It’s been hoofing! Serving as a Chaplain Cadet in the Army
Chaplain Cadet and Ridley ordinand Sam Banner is exploring a calling to military chaplaincy, and was excited to take up the opportunity to undertake his parish placement in the Cambridge University Officer Training Corps.
Sam shares with us the highlights of his journey so far, from the initial shock of the new, to the blessing and privilege of the many opportunities that have opened up to share his faith and pray with others.
It’s 2am. I’m stone cold and trying to stay awake. The Platoon Sergeant is sitting next to me, keeping his eyes and ears alert to the darkness of the night. Watching. Waiting.
The sound of an engine vehicle approaching breaks the monotony of the silent woods. Its beams lead it towards us along what must be a road or a forest track in the distance. Still at 100m it turns left, where the rest of the platoon lies in the darkness. At last, the moment has come. The night is about to be shattered by gunfire…
On the TAB (Tactical Advance to Battle) back I can barely walk straight. My eyes are hurting. There’s a stabbing pain in the back of my head I’ve never experienced before. It’s unbearable. I’m probably dehydrated. I spent most of the TAB out fumbling clumsily with my webbing, trying to undo it single handed, take a swig, and, harder still, squeeze my bottle back in into its pouch again. There had been some relief.
But I knew what the problem really was: not enough sleep. It was my first few days out in the field, and the excitement, novelty and disorientation had combined to steal my precious 7.5 hours each night. By some miracle I managed to stumble along the tarmac road, just about putting one foot in front of another. I was grateful for the 5’ x 3’ wooden cross a kind Lieutenant from the Rifles had fashioned for me – never had I lent on the cross in such a physical way. Seeing me on exercise the night before this Lieutenant had taken issue with my hands being empty. It wasn’t that he minded having a Chaplain Cadet with him, or that he felt I should be carrying a weapon. I think he was just perplexed every time he caught sight of me in the dark and thought ‘What’s this maverick cadet done with his weapon?’ Only to realise that it was me, and that I didn’t have one. Or not a physical one anyway #2Corinthians10:4 #SwordoftheSpirit.
Making it back to our ‘harbour’ – our temporary home in the woods – I dove into bed, hardly a paragon of Christian virtue offering to take the first stag duty. It was all I could do to get in my doss bag (big, green, army issue sleeping bag – it’s pretty cosy), put my eye mask on, ear buds in, and switch off.
Arriving at Ridley in 2018, a very real question was how I was going to get real ministry experience while away from the frontline of ministry, training for three years. Maybe that’s a question you’ve had to wrestle with? For me, there was a particular angle to it. You see, I feel called (am exploring a call, at least) to chaplaincy. Military chaplaincy. Royal Marine chaplaincy… It’s a journey that goes back to my teenage fantasies of being a spy, a conversation with a friend during a Tall Ships sailing trip in 2011, aged 18, and the realisation while searching for my vocation a few years later that perhaps that was the part of the puzzle I was made to fit into – the place in the mosaic where God would have me bring glory to him.
While there’s an abundance, and a huge variety of churches in Cambridge, there aren’t many Royal Marines. Certainly not many chances to engage with them as part of the structure-heavy phase of IME 1 training Ridley provides. This wasn’t a problem. I figured joining a sports team would be the next best ministry experience.
I was thrilled, then, when early on in my first year, Andrew Dunlop, in charge of placements, emailed us all about an opportunity to do our ‘parish attachment’ with the Army as a Chaplain Cadet in the Cambridge University Officer Training Corps (CUOTC). Credit goes to Padre Mark Chester for his innovative idea of getting ordinands into OTCs around the country, to aid him in his oversight and to give us a safe taste of chaplaincy life on the ground. Thanks also to the then Commanding Officer Lt Col Al Field, of CUOTC for being willing to give the new scheme a try.
As an ordinand interested in the Marines, it’s like the army has a year to persuade me to consider serving as a chaplain there instead. Indeed, a year for God to open that door. And they are/He is doing a good job. As the Marines would say, it’s been hoofing – it’s been fantastic.
Allow me to share a few highlights.
Things started pretty slowly back in September. The ADX (Annual Deployment Exercise, or annual camp) had been postponed due to COVID. Since it was in September, I was able to get involved. I was thrown in the deep end and felt very much on the back foot and out of place to begin with. I only knew one person when I arrived, OCdt Ed Hutton. He helped me to find my feet and begin to make friends, but still, I asked myself, ‘What am I doing here?’
Well, people warmed up and intrigue won the day. What is a Chaplain Cadet after all? ‘How come you aren’t carrying a weapon?’ And ‘how come you run so fast?’ Some great conversations opened up – Christians came out of the woodwork, break ups were chatted about and prayed into, the healing of injuries was prayed for. Some were hostile, cynical or suspicious, but most were warm, open and curious. One time out on the FX an Officer Cadet in my section asked me to share the verse I was reading. Hearing a snippet of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, he asked me to continue. I continued through Matthew 5, into 6 and all the way through 7. I was fascinated to find such spiritual hunger.
Let me ask, how many ‘parish attachments’ have ever started with 12 days away with the parish, getting to know those you’ll be sharing the rest of the year with? Perhaps the thought horrifies you, or you have commitments that would make that impractical. Well praise God that He made us each unique, each with a different call to different communities. I found it a huge blessing! One that has paid dividends since.
COVID, of course, has been a frustration, thwarting many exciting plans and opportunities that might have been. However, the OTC has a ‘can do’ attitude that I’ve found hugely inspiring. They managed to organise both an in-person training weekend and a week of AT in the Lakes in December between the national lockdown ending and stepping up again over Christmas. On the weekend I led a field service. My first one! A short optional, 15-minute service at 0740 between breakfast and activities at 0800. Perhaps it was the lure of the warm building over the sub zero alternative outside, but I was surprised how many came. The AT week featured a broadcast of the Holy Trinity carol service, Uncover Bible studies in John, compline and our very own Carols in the Car Park.
Off the back of these encouragements, I enquired as to whether the Corps were happy for me to offer Alpha this term. I was taken aback when the green light came. As I write, we’re currently halfway through with a dozen or so coming each week – cadets and one or two staff. Praise the Lord for opportunities like this one.
What an adventure!