Underneath It All: helping submariners' families LET GO

18 March 2021

Phil Maltby, Methodist Forces Board Project Officer, describes a unique book bringing comfort to naval families.

photo-2020-02-04-09-21-34Methodist presbyter, the Revd Mark Mander, reflects that for a Royal Navy chaplain the phrase ‘letting go’ is poignant. When a ship or submarine leaves its home port to embark upon a patrol, the order ‘let loose all lines’ instructs sailors to slacken the ropes holding the vessel to the jetty wall and bring them onboard so the ship or submarine is free to sail off on her mission.

In 2016, as a relatively new naval chaplain, Mark set sail on his first submarine patrol. Talking about it, he said: “As the command ‘let loose all lines’ was given and the submarine was underway, I and my shipmates had no idea where the patrol would take us and how long we would be away from our homes and family. Shortly after setting sail, the submarine dived. At that moment, the reality of being separated and unable to contact loved ones was keenly felt by everyone on board. And we were aware that just as we felt the emotions evoked by separation, so too did our families who were at home.”

Letting go in faith

In one sense, ‘letting go’ for submariners and their loved ones is an act of faith. They commit, trust, and rest upon the promise that at an unspecified time in the future, they will be reunited with their families as the submarine rises from the depths of the ocean and comes up once more alongside the jetty wall at its home port.

As a Christian minister, Mark notes: “The symbolism of a submarine patrol, leaving the wall, diving, patrolling, and – ultimately – surfacing and experiencing a homecoming, points us towards the hope of the Resurrection. Yet while I appreciate the symbolism, such connections do not readily occur to the majority of submariners. Therefore, as a chaplain, I am continually on the look out to find other, more practical ways of sharing God’s love.”

While he was working in the United States, Mark came across a unique story written for families by a submariner’s wife called Underneath It All: A Submarine Bedtime Story. He immediately knew that this was something that would help the UK submariner community. Having earned his ‘dolphins’1, he knew something of the challenges that they faced. Long periods of isolation away from family and friends are commonplace. Oftentimes this leaves submariners’ children wondering why their parent is away, and why they are unable to communicate with them during a deployment. This type of questioning becomes particularly acute at important family times such as birthdays and Christmas, and it can leave the other parent or family members sometimes struggling to know how to respond.

Methodists sponsor a UK edition

ne190119025Mark decided to approach the Methodist Church to see whether they would fund the chaplaincy teams to distribute copies of the book to submariners’ families at HMNB Clyde and HMNB Devonport, the main naval bases used by the UK Submarine Service. He received a generous response. Mark says: “I was delighted to find that not only was the Methodist Church willing to fund copies of the book, they offered to make a version that was 100% authentic to the UK Submarine Service.”

The UK version of the book was produced with the help of the Bible Reading Fellowship (BRF). New illustrations were commissioned, depicting landscapes and details familiar to British families and the UK Submarine Service. This has ensured that the book is accepted by the submariner community. The text is warm and reassuring in tone, and even allows the family to personalise the story as it leaves spaces for the correct pronouns and the relationship between the submariner and their child (eg ‘Dad’ or ‘Mum’).

It includes the Submariners’ Prayer, which asks God to guide vessels deep beneath the surface. Mark says: “It was important that the book helped to explain to children what submariners do. As it ends with the Submariner’s Prayer, it reassures families that God is caring for their loved one in ways that they are not able to.”

Reassuring and well received

The response to Underneath It All has been overwhelmingly positive. One submariner wrote: “As a serving submariner, the worry is always how the children cope when I am not there. This book has been a massive help for myself and the children while I’m on deployment. It is the only book we know of based on a submariner family. My wife reads this book while I’m away to help the children understand where I am and why. Thank you to all involved in the production of this book.”

The Revd Dr Chrissie Howe is Secretary of the Methodist Forces Board. When the special edition of Underneath It All was launched, she said: “For many of us it is hard to conceive that our loved ones could be gone for extended periods of time with no communication in either direction, yet that is what a submariner’s family faces on our behalf. This beautiful book aims to reassure families that God sees and cares for our loved ones, no matter where they are. Our deep gratitude goes to the men and women of the armed forces for all they do for us, and their families. The Methodist Church is pleased to support our partners in the Naval Chaplaincy Service with this resource.”

img_20190619_134235344Aggie Weston is a charity providing pastoral support to serving members of the Royal Navy and their families. In February 2020 a pastoral worker at HM Naval Base Clyde wrote: “The overall feeling has been that the book has been long awaited and is much appreciated. Several have remarked on how their serving spouse has been impressed by the attention to detail in the illustrations which have helped them to explain to their children in a more meaningful way where they work. They have been really appreciative of the work that has gone into making this book. It has been really lovely for us to be able to pass on this gift to our families and to see the comfort and encouragement it’s brought during those difficult times of separation. So thank you MFB!”

This article originally appeared in the connexion magazine, issue 18.
Banner image and photos: © Matt Gonzalez-Noda, Mark Mander, BRF, RN Fleet Regional Photographic Unit (North), TMCP