A chaplain in Iraq

Reverend Father Marcus Hodges, an RAF chaplain now stationed in Cyprus, gives his take on the import

The all-pervasive fog of desert dust notwithstanding, there is a clear and powerful chaplaincy vision out here in the Iraqi desert. Of course, a vision of ministry, whether on a home unit or away, must in some sense be the same for all who labour in the rich harvest of the Church’s ministry; yet here in Basrah, it is, perhaps, in some senses simply more undiluted, more vital and more immediate.

Praying and preaching the Word, administering the sacraments and explaining the faith – these are the ‘bread and butter’ of any Christian ministry to be sure. Listening (I mean really hearing what people have to say) and answering questions where possible, pointing out useful directions, and offering guidance, support, comfort and assurance are also tools of the trade. This type of ministry is simple, plentiful and fairly well-known. Yet a different but no less ancient vision of ministry exists alongside as well.

Chaplains are iconic. Catholics have traditionally understood this truth in terms of their priests being ‘in persona Christi’. This is neither an arrogant nor vain boast, but rather provides a genuine source of humility and even dread for those who answer the call. Of course, the chaplain is fallible and weak, and sees himself as one with the people he serves, in uniform, membership, loyalty and duty. Like them, he is at constant risk of injury or death.

Nevertheless, he is also, in a very profound sense, set apart from those he serves. For the religious and the the skeptical alike, the chaplain represents a calling and mission; he makes visible his membership of a kingdom of values and hope which he hopes will transcend the dirt and confusion that characterise armed conflict. The chaplain is, in this case, a very real presence of the Good Shepherd Himself amongst His flock.

Of course, I don't mean to say that all people welcome the chaplain. For every person who welcomes his presence, there will almost always be one who rejects it. Although the chaplain's primary function is to offer comfort and assurance, he also faces challenges that will always be a part of the fulfillment of his ministry.

‘Comfort my people’ says the prophet Isaiah. When the rockets rain in, when the siren sounds, when strong men and women fall to their faces in the mud, why do they often do they glance toward the chaplain? Not for marching orders or military direction, but rather for evidence, however small and fleeting, that at least one person remains steadfast in the faith that ‘all manner of thing shall be well’. Isn’t this the meaning behind the well-meant jibe so often voiced: ‘you’re ok, Padre! – we know who’s looking after you’? The chaplain represents to some that gossamer hope that they too might come to have a share in his godly favour.

‘I come to bring a sword’ says the Lord. Of course, the chaplain never wishes to sew conflict or bring trouble. Yet inevitably he acts ‘in persona Christi’ not just as priest but as prophet too. The untold pressures of operational duty weigh heavily on the shoulders of all, but none more so than those in command. They make bitter decisions in which notions of right and wrong, or justice and peace may almost vanish. It is the chaplain’s reluctant duty at these times to stand firm, and he does so not by direct challenge to authority, but rather more powerfully by virtue of his silent presence.

None of my thoughts here is in any way new or original, but the ministry of a military chaplain is hardly new either. Ever since priests began to march with armies hundreds of years ago, the work of the chaplain, an undoubted opus Dei, has been both valued and praised. My final reflection, made through the swirl of this choking dust of war and strife, is that if only the chaplain can stand firmly in the Person of Christ amongst his people, then surely the risen Christ will stand next to him.

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The government has admitted it can curb drugs without criminalising users

Under the Psychoactive Substances Act it will not be a criminal offence for someone to possess for their own consumption recreational drugs too dangerous to be legally sold to the public.

From Thursday, it may be illegal for churches to use incense. They should be safe from prosecution though, because, as the policing minister was forced to clarify, the mind-altering effects of holy smells aren’t the intended target of the Psychoactive Substances Act, which comes into force this week.

Incense-wafters aren’t the only ones wondering whether they will be criminalised by the Act. Its loose definition of psychoactive substances has been ridiculed for apparently banning, among other things, flowers, perfume and vaping.

Anyone writing about drugs can save time by creating a shortcut to insert the words “the government has ignored its advisors” and this Act was no exception. The advisory council repeatedly warned the government that its definition would both ban things that it didn’t mean to prohibit and could, at the same time, be unenforcable. You can guess how much difference these interventions made.

But, bad though the definition is – not a small problem when the entire law rests on it – the Act is actually much better than is usually admitted.

Under the law, it will not be a criminal offence for someone to possess, for their own consumption, recreational drugs that are considered too dangerous to be legally sold to the public.

That sounds like a mess, and it is. But it’s a mess that many reformers have long advocated for other drugs. Portugal decriminalised drug possession in 2001 while keeping supply illegal, and its approach is well-regarded by reformers, including the Liberal Democrats, who pledged to adopt this model in their last manifesto.

This fudge is the best option out of what was politically possible for dealing with what, until this week, were called legal highs.

Before the Act, high-street shops were free to display new drugs in their windows. With 335 head shops in the UK, the drugs were visible in everyday places – giving the impression that they couldn’t be that dangerous. As far as the data can be trusted, it’s likely that dozens of people are now dying each year after taking the drugs.

Since legal highs were being openly sold and people were thought to be dying from them, it was obvious that the government would have to act. Until it did, every death would be blamed on its inaction, even if the death rate for users of some newly banned drugs may be lower than it is for those who take part in still-legal activities like football. The only question was what the government would do.

The most exciting option would have been for it to incentivise manufacturers to come up with mind-altering drugs that are safe to take. New Zealand is allowing drug makers to run trials of psychoactive drugs, which could eventually – if proved safe enough – be sold legally. One day, this might change the world of drug-taking, but this kind of excitement was never going to appeal to Theresa May’s Home Office.

What was far more plausible was that the government would decide to treat new drugs like old ones. Just as anyone caught with cocaine or ecstasy faces a criminal record, so users of new drugs could have been hit with the same. This was how legal highs have been treated up until now when one was considered serious enough to require a ban.

But instead, the government has recognised that its aim – getting new drugs out of high-street shop windows so they don’t seem so normal – didn’t depend on criminalising users. A similar law in Ireland achieved precisely this. To its credit, the government realised it would be disproportionate to make it a criminal offence to possess the now-illegal highs.

The reality of the law will look chaotic. Users will still be able to buy new drugs online – which could open them to prosecution for import – and the law will do nothing to make drugs any safer. Some users might now be exposed to dealers who also want to sell them more dangerous other drugs. There will be few prosecutions and some head shop owners might try to pick holes in the law: the government seems to have recognised that it needed a better definition to have any chance of making the law stick.

But, most importantly for those of us who think the UK’s drug laws should be better at reducing the damage drugs cause, the government, for the first time, has decided that a class of recreational drugs are too dangerous to be sold but that it shouldn’t be a crime to possess them. The pressure on the government to act on legal highs has been relieved, without ordinary users being criminalised. For all the problems with the new law, it’s a step in the right direction.

Leo Barasi is a former Head of Communications at the UK Drug Policy Commission. He writes in a personal capacity