Interview with General Shaw Clifton:

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A passionate look towards the future

by Sue Schumann Warner – 

Four days before General-elect Commissioner Shaw Clifton, then United Kingdom and Ireland territorial commander, was installed as The Salvation Army’s 18th international leader, New Frontier Senior Editor/Editor at Large Sue Schumann Warner interviewed him in his office at the UK territorial headquarters. The interview follows.

Located a stone’s throw from Elephant and Castle train station—and a short hop on the bus from the Imperial War Museum—territorial headquarters sits on a busy, tree lined London street. Upstairs, the offices of the territorial commander are smoothly preparing for the transition in leadership as Commissioners Shaw and Helen Clifton conclude their final week as UK territorial leaders.

Clifton graciously makes time to talk to this reporter. A calm and thoughtful man, he speaks in the same manner in which E. B. White admonishes one to write: clearly and exactly, making every word count. Clifton knows what he wants to say and expresses himself with self-assurance and passion. And his greatest passion, it appears, is that of the The Salvation Army’s spiritual well being.

During the hour-long interview, which he punctuates with warm, hearty laughter—and one or two kindly, “no comments,”—he reveals the compassion and concerns that accompany him to his new office at 101 Queen Victoria Street.


Some needs never change; they are perennial. They are constantly with us. I am talking here about poverty, homelessness, fractured families, and the consequential impact upon children; needs thrown up out of those circumstances are always present. And I think it’s worth reminding ourselves that with the sophistication of the 21st century, we are still having to hand out food. Even in the richest countries of the world—we still have to feed people, and clothe people, and house people. So there is inherent in our societal structures a deeply entrenched inequity and we have not conquered it. I’m not sure that society generally even recognizes it. So, poverty and family breakdown are always going to be there, and I think the Army needs to be in the forefront of doing something about it.


When I say doing something about it, I’m talking about causes, not just addressing the consequences. I think we’re not proactive enough in interacting with lawmakers and with the movers and shakers in high levels in society. And I think The Salvation Army needs to rediscover its voice of advocacy for those who have no voice.
The extent to which that can be done will vary from country to country. Some parts of the Army world are already very skilled at this but many are not. I’m not naive about it, and I know in the United States of America, at times almost everything can seem to be politicized—and can get hijacked and blown out of all proportion by the media. But, I’m talking about doing it not necessarily in the glare of the public spotlight, but gaining entrée into places where people of interest can be found.

And usually, our good name—thank God we have a good name—and our uniform will open the doors. I’m not sure we press on the doors or even knock on those doors enough. That’s what I’m saying; and I think there is a role for the office of the General to be an encourager of Salvationists around the globe—to recapture their nerve and their poise about these things. We are just as bright as everybody else—probably brighter—and we have things to say, and our track record in working hands on with these people gives us huge credibility—which I feel we don’t always exploit to the full.


Now having alluded to those broad fields of needs, I think in the contemporary setting we are going to have to recognize the deep assault that is taking place upon women, and I’m talking here about the exploitation of women—and also children—for sexual purposes, and I do not think that womankind is getting a square deal. That’s a very broad generalization, but I think it can be justified.

I still think that women are stereotyped. There are parts of the world where the cultures exploit women in a very general and daily sense, making drudges of them, and confining them to housework roles and subsidiary roles. But we see the human trafficking phenomenon, and here in the United Kingdom we’re deeply caught up in seeking to do something for victims of that traffic. We’re also caught up in sensitizing our young people to its dangers, the dangers of becoming a victim of it, and to our young men in particular, making them aware of the damage that can be done by lending themselves to being participants or clients of that dreadful evil.

That’s a global phenomenon, and I think the Army, of all Christian bodies, perhaps with the exception of the Roman Catholic Church, is beautifully poised to use its network and its structures to do something meaningful in that field.


I’d like to have a word, then, if I may, about the evils of pornography, and I want to take a risk through the pages of New Frontier, and ask gently, but lovingly, the question: is there sin inside the camp, in that regard? I’m aware that from time to time Salvationists fall victim to the seductions, or temptations, of pornographic literature and pornographic viewing; we need to be sensitive about that, and come before God with it, sometimes for confession. Having said that, I think I’ll leave it just there, but we need to ask the question: are we ourselves without fault in these areas?

Now that of course leads on to the place of women in The Salvation Army….and if you want to ask me about that, I’ll talk about it at length and with very considerable passion….


Well, I’m married to a married woman officer, thank God, and I’m very keenly aware of all that women officers have to bring. Helen is a passionate advocate of the role of women within the body of Christ, but more telling than her spoken or written advocacy is her role modeling of that…and proving that it’s possible to be a very telling role model of a woman called to full-time ministry without becoming strident or losing one’s femininity. I do not believe—and I’m going to be frank here—I do not believe the Army has gone far enough in using its women, and I refer here not only to its officers, but also to its women soldiers, and its women local officers.
More doors can be open, and I would like to try to do that during my tenure as the General of The Salvation Army. I hope that the Army world has already noticed that I have appointed the first woman to be the Chief of the Staff [Commissioner Robin Dunster]. I scratch my head as to why that second highest office in The Salvation Army has never before been entrusted to a woman, and I am simply at a loss to come up with an answer. I’m pleased now that it’s been possible to put that right, and I hope that in the next 40-50 years, it will become just as natural as appointing a male officer to senior leadership.

Everything I’m saying applies to women, whether single or married. I’m not insensitive to the factors that would affect a marriage, in perhaps giving a married woman an appointment senior to that of her husband, but I believe the time has come to take some risks in that area, and find those willing to be exposed in that regard. It will have to be done with consultation, but time is not on our side; we have to do some things very swiftly.

So, I’m not going to say: watch this space, but that’s really what I want to say. I don’t have things in mind, but I will insist, every time a senior appointment is on the table for filling, I want as many women’s names on the short list as there are men’s. And you can print that. It will be the proof in the pudding—it’s easy to talk, isn’t it? It’s easy to talk.


It’s crucial that on our decision-making bodies and in our policy-making bodies, women have a voice and that there is a genuine gender balance in the constituent members of those bodies.

When I was territorial commander in the United Kingdom, on arrival I found that the territorial cabinet had only two women present out of eight: the wife of the territorial commander and the wife of the chief secretary. I immediately balanced out the numbers with a stroke of a pen. This can be done quite easily; it’s just having the will to do it—but also making sure that you’re not just putting in token persons.

Membership on a cabinet, for example, provides two things. It provides an opportunity for those at the table to change things and be creative in terms of the life of the territory. But, it also provides a forum in which the members can be trained and mentored by seasoned territorial leadership for further responsibilities should that need one day come.

And so, where you have a married officer in the cabinet, but not that officer’s spouse, you are depriving the spouse of that exposure and that degree of training, should they ever be asked to go on to more senior responsibilities. Why train and groom only one half of the marriage? Those kind of factors need to be looked at.
Now, there’s a danger there that you will sometimes overlook unmarried personnel. In the United Kingdom I was able to identify a single woman officer and also bring her in, in addition to married women officers, and that was very helpful to the cabinet.

Numerical growth

To see the Army growing numerically everywhere. Of course, that comment brings us back to the state of the Army in the European context. I believe The Salvation Army should be growing numerically everywhere. There are special factors that we have to face in some places, especially in Western style cultures, and not eastern Europe. But, the bottom line is healthy churches grow. And they grow numerically.

So, I’m asking the question again: why are we not growing in those places? Despite high work rates of our people, by officers, soldiers, employees, working very faithfully—some working far too hard in a sense—and so, it seems natural to us to question, and I’ve said this in other settings—why is the blessing of numerical growth withheld? I cannot come up with a simple answer, but lying very heavily on my heart is that same question: is there sin in the camp?

Rediscovering our identity

When we see a lack of growth and a lack of converts—there are deeper, more probing questions to be addressed, and some of those questions will be painful, and awkward to deal with. Some will go to the heart of our life as a Christian church, and some of them will go right to the soul of some of us personally, and I believe will take us right back to consider who we are under God, and what are the purposes for which we’ve been raised up —are we still faithful to those purposes, are we still obedient, are we still humble, are we still ready to risk everything for the sake of the gospel? Are we overly concerned with our reputation? Are we truly passionately committed to those at the bottom of the social pile? Are we ready to risk our reputation–even our reputation with those who fund us, which I think for some parts of the Army world is considered as the biggest risk of all. But the risk of not pleasing the One who brought us into being is in fact the biggest risk of all.


These are delicate issues, and I wouldn’t want to speak of them in a way that is not nuanced, but somehow, this debate needs to take place amongst us, and I hope that I can serve as some kind of a catalyst for that debate and, ask the questions of myself, just as much as of my fellow Salvationists, and come before God with total honesty, allowing the Holy Spirit’s searching spotlight to pierce to those secret, deepest places of the Army, and to each of us as individual believers.

There is an interesting and I think quite healthy debate going on around the Army world—more so in some places than others—about the Army’s basic identity. And I’ve addressed this in some of my earlier writings, not least in Who are these Salvationists? which Crest Books was gracious to publish. I think we ought to be ready as an Army to explain ourselves in a variety of different ways according to the occasion. So, for example, we are a church in every possible sense of that word—legally, socially, theologically—but we might be addressing people for whom the concept of church is a very negative concept, so if that’s the case, then why push that? We can explain ourselves in other ways and still remain true to what we are.

And we can talk about ourselves as a religious body; we can talk about ourselves as a charitable organization, a movement, a collection of like-minded persons—but with ultimate loyalty to the Lord Jesus Christ. And of course, we’re a human service agency—we’re all of these things, but we’re all of them all at the same time. And I think you might want to emphasize one or the other at any given moment depending on the setting or depending on your audience, but all of them are true. I would, however, be worried if we sought to abandon the idea that we’re a church.

Naturally, in the United States of America, being a church gives you huge legal prerogatives, given the church/state doctrine under the American legal systems, and if we were to yield to those who say we ought never to present ourselves as a church, we give away all the legal protections that being a church brings. So that would cause us to shoot ourselves in the foot, and I’m sure our lawyers would be the first to tell us so.
But there are deeper reasons for saying we’re a church and letting people know it. I think what has happened throughout our history is that we’ve moved from being an evangelical mission to becoming a fully-fledged Christian denomination. That has not been planned or strategized—it’s just the way things have happened—it’s part of the way God has dealt with us through the generations.

If people find in the Army their primary allegiance to the body of Christ, that alone makes us part of the body of Christ—a distinctive part of the body of Christ. We’re not a parachurch, we’re not the Billy Graham Association, for example. Belonging to the Billy Graham Association does not make you a member of the body of Christ. Belonging to The Salvation Army in the formal sense is your membership in your local church. So that alone means we cannot deny who and what we are in that deep theological ecclesiastical sense, and so I see the General of The Salvation Army as a worldwide head of a Christian denomination as well as leader of all of those other manifestations of our life.


Understanding post-modernism

Europe is moving through what is called the postmodern age, but that phenomenon touches not only Europe. Post modernism is seeing where people elevate the personal above the social; the informal above the formal; the local above the national or international… The present is elevated above belonging. All of that impacts formal organizations, not least formal organizations of a religious nature, like the Army and other churches.

There’s a reluctance abroad which says “I might want to come along and see what’s going on, but I’ll never join in any formal sense.” Now, that phenomenon is impacting all membership organizations, like grocery clubs, tennis clubs—people want to play tennis, but don’t want to be the club secretary or treasurer or president or sit on the committee, so everybody’s feeling the pinch in that regard. And it’s not just happening to us because we belong to Jesus—it’s happening right across society.


But we’re feeing a little wounded by this in the Army, and we see our formal memberships in decline—in some places in sharp decline. We ought not to pretend otherwise. In New Zealand, where we led the Army’s work before returning to the United Kingdom, the same post modern impact was experienced, and our soldiers roles were in gentle decline, less steeply than in Europe. But, the heartening thing was the attendance at Army meetings was going up, steadily and consistently, year after year. That brought great heart, and we knew that we were somehow in the right place as a territory under God.

The same cannot be said about many parts of Europe. We see, instead, formal memberships in decline and also attendances declining. That means that there are very serious problems to be addressed, because it’s not just the impact of post modernism—there’s something else going on in addition, and not being part of the various local scenes, I ought not to try and articulate what those problems are. They need to be teased out and addressed with realism.


Now, having said all that about post modernism, there is a terrible risk that we will over estimate this thing and become rabbits in its headlights. That would be a dreadful mistake. I’ve noticed in the United Kingdom, post modernism seems to be geographically selected as to its impact. I notice it has more impact where the officers have lost their nerve than where the officers still know what it is to be The Salvation Army. And so where you get leadership, local leadership that still believes in the Army, that still knows that the Army belongs to God, that still knows that the uniform works, that still knows that soldiership is a powerfully stunning witness to the saving grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and where the officers are proud to be officers and aren’t afraid to be seen in their uniforms, and are willing to offer people the chance to become soldiers in the Army and take on proactive Salvation Army roles—there, you see the Army doing much, much better.

My concern is that yes, post modernism is real and needs to be understood, but, it’s best dealt with by holding our nerve and not seeking, somehow, to be something we were never raised up to be, or a pale imitation of something else—Because post modernism is transient. It will move on, and when it’s done so, we still need to be here, knowing who we are under God. I don’t believe that post modernism has enough about it to undo us. I don’t think there’s anything to fear; there’s something to be understood and dealt with, but nothing to cause us to fear.


Islam as a world faith is receiving huge media exposure—I think that’s very natural in view of world events. It’s a cause for sorrow that the words “Islam” and “terrorism” are so frequently found together in the same sentence.
My experience of living for nearly five years in the Islamic Republic of Pakistan is that a devout Muslim life is an impressive thing. And that, as a Christian, if you want to win the respect of a Muslim, you must be rigorously Christian—not apologetic or water down your faith. Your Muslim counterpart will expect you to know your holy book, just like he knows his Koran, and he will also expect you to take your prayer life seriously, just like he does with great discipline and regularity.

The extremism that we see coming out of some parts of the Muslim world is, of course, not the true face of Islam—anymore than violence perpetrated in the name of Christianity is the true face of Christianity. Those who are true Christian believers know very well that violence is evil, and has no place amongst us. Part of the difficulty these days is that the Muslim world gets confused between what is Western and what is Christian, and they seem to see these as co-terms. So, there’s a job there to unravel what is Western and what is Christian and let the Gospel be seen in its simple purity, with the emphasis on a loving God who has a heart for the lost and gives Himself for our salvation.


Islam needs to be understood, just like post modernism needs to be understood. I always recall the wise instruction of General William Booth when a Salvationist seeks to interact with a person of another faith: never, never offer critical comment upon the faith of the other, but be ready with quiet poise to explain the hope that lies within your own heart as a disciple of Jesus Christ. I think that is still good advice.

And it leads to good conversation and results in mutual respect, and the conversation can plant a seed. We ought not to approach members of other world faiths with a crusading or proselytizing spirit; we long for all persons to acknowledge Jesus Christ as Lord, but there is a place for wisdom and respect, while still entertaining that hope. I think there’s a place for fostering good friendships between Christians and Muslims and Hindus, and Jews.

Recently, I had a chance to speak at the Westminster Central Hall in London to an organization called the Three Faiths Forum, which seeks to foster relationships between Christians, Jews, and Muslims. I was very graciously received there, and my paper was well received, and there was a good, robust, rigorous question and answer session afterwards. That kind of setting is a good one, where the Army is perceived as being perhaps a bridge builder across the divide between some of these groups. I was pleased to have that chance.


Salvation Army systems of governance have never been democratic. They are probably more democratic today than they have been, but that’s still not saying a great deal. I welcome the trend towards consultation and the involvement of more people in reaching decisions. But, I still want the Army to retain that distinctive element of autocracy in its systems because that makes for speedy decision when the need arises.
Not every decision needs to be made on the spot, but sometimes there’s an emergency, there’s a crisis, there’s a sudden need, a situation suddenly confronts you, and rather than convening a committee, and then a sub committee, and then a sub, sub committee, or calling a synod, it’s better if a senior, seasoned, experienced person says “We’ll do that.”

I don’t want to lose that element of autocracy, and yet I do want to see mechanisms that give a wider base of Salvationists more empowerment and a sense of ownership of the Army’s mission. I think the extent to which that’s been happening around the Army world is quite encouraging—certainly in my own experience as territorial commander in three territories. It could happen more, and I think different parts of the Army world are in different stages of that. It needs to be encouraged.


Experience shows that the way The Salvation Army organizes itself does have two distinct advantages: First, it seems to lend itself to adaptation; we should never stop reviewing ourselves with a critical eye and being ready to introduce change. Those who are theorists and specialists in the life cycles of organizations, tell us there does come a point when if you don’t adapt, you’ll die. Maybe that’s happening in some parts of the Army world. God forgive us if that is so.

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