Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Of Stoles and Symbols

I recently attended a graveside service for a family member of a parishioner. It took place at a national cemetery and a US Army chaplain officiated. In my first call out of seminary I served under a man who was a National Guard chaplain and was always amazed at the faithful service and Word he brought to men under arms and in harm's way (he served in Balad for over a year). I gained a great appreciation for just how hard that job is and how much pressure there is in that occupation to buckle under (his stories about the higher ups "encouraging" the chaplains to keep prayers "ecumenical," and therefore devoid of Trinitarian formulae, are really something).

Even with that knowledge I was taken aback by the chaplain's vestments at this graveside service. Specifically: black stole with gold chi-rho on the right shoulder, gold cross on the left, and at the end of each side of the stole, the US Army eagle.

I understand that chaplains will appear in uniform - they are, after all, members of the armed forces. But shouldn't their clerical vestments - symbols not of government, but of godly service - be free of the symbols of the state's military apparatus? If I were a hospital chaplain, I don't think I'd want the SSM Corporate logo on my stole.

I Googled around a bit and found several iterations of this practice - especially specific units' symbols emblazoned on chaplain's stoles and tippets, as you can see above and below. I found one chaplain's blog that mentioned that the stole I saw at the graveside service was standard issue - a gift from the Army. I bet they give out stoles with stars of David and crescent moons instead of crosses, too - with the Army eagle on the bottom, of course. Do these state symbols on a symbol of clerical authority have a meaning? I think so. And I'm not very comfortable with the message they send.

What say those who have served or are serving as chaplains? Any talk amongst yourselves about this sort of thing? Have I misinterpreted this practice?



  1. The thing is their service is not simply a service to the kingdom of the right, but also the kingdom of the left. It isn't just that their stole is altered with the symbols of the State, but even their uniform denotes their dual role with religious demarcation on it. It's a mixed and messy situation with it's own burdens. It has mixed and blended symbolism throughout - because any chaplain is two things - an officer of the state and also a minister of the Church.

  2. Rev. Brown,

    Fair enough about uniforms. But my question is specifically about stoles: a symbol not of government but of church service. Wouldn't it be a good demarcation of church and state to have the guy in uniform, but a stole free from state symbols?


  3. There is a certain wisdom on the WELS position on the chaplaincy. There exists a certain compromise at the center of the chaplaincy. No man can serve two masters, and usually we serve the one who pays us, who fulfills our physical needs. And so, of course, this compromise is also at the heart of our secular vocations as well.

  4. Part of it, too, is that the Chaps want to be one of the guys. Of course, they really aren't. But the military emblems sort of "fit in."

    Believe me, I wanted to be a chaplain, I support them. But they are different. No one likes to stick out in the service . . .

  5. What of entire sets of vestments that are entirely of a camouflage pattern?

  6. It should also be noted that the stoles aren't really stoles but tippets.

    That being said, this is a clear confusion of the kingdoms - and it encourages such muddy thinking about church and state. It reminds me of the "Patriot Bible," a new study Bible that tries to tie the biblical text in with the founding fathers and other patriotic Americana.

    And I agree that the WELS system is better. There is simply something wrong about an LCMS pastor having to salute and take orders from his superior who may well be an Episcopalian priestess (if not, in the near future, a Wiccan or even a Satanist). Can such a chaplain in such a position preach and teach against women's ordination without expecting to be accused of insubordination? If reports are true, chaplains are already routinely pressured to water-down their prayers and preaching, and to take the Trinitarian edge off of their invocations and blessings.

    One of my parishioners came back from years of service in Iraq terribly spiritually confused thanks to attending the 'Protestant' services in which the chaplains taught all sorts of goofy things. Why should our military be subjected to that?

    And why must a chaplain be under the military chain of command and paid by the government? The short answer is: "they don't."

  7. As a former Navy chaplain, 8 years from 2000-2008, I can say, Rev. Brown is on this right. This is a very messy situation and tough to do well. Just when you think you have it figured out, which things are Navy ceremonies, (i.e. changes of command, retirement ceremonies, commissioning ceremonies) and which are religious (i.e. the Divine Service, prayer services) there's a wrench thrown in. Just what exactly is an "invocation" in Navy practice? Whenever we had a commemoration of a special government ideal, "Latin American Heritage Month Program," the chaplain will give the invocation. Prayers at these types of events were strongly encouraged by senior leadership to be non faith specific. Never was I told what I could or could not pray at one of the worship services I officiated.

    I divided things this way. At ceremonies, I would wear only my uniform. At worship services I would wear only vestments, or my uniform underneath my vestments. That way the thing was clear in my mind. Everything is clear.

    Then I was thrown the wrench--a burial at sea. A burial at sea is a Navy ceremony. Navy regulations (Instruction) govern the event. But the rite of Christian Burial is something else. I resolved it this way. I participated in command burial at sea but not vested and praying only the prayer of committal for Christians. I’m not entirely happy with what I did, but apart from refusing to participate at all, which was not an option, it was the choice I made.

    There is a supply item camouflage chasuble stole combo. However, I've never seen it used. Old pictures I've seen show Papist chaplains in Viet Nam celebrating Mass in full vestiture whether on deck or at one of the bases in country. I did not use it. I would not use it. I think I actually showed it to one of the Blackbirds here when he visited my ship. But these things are just plain camouflage with no emblems.

    Now, up to this point, I have only obliquely dealt with the question at hand, stoles with command symbols or symbols of the state on Christian chaplains. (No, there are no stoles for rabbis and imams.) On top of this, and I have quite a bit of experience with Lutheran chaplains across the services, I don’t know anyone who wore these things. I have never worn these things. I think what is at work here is the American Civil Religion. From what I saw in Kuwait, it is alive and active, especially among evangelical protestant chaplains in the Army. Among them the National Day of Prayer is more important than and more highly programed for than Easter. For them, these wars in the Middle East are crusades. I heard them speak amongst themselves in this way. And interestingly, you have pictures of only Army chaplains here. Jonathan Shaw of Gottesdienst, should be able to further clarify this for us. Also, for those not in the know, the Navy provides all chaplains for the Marines, Coast Guard, and Merchant Marine as well as all Navy units.

    Getting back to the broader issue which Rev. Brown rightly identified. A unit chaplain, whether on a ship or in a battalion of soldiers or Marines, is a rabbit’s foot to a greater or lesser extent. The unit gets a kick out of seeing their unit’s emblem anywhere and everywhere, that’s unit pride. In my understanding of military chaplaincy these stoles are symbolic of a confusion of kingdoms, not something we should be too surprised by among evangelical protestants.

    Regarding the WELS position, I go back and forth. However, the WELS position, as I read it is not, "No man can serve two masters," but rather a Lutheran chaplain would be forced to compromise his Confessional integrity. That's something different. I think years ago, Lutherans could serve as chaplains without such compromises. I think that today, a Lutheran could do the same. However, he would just be risking his career each and every time he decided to pray "in the name of Jesus," at a Navy ceremony.

    Thanks for the discussion.

    Rev. Andrew Smith
    Augustana Ev. Lutheran Church
    Hickory, North Carolina

  8. Rev. Smith,

    Thanks for the inside scoop. That should be required reading for guys looking to get into the chaplaincy. There's a lot to think about there - so that you for the discussion!


  9. Yep, I saw the camo combo on the USS Bataan - brutal. Although, it wouldn't be all that bad during the ordinary time if one were in the desert with men who were going into battle and there were nothing else at hand in 125 degree weather.

    If you go to CHI on the Seminary campus you can see Fr. Smith baptizing a Marine. He's not wearing his military uniform, but vested in alb and stole.

    I had another Navy chaplain as a guest over the weekend - Lt.Commander R.R.Rupe. He was awarded the Bronze Star for his brave service under fire in Iraq. These guys have it very tough, and tread in places where we would be in great fear. They do so with great courage; with Holy Angels around.

  10. Pastor Brown is correct. The WELS permitted WELS chaplains to serve in the military during World War I but by World War II believed that their confessional integrity would be compromised by being military officers rather than civilians. As a question for everyone, besides the issue of being commanded by Episcopalian or Wiccan priestesses, can our chaplains publicly pray with other chaplains who teach everything from "believer's baptism" to crusading? For those who have experience as chaplains, how did you maintain the purity of your preaching and teaching?

  11. I don't mean to be disrespectful, but from my experience with military and hospital chaplains, I get the sense that, regardless of official job description, they are expected to be essentially cheerleaders. This is definitely the case with hospital / hospice chaplains, who are there to affirm the beliefs of the patient, whatever they may be, strictly avoiding Christian terminology. A hospital chaplain told my parents that I would do fine in surgery because I wasn't afraid. He interpreted my answers pertaining to the eternal and applied them to the temporal. I wonder what he would have said to them had I died.

  12. This is really a good conversation. Who says that what we wear is simply an external!?!

    Jennifer and Adam note that it would be bad to be commanded by a female Episcopalian priest. Why is that an issue? Would it be better to have a papist boss? While I certainly don't agree that women should be ordained to the pastoral office, I realize that if my boss happened to be one, I would just have to find a way to work with her. That's the military.

    Let me say that during my tenure I served under 3 command chaplains all of whom were Roman Catholic priests and not only was I supported in my ministry, I was cared for pastorally and collegially.

    FYI, as of yet, there are no Wiccan chaplains because there is no endorsing agent, that is Dept. of Defense speak for what is essentially a body who certifies that said chaplain is a faithful representative of that respective faith group. Wiccans are really kind of anti-organization. They're based on covens not nation-wide organizations so I'll be surprised when there is one. Our synod's Board for Ministry to the Armed Forces is a recognized endorsing agent according to the DoD. They are very good at what they do.

    Most LCMS chaplains do not publicly pray with chaplains of other faith groups and the vast majority of senior chaplains understand this and don't force their agendas on an LCMS guy.

    The hot issue now of course is the joint ministry agreements with the ELCA. Full fellowship with the UCC, RCA and the ECUSA didn't sink it, but it is sure to go asunder now.

    The question was also asked how to maintain purity of doctrine. On a typical Sunday underway I would have General Protestant Service at 9 am. On the first Sunday of the month, a fellow Navy Chaplain would come over from another ship and take the service and celebrate communion. The other 3 Sundays a month I would have a service of the word, or prayer and preaching. Typically the sermon was the same for the Protestant service and the Lutheran Divine Service. I vested for the Protestant Service because it covered up my rank. At 11 am I would have the "Lutheran Divine Service." That's how I didn't have General Protestant Communion services. In most every place one goes, there are other chaplains around and services can get faith specific.

    So the question is about teaching and preaching. I remember distinctly the Sunday I preached the Baptism of Jesus. I met the issue head on and respectfully challenged from the text about the nature and efficacy of Holy Baptism. I met some smiles, some inquisitive nods, two or three "Amens," and some folks radically disagreed with me. But I was respectful and that went a long way with folks. What was great was a Bible study on the parables that lasted about half the 7 months we were out. Those Evangelicals had never heard the Gospel in the parables. That was good stuff. And it made me sharper too because they typically knew the Scriptures well.

  13. Hospital chaplains are a different breed. I was one for 3 years at Bethesda Naval Hospital. It was a semi-military / semi-health care chaplaincy world. If you've ever done a unit of CPE in a hospital, you have some idea of the ideals being championed there.

    In short, Health Care Chaplaincy is in the business of promoting beneficial health outcomes by supporting spirituality. It's a given that you work with what's there because very few people will enjoy reworking their entire worldview while battling leukemia.

    Rev. Reeder, if the hospital chaplain translated your eternal hope into temporal good, he was being a good health care chaplain according to the prevailing wind. Anxiety going into surgery is not good and could complicate recovery. All the studies show that patients with a strong spirituality do have better outcomes. In evidenced-based medicine, that's all that counts. I really wish the studies said that LCMS Lutherans seemed to have this miraculous ability to cheat death, but they don't.

    Health care chaplains and hospice chaplains are typically there to affirm the beliefs of the patients. The good news is, if your folks see a hospital or hospice chaplain they will affirm his or her Lutheran identity. The hospice chaplain was very helpful to my grandmother whose pastors would not visit her while she was dying.

    However, as a hospital chaplain working with combat casualties and then cancer patients and leukemics, I often found openings where the Gospel could be communicated not on the face of it as a challenge to deeply held beliefs but as pure proclamation of grace. I think Eugene Petersen calls that being a subversive pastor. After all, "There is a balm in Gilead..."

    I want to repeat that I was never pressured to water down my preaching as a Navy chaplain. However, I was pressured by senior Navy chaplains not to pray in the name of Jesus at ceremonies and public events but not at religious services at which I officiated. Our endorsing agent however was working to support chaplains who bucked this pressure.

    That Marine that Fr. Ball mentioned was baptized while underway in the Persian Gulf just after Easter in 2003. I didn't know I was famous and in CHI.

    Thanks again for this discussion. I really appreciate it.

    Rev. Andrew Smith
    Augustana Ev. Lutheran Church
    Hickory, North Carolina

  14. I have mixed feelings about hospital chaplains. I know they mean well, but sometimes they don't seem to respect boundaries.

    Once the patient's pastor shows up, they need to back off and turn over spiritual care to the pastor.

    The lady chaplain at our local hospital seems clueless about this, and doesn't seem to take hints very well. Of course, it may also be a little passive aggression against the LCMS pastor that she knows does not approve of her "ministry."

    Women chaplains should perhaps be run through some kind of sensitivity training so that they appreciate the sensibilities of traditionalists.

    Ditto for hospice chaplains. They should not be distributing religious materials or paying pastoral visits to our parishioners. Why is this so hard for them to understand this?

  15. Rev. Smith,

    Thank you for your comments. I am glad to know that confessional integrity is allowed in military chaplaincy, pressure from superiors notwithstanding. It was premature for me to paint them with the same brush as health care chaplains. I was less informed than I presumed to be and I apologize.

    Re: health care chaplains--I, too, have had to deal with a couple who persistently visit my parishioners despite notification that I'm administering pastoral care. But this can be remedied by speaking with the administration. Since patients have the right to choose their hospice, providers normally respect their wishes. We must allow for the possibility that our parishioners might avoid confrontation by just letting the chaplain do his/her thing. It's hard for many to say no to a visit.

  16. so i see it has been a while since you've had a comment on this, but i'll throw in my two cents...

    i'm in the army. to the person who said "they just want to be accepted as one of the chaps but they really aren't", is obviouslycoming from someone who has never worn the uniform.

    being a soldier and a man of god isn't a conflict of interest. the bible is full of examples of people being both. we can start in the old testament and look at men like david and solomon.

    i can't speak to the actuality of there being priests ordained by the catholic church in the army. dunno if that is the case or not. but the who "conflict of interest" thing seems a bit more insitutional than biblical.

    as for a chaplain not being "one of the guys"...nothing could be further from the truth. in fact, the best chaplains ARE one of the guys.

    i'm infantry. our battalions chaplain used to be a special forces weapons sergeant before he got his commision. a more real, more gruff, more genuine guy you could never hope to meet.

    chaplains are non-combatants under the geneva conventions and do not carry weapons in combat, but it doesn't make them any less of a soldier. they still have tremendous pride in serving their country and tremendous pride in the fellow soldiers and units they serve with. as soldiers, we put our unit patches on EVERYTHING, because we think it's cool. chaplains are no different in this respect. reading anything more into the fact that there are unit symbols on the various chaplian attire, other than just having pride in one's unit and commrades, is rubish.

  17. I had a book called "Uniforms of the U.S. Army of the Cold War," and the "standard issue" U.S. Army Chaplain Tippet (in either white or black) had the U.S. Army Coat of Arms on each end, surmounted with either the Christian Cross (for Protestant Chaplains) or the Star of David (for Jewish Chaplains). Vestments (primarily for Catholic and Orthodox Chaplains) or the tallit scarf (for Orthodox Jews) may also be worn. This "trend" you see here is mainly a post-Vatican II and post-Vietnam type of affair and detracts uniformity for personality. The Armed Forces need to go back to regulating Chaplain dress, but also to allow for the needs of others since the Armed Forces stated commissioning Chaplains from other religions as well.


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