The Reinvention of the Canadian Armed Forces Chaplaincy and the Limits of Religious Pluralism

Document Type


Degree Name

Master of Arts (MA)


Religion & Culture / Religious Studies


Faculty of Arts

First Advisor

Dr. Joanne Benham Rennick

Advisor Role




The Reinvention of the Canadian Armed Forces Chaplaincy offers an analysis of how an historically Christian religious organization, one prominently sited within an important Canadian institution, adapted to pluralism. This research is the first to examine Canada’s military chaplaincy since Benham Rennick’s (2011) more broadly focused study of the role of religion in the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF). My study is the first to focus specifically on the chaplaincy and on the ways in which it has sought to develop and maintain a pluralist identity. I trace the process by which a legacy Christian institution developed a self-image as a groundbreaking example of inter-religious harmony and cooperation, one which the current federal government has pointed to as a sign of the success of its multiculturalist policies. My research examines the extent to which religious pluralism has become part of the organization’s culture, as well as the institutional and theological constraints which appear to limit the expansion of membership in the chaplaincy to faith groups not currently represented.

This study first examines the historical process by which the Canadian Armed Forces Chaplain Branch adopted its current multi-faith identity. The period in question, from the 1990s to 2003, when the Branch hired its first non-Christian chaplain, was one of significant change within the military. Demographic changes within Canadian society, combined with federal mandates on the military to diversify its membership, put pressure on the chaplaincy to change. Some who led the Chaplain Branch during this period saw the fashioning of a new multi-faith identity as a visionary process, a “long slow march to a new multi-faith reality” as one of them put it, but the process can also be seen as a strategy of relevance and institutional survival. While the move to a multi-faith identity has better equipped the chaplaincy to serve a more diverse military, it also presents ongoing challenges as chaplains make theological and social adjustments to religious pluralism within their organization.

My research shows the tensions between an expressed commitment to religious pluralism and the entrenched loyalties to religious particularity that exist at many places throughout the culture of the institution. These tensions manifest themselves most visibly at points where the pluralist ideology of the Chaplain Branch’s leaders challenges the religious identities of chaplains, clergy drawn from four distinct faith groups (Western and Eastern Christianity, Islam and Judaism). One such point of tension is the Branch’s ten-year quest for a visual expression of its pluralist identity that would replace the traditional holy symbol worn on the chaplain’s uniform. The fact that this project was only partially successful suggests that intentionally and traditionally religious individuals may support pluralism in principle, but will balk at compromising what they perceive as the integrity of their own religious identities.

The research also explores the Branch’s ecclesial governance, the Interfaith Committee on Canadian Military Chaplaincy (ICCMC). While this body of senior religious leaders has successfully established a collegial and irenic culture within the chaplaincy, it is a culture of limited pluralism. Through in-depth interviews with ICCMC members, I explore their understanding of and commitment to religious pluralism. My findings suggest that the ICCMC, which is predominated by institutional, hierarchical Christian denominations, self-selects faith groups that look and act like they do, even if the minority faith groups represented at the ICCMC’s table have different motives, including status validation and legitimation, from their mainstream Christian colleagues. While the ICCMC as the Branch’s ecclesial governance has been successful in modelling a harmonious and respectful culture for chaplains to emulate, its preoccupation as gatekeepers with denominational structures and formal, institutional religion does not fully align with lived religion in the CAF, which as Benham Rennick has shown, is increasingly subjective and individualized.

While traditional forms of religious belief seem to be of declining importance to the vast majority of Canadian Armed Forces personnel, they are central to chaplains’ identities. Working within an officially pluralist Chaplain Branch requires chaplains to make theological and attitudinal adjustments to the reality of other religious truth claims, whether that reality is embodied in chaplain colleagues of other faiths, or presented to them in obligatory interfaith prayer services at Branch events. Through in-depth interviews with a cross section of chaplains, I found that most are supportive of pluralism in principle, but experience a variety of frictions with its application. Some feel that an official ideology of pluralism and what they perceive as “political correctness” limits their freedom to be true to their own faith understanding. Others describe benefiting from working alongside of non-Christian colleagues, situations that are still rare in the life of the predominantly Christian Branch, and wish that others had similar collegial opportunities. An impatient few perceive gaps between the Branch’s commitment to pluralism and its limited achievements in incorporating only a handful of representatives from monotheistic and so-called “Abrahamic” religions.

While not prescriptive in nature, this research identifies several factors which limit the growth of pluralism in the Chaplain Branch. One is the limited capacity of the institution itself to grow beyond its legacy identity, given its primarily Christian identity, structure, and focus on institutional, hierarchical religious organizations as the building blocks of its membership. The second is the limited capacity of the Branch to recruit non-Christian chaplains, a process which has to date been opportunistic and limited by the supply of candidates judged suitable by current selection standards. The third is the culture of the Branch itself, which prizes clerical credentials and adaptability to military culture in a manner which inclines chaplains to expect future colleagues to be like them. However, the research suggests that when Christian chaplains have the opportunity to work with non-Christian colleagues, they find ways of working and even praying together, thus making pluralism a lived fact rather than an abstract concept.

With over a decade since the Branch hired its first non-Christian chaplain, its commitment to religious pluralism remains an ongoing project. While the numbers of its non-Christian chaplains remain small, the change to the Branch’s culture and worldview has been significant. A multi-faith identity has been consolidated, and while its future expansion will likely continue to be cautious and incremental, all signs indicate that new faith groups will join the chaplaincy.

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