Active members of the Canadian Forces (CF) have the benefit of military chaplains, including many Anglican chaplains, to provide pastoral and spiritual care to them and their families. But what happens when those members leave the military?
Nigel Shaw, Anglican bishop ordinary to the CF, describes spiritual support for regular and reserve forces as “very strong”, with more than 200 full-time chaplains currently serving along with approximately 150 reserve chaplains. But members who leave the military—Shaw himself retired three years ago—often face a gap in spiritual care.
“The challenge for the veterans is, of course, they’re not gathered together in recognizable groupings like regular forces or reserve force soldiers are, who all belong to their units, so it’s easy to find them,” Shaw says.
“Once you retire—and I’m a classic example—you just disappear a little bit into the woodwork. You blend right back into the civilian communities, and it’s very much up to the individual to seek out resources from Veterans Affairs when they’re needed, as opposed to…the military, where we have a service set up that more actively reaches out to people.”
Anglican chaplains in the CF work under something of a dual authority. The Anglican Military Ordinariate (AMO) represents church jurisdiction over Anglican chaplains, all of whom are AMO members. The bishop ordinary leads the AMO, supervising pastoral welfare and exercising episcopal authority over chaplains. Actual day-to-day work of chaplains, however, is governed by the chaplain general, a serving military officer.
The mandate of the AMO is to minister to active troops and their families. As Shaw points out, that mandate does not include veterans—though that distinction has softened in recent years.
“There was a time when we technically weren’t even supposed to do a funeral for a veteran, because that’s not our mandate,” Shaw says. “That’s not what the Crown was paying us for. But Veterans Affairs wasn’t paying people to do it either, so we tended to do it anyway. And that’s been recognized that yes, that’s a logical extension of our work, where possible.
“But there really is a demarcation between the work of the military chaplaincy, which is [for active-duty] military, and the work that needs to [happen] to support the veteran community, which is a different community—even though it’s a logical continuation of the first.”
Upon leaving the military, each member of the CF undergoes an exit interview with Veterans Affairs to set up a file. Though retiring soldiers can bring up spiritual care, the focus often tends to be on issues such as economic and physical well-being.
Since former members of the military are considered civilians, Shaw says, the traditional expectation has been that they would function “like any other Canadian citizen. They ought to be able to function using the resources of the community and not necessarily have to have special programs put in place, when spiritual and pastoral care is readily available throughout the country.”
The challenge is making sure veterans who need pastoral and spiritual care are able to connect to support services. Veterans who suffer from conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder are not always well- equipped to seek out spiritual support.
In military terms, the bishop ordinary says, support for veterans from the Anglican Church of Canada has tended to be more at the “tactical” level of individual parishes, deaneries and chaplains following up with ex-soldiers, rather than at the “strategic level” of a coordinated policy by General Synod.
“The church’s engagement, I think, tends to be right now primarily ad hoc,” Shaw says. “I think there’s a fair bit of engagement happening at parish levels with various different initiatives.”
One example of Anglican support for veterans is the Veterans’ House project, an interfaith effort to provide support for homeless veterans in Ottawa. The project seeks to help these veterans find stable housing and receive treatment for issues related to addictions, physical health and mental health. The Anglican diocese of Ottawa is a member of the Multifaith Housing Initiative that coordinates the project, along with more than a dozen Anglican parishes.
Holy Trinity Anglican Church in Edmonton, which serves as the regimental church of the South Alberta Light Horse reserve unit, has since 2016 run a mental health ministry for reservists, who do not always have access to the same services as active-duty members living on-base. Because of Holy Trinity’s connection to the CF, many regular and reservist soldiers continue to attend services there after leaving the military. The church also provides care to family members of soldiers deployed overseas.
“I think we as a church have a responsibility to be engaged with men and women [in the military and] provide them a faith community while they’re on active duty, while they’re in the reserves and then after,” the Rev. Chris Pappas, rector, says. “They need the support that the faith community provides.”
Korean War veteran Victor Flett, an Anglican who served in the navy for 33 years, is an active member of St. Peter and St. Paul Parish in Esquimalt, B.C., where he serves as an honorary canon.
Flett, who is Cree, had to give up his Indian status in the 1950s to receive benefits from Veterans Affairs. Since his retirement, Flett’s primary methods of supporting his fellow veterans have been groups such as the Royal Canadian Legion, the Korea Veterans Association and the Aboriginal Veterans Autochtones.
“As far as the Anglican Church supporting veterans, I know that they are active supporting the padres [chaplains] of the armed forces,” Flett says. “And that is a very, very important part of the military, to have the padres serving with the military, providing spiritual help as needed.”
The departments of National Defence and Veterans Affairs have declared a goal of bridging the gap between care and support provided to active-duty soldiers and that accorded to veterans. In that context, the bishop ordinary believes it might be time to look into a more strategic approach by the Anglican Church of Canada to providing spiritual care for veterans.
“It’s…worth taking a bit of time to think it through at a high level of what resources, if any, can we afford to put into this, what ought we to put into it, what are the needs [and] is there a role for us as a church engaging with the government departments around this to advocate for support in different ways.”