Big Interview - Afghanistan chaplain - March 2011

Mark Christian talks to JULIET ENGLAND about life as an Army chaplain in Afghanistan

When Mark Christian spoke to a parishioner of his in Stockport who wanted to baptise his child in 1998, the life-changing conversation triggered a 13-year journey taking in Germany, Northern Ireland, Iraq and Afghanistan.

“The dad, a paratrooper, needed to talk through some of the things he’d experienced in the Army, and to have someone listen,” says 52-year-old Mark, who now trains other padres for military service from a centre in Hampshire.

Sudden epiphanies seem to define Nottingham-born Mark’s career. Just a few years before meeting that paratrooper, he was in church when “I had a distinct feeling that I should have been giving the sermon. It was an urge I fought like fury initially.”

The former IT manager, married with two sons, a daughter and a stepdaughter, has always had a cast-iron faith. But when he was preparing for his own daughter’s baptism in the late 1980s, he explains: “I realised you couldn’t join a club, then never show up”.

He started going to church more, which led to ordination in 1995, then the ‘seductive ministry’ of Army chaplaincy, and, ultimately, Afghanistan, a posting he accepted with relish.

Last year, Mark returned from a six-month tour of Helmand’s Lashka Gah, the HQ of the British Army’s southern brigade. One of nine padres, as senior chaplain he travelled to British bases across the region. On Christmas Day, for example, he was in seven places in 24 hours.

This mobility was especially important where someone had been killed or seriously injured. (There were 76 losses during the tour.) Mark’s chaplains would get to the scene as quickly as possible, to counsel those left behind.

“I offered spiritual support. The losses were awful. But soldiers only properly grieve for their comrades once they are home, and safe. It was important to help them carry on.”

Danger, of course, is something that’s never far away in Afghanistan.

“Yes, I was scared. But fear wasn’t the defining emotion. A sense of self-preservation kicks in and you just get on with it. Anyway, no-one who professes the Christian faith should be scared of being dead.”

Not carrying weapons, and not going on patrol (though chaplains have the same basic training as all soldiers) was no guarantee of evading the ever-present dangers of Helmand.

“You’re never really safe, never off duty. The soldiers and other chaplains had to be able to come and talk to me at any time, and always in absolute confidence.”

It would be understandable had his faith been tested to its limits, in these most challenging circumstances. But Mark’s never wavered.

“Faith is a gift of the Spirit, and I seem to have always had it. Of course, war is evil and the damage it creates disgusting. But for me, it wasn’t an issue of faith – evil is created by humans, not God.

“We live in a world where there is evil, and things aren’t black and white. It may seem odd for a vicar to sign up for an organisation which uses violence, and the Bible says ‘Thou shalt not murder’. But, there are situations where, while killing is awful, not doing so is worse.

“I’m no pacifist. I believe in why we are in Afghanistan and why we should stay until the Afghan people have security.” 

For many soldiers (“my parish of 1,000 young men”) their time in Afghanistan was a chance to consider issues of faith, and become more spiritually aware. Some may have had their faith challenged, but others found faith, and Mark carried out several baptisms while in Afghanistan.

“You’re forced to confront your own mortality. The men were very open to conversations.”

Christian’s respect for and love of the troops he served with, and his desire to support them, is evident, and he is clearly an Army chaplain to his core.

“They live with the consequences of their actions, and do so on our behalf. I believe we have an obligation of care towards them.”

As he said in a Radio 4 Thought for the Day piece: “A tour in Afghanistan is an emotionally intensive six months. It changes everyone … it deepens our understanding of life because every day we reflect on and are challenged by, issues of morality, mortality, faith and human relationships.”

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