The United Navy, Army and Air Force Board formally recognised its first two chaplains in 1914, with one of them, E L Watson, becoming the first UB chaplain to be deployed to the front in France.
One hundred years later and the United Board now has 34 regular chaplains drawn from the Baptist Union, United Reformed Church, Congregational Federation, Elim and Assemblies of God denominations.
Chaplains past and present joined denominational leaders in gathering at the Armed Forces Chaplaincy Centre at Amport House in Andover last week.
Lieutenant General James Everard, the current Deputy Chief of the Defence Staff, later gave an address
at the United Board conference dinner.
Current convenor of the United Board, Baptist minister the Revd Ian McFarlane, said the ministry was as valued as ever.
‘James Everard gave a stirring affirmation of the value of chaplaincy from the point of view of the armed forces.
‘The role of chaplains is highly significant. There isn’t a military formation that moves into a conflict situation without one. They are not an add on - they are core.’
There has been a marked growth in the number of chaplains coming through the United Board in the last 10 years, Ian added. This was partly as the number of armed conflicts have increased (military chaplaincy has been growing since the First Gulf War), and because the sending denominations have opened up to the possibilities of the importance of the role that military chaplaincy plays across all three services.
‘It wasn’t the thing to endorse the military,’ he said, ‘but the huge, emotional turmoil our military personnel have had to face over the years, has become apparent.
‘It’s the ministry of presence, both in war time and peace: they are there in times of preparation, dealing with family issues.
‘So we rightly celebrate the work of chaplains who have served faithfully over the years.’
Another significant feature in the United Board history has been the growth of ecumenical relationships between the sending churches. This has led to the appointment of a Baptist – Jonathan Woodhouse – to the highest rank possible for any serving chaplain, Chaplain General. A few years ago this post would not have been open to a United Board chaplain.
‘There is a rich and open relationship that has grown between the representatives of the sending churches and the heads of chaplaincy,’ said Ian.
‘This helps set the context for day-to-day ministry to be given to and received by all, regardless of denomination.’
Ian steps down as convenor in January, and will be succeeded by Jonathan. Writing in a booklet to mark the United Board centenary, Jonathan said military chaplains have an "incarnational" ministry which is "relational and God-centred".
‘Believing that people are made in the image of God, the ministry of military chaplains is to all and for all as no-one is outside the reaches of God’s love,’ he wrote.
‘God has blessed this ministry over the past 100 years and there is much still to come in this demanding, unpredictable and fulfilling calling.
‘Please pray for us and for others to join us in serving members of the Armed Forces.’