaplaincy and are now appointed as chaplains, sometimes working alongside or instead of ordained chaplains.


The first English military-oriented chaplains were priests on board proto-naval vessels during the eighth century A.D. Land based chaplains appeared during the reign of King Edward I, although their duties included jobs that today would come under the jurisdiction of military engineers and medical officers. A priest attached to a feudal noble household would follow his liege lord into battle. In 1796 the Parliament of Great Britain passed a Royal Warrant that established the Royal Army Chaplains' Department in the British Army.

The current form of military chaplain dates from the era of the First World War. A chaplain provides spiritual and pastoral support for service personnel, including the conduct of religious services at sea or in the field. In the Royal Navy chaplains are traditionally addressed by their Christian name, or with one of many nick-names (Bish; Sin-Bosun; Devil Dodger; Sky-Pilot; God Botherer etc). In the British Army and Royal Air Force, chaplains are traditionally referred to (and addressed) as ''padre''.

In the Royal Navy chaplains have no rank other than "chaplain" while in the British Army they hold commissioned executive rank. On the foundation of the Royal Air Force Chaplains' Branch an attempt was made to amalgamate these differing systems creating "Relative Rank", where rank is worn but without executive authority. In practice chaplains of all three services work in similar ways using what influence and authority they have on behalf of those who consult them or seek their advice.

In the United States, military chaplains have rank based on years of service and promotion selection. They are identified in uniform of both rank and religious symbol insignias.

Christianity is not the only faith to have chaplain-equivalent positions. Other religions, such as Judaism, Islam and Buddhism may also provide chaplains for military service. The British Armed Forces traditionally only employed Christian and Jewish chaplains; the appointment of four civilian chaplains (Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim, Sikh) occurred for the first time in October 2005; they bear the relative rank of lieutenant-colonel. In the United States Armed Forces, a Muslim military chaplain was commissioned for the first time in 1993 and a Buddhist chaplain in 2004.

The Buddhist equivalent term for chaplain may be the Sanskrit word ''purohita''. In medieval Japan, Buddhists priests of the Jishu sect accompanied samurai armies and were known as ''jinso'' (literally, "camp priests"). The Japanese Imperial Army and Navy until the end of World War II maintained Buddhist chaplains, although the present-day Japanese ''Jieitai'' "Self-Defense Force" does not. Currently the United States, United Kingdom, Royal Thai Army and the Republic of South Korea Armed Forces (ROK) employ Buddhist military chaplains. The Buddhist Churches of America (BCA), the mainland United States branch of the Nishi Hongwanji-ha Jodo Shinshu tradition, became the first endorser for military chaplains of Buddhist faith in 1987. An initial attempt by the BCA to create a Buddhist chaplain occurred during World War II when Japanese-Americans who were of the Buddhist religion enlisted in the U.S. Army from the internment camps, but this request was denied by the War Department. Christian chaplains then served these troops.

Chaplains are nominated in different ways in different countries. A military chaplain can be an army-trained soldier with additional theological training or a priest nominated to the army by religious authorities. In the United Kingdom the Ministry of Defence employs chaplains but their authority comes from their sending church. Royal Navy chaplains undertake a 16 week bespoke induction and training course including a short course at Britannia Royal Naval College and specialist fleet time at sea alongside a more experienced chaplain. Naval Chaplains called to service with the Royal Marines undertake a gruelling 5 month long Commando Course, and if successful wear the commandos' Green Beret. British Army chaplains undertake seven weeks training at The Armed Forces Chaplaincy Centre Amport House and The Royal Military Academy Sandhurst. Royal Air Force chaplains must complete 12 weeks Specialist Entrant course at the RAF College Cranwell followed by a Chaplains' Induction Course at Armed Forces Chaplaincy Centre Amport House of a further 2 weeks. The Royal Army Chaplains Department was amalgamated with a niumber of other smaller (specialists) Corps into the Adjutant Generals Corps (AGC) on the 1st April 1992.

In the United States military, chaplains must be endorsed by their religious affiliation in order to serve on active duty. This religious endorsement must be obtained throughout the active duty years of service and in fact it can be withdrawn at any time by the religious body with which the chaplain is affiliated. Without such endorsement, the chaplain can no longer serve on active duty as a chaplain.

In France, the existence of military chaplains has come under debate because of the separation of Church and State; however, their position has been maintained as of 2004.

Roman Catholic chaplains are generally organized into military ordinariates, such as the Archdiocese for the Military Services, USA. Potential Roman Catholic chaplains must seek permission from their diocesan bishop or religious superior to serve as a military chaplain. While serving as a chaplain, the priest or deacon remains incardinated in their home diocese, but is temporarily under the direction of the prelate of the ordinariate for the duration of their service.

Australian Defense Force Chaplains

Army and Air Force

Chaplains in the Australian Defence Force (ADF) have almost the same status as chaplains in the British armed services. Chaplains in the Australian Army and Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) are commissioned officers and wear the uniform of officers of their particular branch of the services as well as the rank to which they are qualified. Chaplains in the Australian Army and the Royal Australian Air Force begin their commission as a Captain (Army) or Flight Lieutenant (RAAF) respectively. There are five levels or "divisions" for the seniority of chaplains in the Australian Army and Air Force with each division corresponding to a worn rank. The highest "division" is Division 5 who are "Principal Chaplains," of which there are three per service representing the three major Christian denominations: Catholic, Anglican and Protestant. The Principal Chaplains of the Army wear the rank of Brigadier and in the RAAF, Air Commodore. Australian Army chaplains, whatever their rank, are mostly referred to as "Padre" by officers and soldiers alike. The title is also widely used in the RAAF for their chaplains.


Like chaplains in the Australian Army and RAAF, Royal Australian Navy (RAN) chaplains are commissioned officers and wear the uniform of a RAN officer, but like chaplains in the British Royal Navy (RN) they do not wear a rank. Rather they wear the same cross and anchor emblem worn by RN chaplains on their shoulder rank slides and do not have gold braided rings or executive loops on their winter sleeve coat or summer shoulder boards. Like other chaplains in the ADF, Navy chaplains have five divisions of seniority. Interestingly, whilst Australian Navy chaplains do not wear rank, they are accorded a certain rank for protocol and ceremonial occasions and for saluting purposes. Division 1, 2 and 3 Australian Navy chaplains are accorded the rank and status as Commander (Lieutenant Colonel equivalent in the Australian Army). Division 4 Australian Navy chaplains are accorded the rank and status of Captain (equiv. of Colonel). Division 5 Australian Navy chaplains are "Principal Chaplains," and these three chaplains, representing the three major Christian denominations: Catholic, Anglican and Protestant, are accorded the rank and status of Commodore. The title "Padre" for chaplains is less common and not officially encouraged in the Royal Australian Navy, although it is known to be used by some sailors and Navy chaplains in preference to the more formal title of "Chaplain" or form of address towards an officer such as "Sir." Like British Royal Navy chaplains, Royal Australian Navy chaplains wear a slightly different peaked cap to other Navy officers which apparently was designed by Winston Churchill.

Heads of Denominations

In the Australian Defense Force (ADF), the heads of military chaplaincy for those Christian denominations and of the Jewish faith that have an official association with the ADF, are also members of the ADF's "Religious Advisory Committee" (RAC). With respect to the Catholic and Anglican churches, their Bishops are members of RAC and they and the other members of RAC have the status of a two star General (US) or Major General (Australian Army), or Rear Admiral (RAN) or Air Vice-Marshal (RAAF).

Noncombatant status

The Geneva Conventions (Protocol I, 8 June 1977, Art 43.2) are clear that medical personnel and chaplains are noncombatants: they do not have the right to participate directly in hostilities. The widely held view that the Conventions require chaplains to be unarmed is untrue. (The fallacious argument begins with the fact that the Conventions specifically permit medical personnel to bear arms but do not mention chaplains. This misses a key point: the specific permission given in Protocol I, 8 June 1977, Art 13.2(a) refers to civilians, not service personnel).

It is generally assumed that during WWII chaplains were unarmed. Crosby describes an incident where a US chaplain became a trained tank gunner and was dismissed for this "entirely illegal, not to mention imprudent" action. At least some UK WWII chaplains serving in the Far East, however, were armed: George MacDonald Fraser recalls "the tall figure of the battalion chaplain, swinging along good style with his .38 on his hip" immediately behind the lead platoon during a battalion attack. Fraser asks "if the padre shot [an enemy], what would the harvest be … apart from three ringing cheers from the whole battalion?".

In recent years both the UK and US have required chaplains, but not medical personnel, to be unarmed. Other nations, notably Norway, Denmark and Sweden, make it an issue of individual conscience. There are anecdotal accounts that even US and UK chaplains have at least occasionally unofficially borne weapons: Chaplain (then Captain) James D. Johnson, of the 9th Infantry Division, Mobile Riverine Force in Vietnam describes (''Combat Chaplain: A Thirty-Year Vietnam Battle'') carrying the M-16 rifle while embedded with a combat patrol. Since 1909 US Chaplains on operations have been accompanied by an armed 'Chaplain Assistant'.(, however perhaps on this occasion it was felt that an unarmed uniformed man would draw unwelcome attention.

Captured chaplains are not considered Prisoners of War (Third Convention, 12 August 1949, Chapter IV Art 33) and must be returned to their home nation unless retained to minister to prisoners of war.

Inevitably, serving chaplains have died in action, sometimes in significant numbers. The U.S. Army and Marines lost 100 chaplains killed in action during WWII: a casualty rate greater "than any other branch of the services except the infantry and the Army Air Corps". Many have been decorated for bravery in action (five have won Britain's highest award for gallantry, the Victoria Cross). The Chaplain's Medal for Heroism is a special U.S. military decoration given to military chaplains who have been killed in the line of duty, although it has to date only been awarded to the famous Four Chaplains, all of whom died in the USAT ''Dorchester'' sinking in 1943 after giving up their lifejackets to others.

Conflict with the Executive

A chaplain's religious beliefs and practices may lead to conflict with the Executive.

In January 1991 Lieutenant Colonel Garland Robertson, a US Air Force chaplain during Operation Desert Shield, wrote to the Abilene Reporter-News asserting that "… the American people are not united in their decision to support a military offensive against the aggression of Saddam Hussein in Kuwait." ( Robertson was investigated by Air Force psychologists and relieved of his pastoral duties. According to Robertson, a visiting officer from the Chief of Chaplains office "indicated that compromise was essential for becoming a successful military chaplain," and that "if Jesus had been an Air Force chaplain … he would have been court-martialled."

US Navy Chaplain Lieutenant Gordon Klingenschmitt was reprimanded and fined during a September 14, 2006 court martial for wearing his uniform at a protest in March 2006 held by Roy Moore. Klingenschmitt was dismissed from the Navy in March 2007. He had been battling military policies that he considered to be an infringement of the rights of every chaplain to "conduct public worship according to the manner and forms of the church of which he is a member."

US Army Chaplain Captain Don Larsen was dismissed from his post in Iraq after changing his religious affiliation from Pentecostal Christianity to Wicca, which would have made him the first Wiccan military chaplain. However, his potential new endorser, the Sacred Well Congregation was not an officially recognized endorser, and his prior endorser, the Chaplaincy of Full Gospel Churches, refused to continue his endorsement after learning of his change of religion. As a result, the US Army was required to dismiss him from chaplaincy despite an exemplary service record.

Badges and Insignia

Military Chaplains are normally accorded officer status, although Sierra Leone had a Naval Lance Corporal chaplain in 2001. In most navies, their badges and insignia do not differentiate their levels of responsibility and status. By contrast, in Air Forces and Armies, they typically carry ranks and are differentiated by crosses or other equivalent religious insignia. However, United States military chaplains Association and every branch carry both rank and Chaplain Corps insignia.

Chaplain's badges and insignia follow this general pattern (taken from the Royal Australian Navy):

  • A gilt cross is worn by chaplains of all Christian denominations and worn in the same manner as specialist badges.
  • A chaplain’s cap badge is of the same design as an officer’s cap badge except that the laurel leaves are embroidered in black silk, edged and veined in gold. The peak of the cap is covered with black cloth.
  • A clerical collar stock and/or black military style clerical shirt may be worn instead of white shirt and tie (including dress shirt and bow tie for evening wear.)
  • The badge worn by chaplains on shoulder boards consists of a gold embroidered foul anchor on a Maltese cross of embroidered silver. This is similar, in embroidery, for soft rank insignia for shirts.
  • Honorary Chaplains to the Sovereign wear a red cassock and a special bronze badge consisting of the Royal Cypher and crown within an oval wreath. The badge is worn above medal ribbons or miniature medals during the conduct of religious services. On the left side of the scarf by chaplains, who wear the scarf and on academic or ordinary clerical dress by other chaplains.
  • Royal Navy Chaplains had no uniform until WWII when Churchill was allegedly concerned about German spies dressed as clergy entering Dockyards. Chaplains still enjoy the privilege of wearing a clerical suit as their uniform: it is in general Anglican chaplains serving ashore other than with the Royal Marines who use this right. Commando trained chaplains wear a small badge depicting a gold commando dagger on the right sleeve of mess dress and No 1 uniforms.

U.S. Armed Forces Uniforms, Badges and Insignia

Chaplains serving in the U.S. Armed Forces wear the uniform of their respective branch of service, and only wear clerical garb during the performance of a religious service. On most uniforms, the religious insignia device is worn on the left collar tab, and the rank insignia on the right. A uniform exception is that chaplains do not wear the ceremonial officer's sword. In the U.S. Navy, Chaplain Corps officers also do not qualify for or wear warfare pins (with the exception of the Fleet Marine Force Pin minus crossed rifles), unless these were earned prior to the servicemember becoming a chaplain.

  • Christian (Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox & Protestant) insignia is the Latin Cross.
  • Jewish insignia is the Mosaic Tablets of the Law (10 Commandments) surmounted by the Star of David.
  • Muslim insignia is the Crescent.
  • Buddhist insignia is the Dharmacakra ("Wheel of Dharma") designed as a gilt 8-spoke wheel.
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