Talking Ministry: RAF post lets minister spread his wings
Published on 14 July 2023 4 minutes read
With a name like his, it seems only appropriate that Rev Craig Lancaster is now serving as a chaplain with the RAF.
However, despite sharing his name with one of the RAF's most famous aircraft, it was the Royal Navy which first approached him about the possibility of swapping parish ministry for chaplaincy within the armed forces.
Originally from Troon in Ayrshire, Mr Lancaster was in his first charge as parish minister at Hyndland Parish Church in Glasgow where he had gained chaplaincy experience with local schools and nursing homes, as well as Strathclyde Fire and Rescue Service.
So, when the Royal Navy invited him down to Portsmouth for a couple of days to introduce him to the Navy and explore the possibility of becoming a chaplain, he readily accepted.
"I thoroughly enjoyed it, but I realised I was most enthused and excited when I was on the aircraft carrier, even though the Harriers had been sold and there were no aircraft there. I realised I needed to at least look at the RAF – especially with a name like Lancaster!" he laughed.
"I went down to RAF Odiham, where the RAF's Chinooks are based, and then visited RAF Leuchars in Fife. Very quickly, on visiting those two bases, it felt like coming home and my sense of calling towards that form of ministry was pretty firm very quickly."
After much prayer and discussion with his wife Katherine, and staff at the Church of Scotland to make sure both were happy to see him take the next step in his ministry career, he interviewed with the RAF Chaplains Branch which led him to RAF Cranwell in Lincolnshire and officer selection.
While potential chaplains undergo a shorter version of the course, they are still required to get to know the ethos, traditions and procedures of the RAF, as well as demonstrate some leadership potential with practical team-building exercises, something he absolutely adored.
Much harder was saying goodbye to his congregation in Hyndland.
"That was a real wrench, but a new adventure beckoned," he said.
A privilege to serve
And it has been an adventure.
Since joining the Chaplain's Branch, he has served on bases around the UK, including his current posting at RAF Lossiemouth, but he has also travelled the world from the Falkland Islands to Afghanistan, where he had an early posting at Camp Bastion in Helmand Province.
He also found himself preaching on Jonah just a few miles away from Islamic State occupied Mosul, the site of Nineveh, the city God ordered Jonah to go to and challenge the residents on their wickedness.
"It has been genuinely incredible," Mr Lancaster said.
"Throughout it all, I have managed to walk alongside people, pray for them and be present with them.
"Day to day, I will have people in my office who wouldn't profess a particular faith. However, they recognise the chaplains are there for them, for people of all faiths and indeed none. They will open up in a pastoral encounter in a way which would never have happened in a parish setting. They will talk about things that really matter to them and which they might never have spoken about to anyone else. That is a real privilege.
"Part of the reason they come to us is that they know we are duty bound to love them for who they are, not for what they can bring to the organisation."
Although he works with people with a wide variety of religious beliefs and experiences, Mr Lancaster added that he is often humbled by the number of people who profess to have some form of faith and would express that to him. He delights in the service families who make up the small but growing church at Lossiemouth.
Inevitably, as conflict returned to Europe with the war in Ukraine, this has highlighted the responsibilities of those who serve in the armed forces.
"Anything like that makes people recognise what they are here for, which is ultimately the defence of the UK, and that tends to have a galvanising effect," he said.
"It is sobering to see the images coming out of Ukraine and recognise the cost on all sides. It does place into context what they do."
Serving those who are prepared to put themselves at risk in defence of their country is something that Mr Lancaster feels honoured to do and which he would wholeheartedly recommend to other members of the clergy.
It is not without its sacrifices. Moving post every few years and months with long deployments can take a toll on personal and family life, but the opportunity to walk alongside people and manifest hope, even in dark places, is a real privilege, Mr Lancaster added, and working alongside other agencies such as the forces charity SSAFA means that any support needed can be provided quickly.
However, that support aspect, important as it is, is not the main part of the chaplain's role.
Mr Lancaster explained: "We are here to grow people spiritually and that is what makes us unique. Encouraging people of all faiths and none to explore what those deeper questions mean to them is a really vital part of what we do."
Read the full interview with Craig Lancaster on our Talking Ministry page.