Monday, June 22, 2015

As the Salvation Army turns 150, what role does it have to play in secular society? Part 2 of 4

Booth made many enemies. Meetings were frequently attacked by mobs financed by the brewers and brothel-keepers whose livelihoods the Army threatened. The female Salvationists’ peaked bonnets were designed to act as protection from stones.

Respectable society, too, loathed the “Sally Army”, regarding it as fanatical, vulgar and ridiculous. Yet Booth, who resembled some long-bearded, Old Testament prophet in both style and appearance, gloried in persecution. The Army stirred people’s conscience by highlighting the horrors of the slums: it gained 10,000 full-time officers within a dozen years of its formation. By the time Booth died in 1912, aged 83, his organisation had spread throughout the world and he had met presidents and prime ministers; 65,000 mourners filed past his coffin at Clapton Congress Hall.

The Salvation Army has since become an integral part of British life, doling out tea and comfort during the two world wars; offering physical and spiritual sustenance after disasters and atrocities such as the terrorist attacks in London in July 2005; and carolling at Christmas. It is an institution that seems to have been with us for ever, but one that few know much about – which is why I chose to spend a week investigating its work.

I visited its churches, shelters and drop-in centres and was shocked by the number of outcasts I met. I interviewed numerous officers – all good, kind, selfless people who were dedicated to helping the desperate. But I also found a great religious movement that, in Britain at least, is shrinking, ageing and, frankly, struggling in this secular age.
“We need to do a lot better than we are,” Clive Adams, the Army’s British ­territorial commander, said when we met at its UK headquarters at Elephant and Castle, in south London. “Booth was willing to do almost anything to attain his goals. We need to get back to being less risk-averse and more bold in achieving ours.”


Booth would still recognise his Army. It remains a quasi-military organisation with its own (severe) uniform, salute (index finger pointing to heaven), flag (flown on the moon during the Apollo 16 mission), motto (“Blood and Fire”), newspaper (the War Cry), ranks (from lieutenants to generals) and decorations (the Order of the Founder and Order of Distinguished Auxiliary Service). It enjoys the distinction of having been banned as a religious organisation by the Bolsheviks in 1923, and as a paramilitary group by Russia’s government in 2000.

Adams said that the military imagery remains appropriate: “Absolutely we’re at war. We’re in a war against evil, injustice, everything that marginalises people. We’re at war against sin.

The Army remains an independent Christian church with its own doctrines and ethos. Its places of worship are called “corps”, and are clustered in Britain’s more deprived areas. Established to support the poor and illiterate, they spurn the elaborate trappings of mainstream churches.
The corps are mostly unadorned halls, without altars, pulpits or silver crosses – just “mercy seats” at the front where Salvationists can pray and testify. They have “corps officers”, not ministers, who spurn fancy vestments and theology degrees, and “songs” and “songsters” rather than hymns, psalms and choristers. Rousing music is still a central part of their services – “Sing so as to make the world hear,” Booth urged. There are no christenings, baptisms or communions, while funerals are celebrations because the deceased have been “promoted to glory”. The flag is never flown at half-mast.

As in Booth’s day, the Army’s stated mission is to “save souls, grow saints and serve suffering humanity”. To Salvationists, good and evil, heaven and hell, are not abstract notions. Most are genuinely distressed if friends or relatives die without finding God. Asked to define hell, Adams said: “Hell is where God isn’t, and to me that’s hell enough.”

Photo: Tom Pilston for the New Statesman
Commander Adams with a portrait of Booth. 
Nor have the Army’s attitudes to social issues changed greatly. It remains a profoundly conservative organisation that loves sinners but hates their sins. Its soldiers swear to abstain from alcohol, tobacco, drugs, gambling, pornography and extramarital sex, and until not so long ago could not divorce, marry non-officers or have mortgages (a form of debt). They must give “as large a proportion as possible” of their income to its ministries (their tithes are called “cartridges”). 

Thanks to Catherine Booth, the Army has always 
treated male and female officers as equals, but at traditional corps such as Regent Hall many women still tie their hair in buns and wear little or no make-up.

The Army opposes capital punishment, euthanasia, Sunday labour and abortion, except in extreme cases. It rejects Heritage Lottery Fund money because it opposes any form of gambling. Most controversially, it opposes gay marriage and considers homosexual acts a sin, though it opposes homophobia. “That may send an unfortunate signal,” Adams said. But: “We base ourselves on what we understand the Bible is saying.”

Above all, a resurrected Booth would applaud the Army’s continuing efforts to “care for the poor, feed the hungry, clothe the naked, love the unlovable and befriend those who have no friends”. It is probably the largest provider of social programmes outside the government – the precious, ultimate safety net for those who have reached rock bottom. With annual revenues of £280m, including more than £100m from donations and legacies, it runs a bewildering array of shelters and hostels, of detox, employment, training and advice centres, of homes for the elderly and prison chaplaincies.

It has 20 mobile units that attend major accidents or disasters to provide sustenance, staff reception centres and support the bereaved at mortuaries. It also runs Britain’s largest family-tracing service – a legacy of the “Inquiry Bureau” that Booth’s daughter-in-law set up to find runaway children in Victorian London. Last year it met 1,859 requests from parents of estranged offspring, long-lost siblings, people on their deathbeds and remorseful prison inmates, and it offers mediation when required.

Martin Fletcher is a former foreign editor of the Times

END PART 2 of 4

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

'they spurn the elaborate trappings of mainstream churches'. But they have their own elaborate trappings, surely - the uniform (that costs a fortune and is really badly made, and totally out of step with modern dress), the cost of instruments for a brass band (a decent BBb tuba alone can set you back £5K, the 'adornments' you'll find in most Salvation Army halls - the crests, flags, usually one each of the corps flag and each 'ministry' within it, such as Home League, Band, Songsters, Singing Company - what is the justification for spending money on these?
I would suggest that as it approaches its 150th birthday, the Salvation Army looks tired, and its church 'arm' is being killed off by (1) the PTG of traditional, ageing troops, whose commitment to corps life is sadly lacking in some younger salvationists, and the insidious rise of secularism, aided and abetted by human rights laws. Yes, early salvationist pioneers were fearless in the good old days, and were filled with the fire of the holy spirit, and won many souls for Christ. But they weren't afraid to get their hands dirty, and weren't hampered by lawsuits if they said something which 'offended' the human rights of people who don't believe in God, and they didn't end up in court because of their fervour. We lack the courage displayed by Christians in places like China or Iran where people cannot worship openly outside of the orthodox, state-run churches. We often pray for these Christians, that God will grant them courage as they face persecution. But persecution comes in many forms - in western society Christians are not, by and large, attacked physically for their faith, although this is sadly on the increase, we're just not allowed to speak of faith, which, although not as overt as physical torture etc, is just as effective and deadly. Some people have already lost their jobs and livelihood because of their Christian stance. The Salvation Army's social side will continue to flourish, as it suits governments to have the Army's expertise and investment (as long as these buildings have nothing to advertise that they have any involvement with the SA), but unless something drastic happens within the Salvation Army church, it will not see another 150 years. For those who disagree with this view, or who regard it as pessimistic, perhaps they could suggest where the growth (numerical and spiritual) in the SA church can be seen today, particularly in the United Kingdom, where numbers are reducing at an alarming rate.