The Vicar of St Luke’s Church at Barton Hill in Bristol has been awarded the coveted Royal Marines Green Beret – at the age of 47.
Royal Naval Reservist Martin Gainsborough, who is also a professor of politics at Bristol University, spent 13 gruelling months training with the Royal Marines Reserves and will now include RMR Bristol as part of his parish.
“The attraction of the Marines is I’m 47 and I wanted to see if I could do it with one of the most elite units in the world,” he said. “I fancied it as a challenge. The biggest sacrifice over the past year is that I’ve had to miss some family events because of the training.”
His RMR training took one evening a week plus one weekend a month and two two-week courses.
Rev Gainsborough, who is priest-in-charge of St Luke’s Church at Barton Hill in Bristol, said: “As a vicar, reading about Iraq and Afghanistan over the last few years, I developed a real affinity with what people were going through. I felt I could offer something to people in the Services.”
He added: “As a chaplain, you are expected to complete exactly the same training as the Marines with the only exception being you do not carry a weapon. Everything else, including all the test standards, are the same – and there is no concession to the fact that I am in my forties.
“The camaraderie, the opportunity to get to know a group of people really well, the professionalism and experience of the people training us, has been fantastic. It has also been very satisfying being able to keep up with the 18-20 some things.
“The other side of the coin is that at times the training has been horrendous – being out in all weathers, going without sleep, marching with extremely heavy loads sometimes all night, training on the assault course until you want to drop, and so on.
“You learn a huge amount about yourself by doing these things. But also as a priest, as a person who is interested in furthering the mission of the Church, there is no better way of winning the trust and respect of people than going through the hell of training with them – experiencing the highs and the lows with them.”
Rev Gainsborough, who was born in Lewisham, South London, said banter with fellow Marines was one of the highlights of his training.
“There are lots of jokes or gentle digs at the padre’s expense. If there is good weather, its ‘You’ve obviously had a word with the top man, Bish’.
“If there’s bad weather, it is ‘Can’t you do something about this, padre?’ Or, my favourite one when we are doing anything involving getting wet: ‘You’ll be all right, you can walk on water, can’t you Bish.’
Rev Gainsborough, who has been in Bristol for ten years, added: “In the time that I was going through training, I developed a real affection for the people I was training with. Great lads! Some are naturally very young – not much older than my own son.
“As a Naval chaplain, you do not have a badge of rank. Rather, you are the rank of whomever you are talking to. This is unique to the Royal Navy and the Royal Marines and is a real asset. As result, you are somewhat removed from the chain of command plus, given that you are a vicar, you can stand a little bit apart from the military machine when it is at its more uncompromising and tough: looking out for people who are vulnerable, having a gentler word with people who are taking strain, that kind of thing.
“I would far rather the Church be present in the armed forces, and especially at times of armed conflict, to minister to the pastoral and spiritual needs of our servicemen and women. We can help young people think through what it is they have signed up to and whether they are really sure they can go through with it.”
Although Rev Martin has achieved ‘commando’ status he still has some Naval training to complete including attendance at the Britannia Royal Naval College at Dartmouth to smooth out the rough edges. HMS Flying Fox in Bristol will be his administrative base as he completes his Royal Navy Reserves Officer Training; this is the home of the ‘Blue’ side of the Maritime Reserves who are all part of the Bristol community.
While he awaits the next round of training he is currently visiting the various detachments he is now responsible for in the south west of England. “I also want to keep fit. I don’t want to let that go, having worked so hard to get where I have.”
Talking about his work in Bristol, he said: “My parish is a working class area that has had a lot of immigration. It’s an area of poverty and deprivation. It’s quite a tough area but the people are fantastic once you get to know them.”
Rev Gainsborough, whose wife Mary is a paediatrician, is not the only member of his family in the military – the couple’s 16-year-old son Francis is a Royal Marine Cadet and is considering joining the Corps. The couple also have daughters Annie, 19, and Rosa, eight.
Rev Gainsborough is among a fast-growing new generation of specialists in the Royal Navy Reserves that HMS Flying Fox is welcoming into the Ship’s company. To find out more and to register your interest visit the website https://www.royalnavy.mod.uk/ or call 08456 00 32 22 or 0117 966 8667.
Information evenings usually held on the first Thursday of each month at HMS Flying Fox. There will be a LIVE open event on 6 September for those interested in talking face to face.