History of Army Catholic Chaplaincy
In 1920 the Royal Army Chaplains’ Department was reorganised into the system which endured until 1986 with an Anglican Chaplain General, a Deputy of another denomination, and a Principal Roman Catholic Chaplain. In 1986 a Church of Scotland Chaplain General was appointed (the first non-Anglican), and this led in 2004 to the signing of a Convergence Agreement which brought together the Roman Catholic and ‘United’ branches of the Royal Army Chaplains’ Department into one body. In 2018 the first Roman Catholic Army chaplain was appointed as Deputy Chaplain General of a wholly ecumenical cohort of Army Chaplains.
The Royal Army Chaplains’ Department was formed under a Chaplain General in 1796 at which point all appointed chaplains were Church of England. The reality of the British Army during the Napoleonic Wars, however, was that it recruited as far afield as Hanover, Scotland, and Ireland. It is estimated that at this period at least 25% of the Army were Irish, and mostly Catholic. Pressure to build a broader-based Department began to build and in 1836 Catholic officiating chaplains were first appointed.
While peacetime chaplaincy in the 19th century was often somewhat sporadic, it became established form that the Army took chaplains to war, and more organised structures began to emerge with each denomination taking on responsibility for recruiting its chaplains, and for exercising spiritual authority over them. The Great Wat (1914-18) was to prove a water-shed in chaplaincy as in so many other areas. The scale, horror, and cost of the conflict was unprecedented, and chaplains ministered in the front-line to the wounded and the dying – many recognised for their courage, and often losing their own lives. It was in recognition of such service that in 1919 King George V conferred the prefix ‘Royal’ upon the Chaplains’ Department. Ministry of such a sacrificial nature continues to the present, and it is notable that the most recent Army Chaplain to lose his life in service was a Catholic priest – Fr Gerry Weston, killed by an IRA bomb in 1972.