Suffragan Bishop for the Armed Forces Begins on a Note of Peace

Episcopal News Service. March 29, 1990 [90089]

Growing up in a military town like Pensacola, Florida, "instilled in me very early in life a sense of patriotism and obligation of service to country," said the new suffragan bishop for the Armed Forces, Charles Keyser. "Throughout those war years the weekly remembrance in prayers of our men and women in uniform, the prayers for those who were killed or those who returned safely, had a heavy impact on me." It was an impression that would change his life and lead him into a 30-year career in a very special ministry.

The pull toward the military chaplaincy began when, after graduation from Sewanee, Keyser served a parish in Jacksonville, Florida, and decided to seek an appointment as an inactive reserve chaplain in the Navy. After several years in the reserve he received a letter from the Rev. Robert Plumb, executive director of the Episcopal Church's Commission on the Armed Forces, suggesting he seriously consider active duty. "I dealt with the letter as a call to another parish and decided to seek a three-year tour of duty," Keyser said.

"What would keep a person in such a nomadic life, with its constant moves, separations from family, packing and unpacking," Keyser asked himself. "It slowly dawns on you just how unique a ministry this is. When they take in all lines and the ship slowly backs away from the pier, you know that your parish is everyone on board. Your altar follows the congregation, from the fantail to the messdeck to the library, wherever they may be. You work together, pray together, and endure common hardships of serving together," he said.

One of the hardest tours of duty in his career was Vietnam. Keyser was regimental chaplain near Da Nang, living and working with "the grunts," enlisted foot soldiers. He still finds it difficult to talk about the experience. "It is wrenching to be in combat, to see how cruel war is and what people will do to each other," he said with obvious emotion. "And yet it was a unique opportunity to meet people in extreme need." He said the young soldiers he met "didn't always know why they were there -- but they were doing the job they were asked to do." He was able to comfort them in the midst of death and wrote numerous letters to parents, assuring them that their sons had "died in the Lord."

The Vietnam experience gave Keyser a feel for what a whole generation experienced. He admitted that he gets an "uneasy feeling" every time he visits the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, D.C. "I am both drawn and repelled."

After 26 years as a Navy chaplain on active duty, Keyser returned to the parish ministry in 1986, serving parishes in Montross and Washington, Virginia. In his whole ministry Keyser has seen a clear, complementary connection between the parish and the chaplaincy. In his new position he will have an opportunity to emphasize that relationship with the parishes of the Episcopal Church and the U.S. government. It is a task he obviously relishes -- and for which he seems uniquely qualified.

Staying in touch with the church

Keyser is aware, however, of the discomfort some people feel with the relationship between the church and the military, but he points out that "the government has no church so it looks to the churches to provide ministry to people in the uniformed services." Because of the constitutional separation of church and state, the government must protect the people's right to worship, "so we are there at the pleasure of the church for the purpose of ministry," he said. "Since all chaplains must be endorsed by their churches, the ministry is clearly in the hands of the churches, not the military," he continued.

If you are not careful, however, you can become too involved in the military environment," Keyser admitted in his interview with ENS. "It is very important to keep the relationships clear, staying in touch with the church." He said one of his goals is to visit all 110 chaplains on active duty in his first year, encouraging them in their ministry but also trying to assess how well the Episcopal Church is doing in its chaplaincy.ches, not the military," he continued.

With talk of the end of the Cold War and some major changes in the arms race, Keyser said "military posture is changing" and we are headed for a period of "hard reevaluation." He added that he worries about the potential economic problems and dislocation during a period of transition, but he believes the "church can be very helpful as our people face major changes."