Monday, 9 July 2012

Holy Huddles

Well, it's been a busy weekend in the Army world.

After an unexpectedly fraught day on Saturday, we made it to Westminster Central Hall for the evening meeting of the commissioning of the 'Friends of Christ' session of cadets, several of whom we know from various places.

It was good to share in the occasion; oddly enough, it was the first time I had been to a commissioning, despite the fact that for much of my life I would have envisaged already having been to my own.

You see, it is all very well the Candidates Director saying, as he did on Saturday night, 'Don't worry about your children. God knows about your children', but people like Step-Mum and I are in circumstances where it's not quite that simple.

I have to say that when you have been personally (and painfully) 'hung out to dry' by certain Army leaders to whom you looked for help, when you have seen your infant son's welfare become, at times, a political football, when you continue to see the Army at an organisational level ignoring the pain of people suffering an affliction which affects you personally, and when you know that speaking out about those things compromises your standing in the eyes of some mighty men (and women) who would hold your future in their hands were you an officer, and when you see Godly men and women stifled by church red-tape, it's a conundrum.

When your ability to 'leave your nets' is compromised by the debts you've racked up as you were dragged through the courts by another Salvationist, it is of little practical help that, under God, you have stuck to his, and the Church's, precepts, to that point. Especially when the Army struggles to show any sign of upholding and acting as arbiter over covenant relationships which it administers.

As it happens, the Army had every opportunity to have me for an officer before I even met your Mum; before practical matters impinged upon my ability to 'go'. I was a member of the Vocational Fellowship when I was still a junior soldier. Even my careers papers from school record (to the complete bewilderment of the 'careers officer') my intention to follow your great-Grandfather into training. In the end, I turned up to a candidates interview to be told off for being 'too Army', to find that my assessment conference place was cancelled (a surprise only to my Corps Officer and me) and that they would much sooner I become a 'Lieutenant' in a hurry, which would after all allow them to make me a corps officer sooner and plug a hole in the division. My insistence that I wanted to go to Denmark Hill and train properly for a life's work cost me any opportunity at all, at that stage.

A later interview a few years on the railway later, included on the divisional panel a young officer, not long out of the college, who told me 'we have to give you a hard time now, because we can't afford to have people dropping out all the time like they used to - this is a lifelong commitment'. Yeah, you guessed it - within a year, that particular Divisional Youth Officer had cleared off to another denomination at the drop of a hat.

Now, I am quite willing to testify to God's timing. I am quite happy to testify to God having guided my life in directions I never expected, or even wanted, because he knew better, and he held the future. Indeed, I can only have any credibility working in the field I do now because I have been there, done it and unwillingly bought the t-shirt myself. Nevertheless, I am also pragmatic enough to understand that organisationally, as from a policy standpoint, the Army is capable of getting things wrong, because it is full of fallible human beings like me. The Army has let people, has let officers, down in the past. Sometimes has been open enough to admit it.

As I sat in Westminster Central Hall on Saturday, I looked at my friends on the platform and I wondered where I fitted in - no less convicted of a calling from God to serve, but frankly not sure any more where he was asking me to cast my lot in the longer term.

In the ministry which I have recently embarked upon, I have no great resources of finance or people - but even Commissioners have told me (not that they want to be quoted as such!) that I am doing a pioneering work; that one day, the Army's practical outreach to families in general and fathers in particular might show the hallmarks of what we are feeling our way into.

That work is no less a calling and no lesser calling - and it offers me a degree of autonomy and a freedom to speak up and speak out which the Army's senior leaders tell us from the platform to use, and tell us in their emails not to. An officer recently pointed out to me that there are things I can do now which they simply wouldn't be allowed to.

Moving forward a day, and west a continent, General Bond spoke last night at the commencement of the International Leaders' Conference in Toronto. She, as usual, was speaking on her 'One Army, one mission, one message' theme. She said this (my emphasis added):
You are the Salvation Army... The SA on fire, the SA that knows who it is, the SA that is convinced of its calling”
Now Yes, we do respect other churches. We thank the Lord for what they contribute - and in many ways God has given them gifts he has not given us. Now that’s the truth. But God has given something to the Salvation Army that, if we surrender it, I think we will die. He’s given us a holy passion for him. He’s given us a holy passion for the marginalised. He’s given us a holy passion for the lost. We cannot lose it. We must be one Army on fire, all around the world. 
And we need to be the Army of the 21st Century.  And we need to, with this kind of purpose and power, to move into the world together...
...We were never meant to be a holy huddle. And if you are content going to your corps, Sunday after Sunday, enjoying the music, enjoying the fellowship, and you do not care what happens beyond your walls, I need to tell you, maybe I’m being too direct, but you’re not the Salvation Army
I absolutely agree. General, that sounds like an Army I want to be serving in. Wait, I am!

I have to say though, to the senior officers, from the soldiery, that this cuts another way:

You weren't meant to be a holy huddle either! And if you are content going to conferences, sitting in meetings and visiting one another at headquarters, week after week, enjoying tea and biscuits with dignitaries, promoting each others' books, stifling the creativity of the best officers, tolerating the incompetence of the duds, and pontificating upon the state of 'your' army, and you don't care what happens beyond your walls (or your halls), I need to tell you, and maybe I'm being too direct, but neither are you! (Except of course that, as we know, the Army legally belongs to the General).

I sense especially at the moment that the Commissioners are a 'holy huddle' of a sort, because it is very difficult to discern individuality, new thinking or difference of opinion among them. I don't doubt for a moment that they have all of these things, but it's as if there is an unspoken rule, tightening its grip, that they keep it behind closed doors, where the efficacy of internal debate is beyond the sight of the rest of us. Of course the church, and its leaders in particular, should show solidarity. But we are in danger of confusing holding the line with toeing one.

As an example from my own experience, those who have met with me (and they have) over the last little while to talk about you in particular, or the Army's response to family law in general (and I try to keep those subjects discrete) didn't want anyone else to know that they were doing so, and certainly didn't want to be quoted. Particularly since they have done so little, I wonder why. Maybe it's because they've done so little.

On Sunday, we participated in something of a 'health check' on our corps. I think a good few of us, when asked what we would like to do to improve what we do, looked at the boards of post-it notes and were struck that other people were thinking what we were. Not everyone agreed, not everyone felt able to say exactly what they thought, I feel sure, but particularly if you think the afternoon meeting needs revitalising, or the speakers in the foyer re-connecting, it turns out you are in community! That board of 'improvements' is now a range of opportunities which as a corps we can consider and do something positive with.

I happen to think that if the Army was less afraid of debate, and less afraid of letting people crack on, those Commissioners would likewise feel emboldened by community of views amongst those whom they lead. People would be able to come forward and encourage them.

As it is, ironically, an Army which, to quote the General's vision, reaches out to the dispossessed, inadvertently dispossesses the soldiery and corps officers in particular by failing to show that their concerns are the Army's concerns, and giving advocacy to causes which they personally can identify with or have expertise regarding.

To come full circle, I am reminded nevertheless that if Step-Mum and I are ever to become Salvation Army officers, we will have to have our candidacy signed-off by a Territorial Commander. One of the hurdles, if you will, is that we have, through no particular desire of our own, ended up at closer quarters to the top of the tree than most, and that speaking candidly of my experience, as I do, is unlikely to help unless things change!

General Bond told the conference yesterday "Any time his people meet together, he wants to come with the unimaginable, the unexpected and the impossible. So we will wait on the God who loves to surprise us". My question is, will the Army let me do the unimaginable, the unexpected and the impossible, for and with God? The messages are mixed.

Even so, as our Lieutenant friends, the 'Friends of Christ', settle into their new positions at the foot of that command structure, in appointments some of which are out on a limb, either metaphorically or geographically, (the General spoke last night of people 'working in difficult places' ) we wish for them God's richest blessing in their individual ministries - because whilst their officership will be governed by the Army, it is for the one who calls each of us that they will labour - and his will be the 'well done' for which we, and all our fellow Salvationists, of substantive rank or not, must strive.

Love from Daddy

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