This article about the intended role and significance of the clergy during World War II, was originally published in Christianity & Crisis on May  4, 1942. Lt. C. Leslie Glenn reveals his dismay regarding the clergy’s uninspiring effort to engage in the war, which he views as a means to serve and support those fighting in the war. The article details the reasons why clergymen should pursue the Chaplaincy, in addition to the positive impact it will have both during and after the war. To read the original in a PDF format, click here.

Being a preacher, my only contact with other preachers’ sermons is in Monday morning’s paper, but allowing for some poor reporting, I think it is safe to say that from time to time preachers have as their subject, “The Importance of Church-going.” On many Mondays I have an impression that men were urged the day before to go to Church.

Very well, is it not equally necessary for the Church to go to men? If it is really so desperately important for every soul to seek the church (and I agree with these preachers) how can there be the slightest question about the importance of the church seeking the souls? And by seeking, I don’t mean opening a building, hiring a choir and hoping that people will be drawn to the preaching. Seeking means going where they are, and they aren’t living in our cities and towns these days. They are in armies and on ships and stations.

These men whom we asked to give up their golf so we could talk to them in church, are asking us to give up our churches so we can talk to them in the Army and Navy. And if the matter was pressing enough to demand a sacrifice of their time in civilian life, it is pressing enough to demand a sacrifice of our time in military life.

That is the first reason why the chaplaincies are important. There are millions of men under arms. The church must be there. If a chaplain had no opportunities in the armed forces whatsoever, if he were busy all day handing out mail, and cataloguing the library and refereeing prize fights, nevertheless, as a gesture, he must be on hand. The chaplain is much more than a figurehead as I shall attempt to show, but if he were only a symbol, that, by itself, would be enough.

There was an editorial in a church paper the other day urging us to put first things first. “It isn’t enough to be engaged in Red Cross work, and Air Raid Lessons, we must not forget our first duty—our Parish Work!” It’s too bad about the Parish Work in the Philippine Islands.

I read the most impassioned pleas from able Rectors in their parish leaflets, urging the Parishion­ers not to forget the boys who have gone out from the Parish. “Write them a letter, send them a pack­age of cigarettes, send them a whole carton, etc.” Perhaps Studdert-Kennedy’s lines could be printed in Parish Leaflets. He was called “Woodbine Willie” because he gave out Woodbine cigarettes to the troops for which he was Chaplain in the last war. And he wrote some place about “Woodbine Willie.”

They gave me this name like their nature,
Compacted of laughter and tears,
A sweet that was born of the bitter,
A joke that was torn from the years.

Their name! Let me hear it—the symbol
Of unpaid—unpayable debt,
For the men to whom I owed god’s Peace,
I put off with a cigarette.

But at least these cigarettes were given out per­sonally in the front-line trenches. Let me say one more bitter thing and then I’m done. A Minister of deserved prominence was ex­plaining to me in the most casual manner, the real reason why clergy of his denomination were not fill­ing their quota in the chaplain’s corps. “They are not sure they will get churches after the war. Furthermore, this is the time to get a good church when some others are going off to war.”God forgive us, it may be true, but it is the kind of thing that should be said with a blush. If lawyers go to war, do they get their practice back? They do not. Do architects keep their practice? They do not. Do doctors keep their patients? They do not. And are not we clergy the ones who urge upon the rest of humanity the necessity of sacrifice?

Sacrifice for democracy, which is an easy phrase in any pulpit these days, consists of a series of inconveniences like living uncomfortably, being unsure of the future, being separated from one’s home. And it is this very sacrifice which clergy in large numbers have not so far been willing to make. Both the chaplain’s corps of the Army and Navy have had pretty slim picking because not enough of our first-rate men have offered themselves.

There are some good reasons for this. Some clergy­men feel that if war is wrong, so is serving in the armed forces in any capacity whatsoever. If all the young men in your Parish were going to a lynching you would not go along, just to keep the church with them, unless you went to dissuade them. And that last would not be permitted in the Services.

Some clergymen stand aloof from the war because they are not alarmed about the situation. They feel that the war may not last long, or they cannot imagine how many men are involved. While this is a more worthy reason than fear of discomfort, it is an in­dictment of those who set themselves up as leaders of the people.

Those who should be the first to dis­cern the signs of the times, seem to be the last. If “too little and too late” is the reproach of democracy, the church must bear most of the blame, for it pre­sumes to lead the people, and the general attitude of vast numbers of the clergy has been “too little and too late.”

One hears another thing in pulpits which can hardly be taken as a true expression of opinion. It must be carelessness in sentence structure or paragraph arrangement. Some preachers seem to be saying in effect that the church must not get “involved” in the war, we must not “bless” this war, nor on the other hand are we pacifists. We repudiate conscientious ob­jectors as extremists, but at the same time, refuse to allow our churches “to become recruiting stations.” We are glad to organize dances for sailors but hope they won’t expect to hear on Sunday any reasons for fighting. Their uniform is as great an embarrassment as the ministry candidate who left our Parish for a C.O. Work Camp. This type of preaching seems to be saying, “You fight your nasty war and we’ll tell you how to make the peace. When this madness that has afflicted mankind is over, then the church can do its parochial work again.”

How can the Christian Church occupy this middle ground? Are Christians by definition, indifferent fighters? In order not “to glorify war” are they sup­posed to fight surreptitiously?

That is the second reason for the importance of the chaplaincy. To show by our presence that the church believes in the thing the soldiers are fighting for. Men respect the church, even if they don’t belong, and they get great courage when they feel that the Church approves their conduct with more than words.

Incidentally, when a prominent clergyman was re­puted in the papers to have resigned his pulpit rather than bless the war, one Ensign observed, “Who asked him to bless this war? I wouldn’t fight in it if he blessed it.” If, as a Christian layman, I should be willing to operate a machine gun in this war, as a Christian minister I have the express obligation of encouraging the machine gunner to shoot faster, that is unless one has some theory of Orders that holds a different code for laity and clergy. Unless one repudiates the universal priesthood of all believers.

So there must be ministers of religion with the armed forces. They will be sharing the life of over five million of our finest men. One of our Jewish Chaplains has pointed out what he calls the most embarrassing text in the Old Testament, Exodus 2:11. “When Moses was grown he went out unto his breth­ren, and looked on their burdens.” He says that generations of Rabbis have tried to embellish this word “look” by legends telling how Moses bore some of the burdens himself long before he killed the task­master. The great liberator was never simply an ob­server.

Every minister may not go to war any more than every doctor, but the importance of going should be more generally recognized, and the Chaplain’s Corps should have the same representation of our best men as has the Medical Corps.

The job of Chaplain, however, is far from being a symbol. In this war, the Army and Navy have done everything that any minister could ask for to give him an opportunity to do his work. Chapels have been provided in all the camps, funds are available in both services for equipment and as far as the physical ar­rangements are concerned, the Chaplain has every­thing he needs.

The Chaplain is released from duties formerly connected with his office of serving as athletic di­rector, librarian, entertainment officer, postmaster, etc. He may enter into these activities as much as he likes and is anxious to help with everything that adds to the general morale of his men. All non­military activities are his field, all the human side of Army and Navy life is his interest. He stands ready to be called on wherever he is needed, naturally, just as any clergyman does in civilian life. But in the modern Army and Navy, the primary interest and duty of the clergyman is recognized and he is free for spiritual tasks. I venture to think that he is more free from organizational detail in the Army in war­time than he is in ordinary Parish life. What Parish Priest wouldn’t jump at the chance to have his daily task confined to preaching and pastoral work!

He conducts public worship. If the men want to go to anyone for leadership in worship, they have to go to him. There is usually no choice. He is apt to be the sole representative of God in the situation. That in itself is a fearful responsibility which under­lines the importance of the task.

The Chaplain happily has an opportunity in the problem of denominationalism to work out an important solution. He is chaplain of all, regardless of creed or lack of it. In his bearing he must avoid two extremes. He must not pretend that all faiths are the same and he is the minister of a revelation that is superior to that of any present-day church, nor on the other hand, must he allow his own firm conviction to lead him into petty tyranny over others. If he is on to his job, he neither waters down his message, nor does he seek a monopoly.

So he will quietly carry on his own practices for men of his own denomination and any others who care to come, and he will see to it that every other denomination has an opportunity to worship in its way as far as possible, and he will thirdly so conduct the general services for all that all will feel at home.

One of the dangers of being a chaplain, is that you are never alone. There is not much privacy in mili­tary life, and it is difficult to make opportunities to read. On the other hand, it means that there is no snare of preparation. We are not forever getting ready to do something some day for which we are preparing ourselves. In the Services, the opportunity is now and if we fall behind in our reading it is prob­ably unimportant for these few years when men are demanding all our time.

A military outfit or a ship is a very closely knit unit, and everyone is thrown into personal contact with the chaplain if he simply walks around. For some men this is the first time they have ever got that close to a preacher, and curiosity or even antago­nism are good openings. The chaplain is under a magnifying glass, he bears an intimate relationship to everyone on board, which is found in civilian life only in those parishes where the clergyman has been in one Parish for many years. The tempo of the emergency intensifies every contact so that the work of years in the ordinary parish seems telescoped into months. Of course, in actual combat this is even more obvious. Every minister wants the church to be with them when they have to move into danger.

The thing all of us care most about is the peace that follows this war. The men who are fighting the war are going to have as large a share in the peace as any other group. If they know what they are fighting for, if their attitude toward reconstruction is a good one, the battle may not have been in vain. Who can meas­ure therefore, the possible influence of the chaplains as leaders of this group? The chaplain can be the Servant of the Servants of the Future.

Photo Credit: Father John McGovern gives mass in France during World War II. (U.S. Army Signal Corps).