Letters From London

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Quaint Like Auntie Mary?

by Will Pratt – 

Regular readers of the UK Territory’s weekly newspaper, Salvationist, will know that The Salvation Army in Britain has been hitting national newspaper headlines with the results of a survey which asked 2,200 adults what they think of the Army. The research was carried out for territorial headquarters by a public relations firm. The 2,200 adults were chosen to mirror the UK population by age and socio-economic background.

Salvationist highlighted what its editor described as the “good news” in the response. “Fifty percent described the Army either as a church or as a church with a charity element. A further 32 percent described the Army as a charity with a church element. It means more than eight out of 10 people recognize the Christian ethos that motivates the Army’s work…The public is in little doubt that we are Christian soldiers. Research has proved it.”

During six privileged years of service in the States, I came to expect that time would be taken in almost every conference to lament that the American public didn’t recognize the Army as a church. We needed to become more churchy: refer always to “our church,” talk about “the sanctuary.” That would pack the “pews” (not chairs or seats, God forbid!).

So has the Army in Britain solved here what some see as a problem in the States?

Reporting on the survey’s findings, British newspapers seem to have ignored entirely the great news about our being a church. Speak it low, but it seems they couldn’t care less whether we are a church or not. Rather, what sort of people we are seems to be their chief interest.

In the typically awkward way newspapers have of wanting to find the story behind the survey, the reporters have scarcely mentioned the statistical findings. Instead, they wanted to know what Territorial Commander John Gowans thought about them. From his replies they deduced that we see ourselves “as a quaint and old-fashioned organization, caught in its Victorian roots.”

They quote the Commissioner as saying: “We discovered we are liked, but we are liked in the way that Auntie Mary is liked. We realize we need to become more relevant if we are to attract young recruits.”

He continued: “The key to changing our profile is the uniform. Our navy blue is uncheerful and we need something more cheerful and less military.”

Next morning the headline writers enjoyed themselves: “Salvation Army to Adopt Jeans”; “The Christian Soldiers Hope to Find Salvation in a Designer Uniform: “Cousin Kev or Auntie Mary?” were just a few.

The influential right-wing Daily Telegraph wrote on its front page: “The Salvation Army is to commission a fashion designer to create a new dress code, including jeans and baseball caps, to replace the military-style uniforms it has worn since 1879.”

The Daily Mail, with its growing circulation, reported: “Leaders believe the blue uniform is too militaristic and should be replace by a more informal style of dress–like those worn by air crews.”

Mail columnist Keith Waterhouse commented: “Why,” asked General Booth, founder of The Salvation Army, ‘should the devil have all the best tunes?’ A question posed no longer–now the Sally Army is asking why the devil should have all the best togs. It is proposing to scrap the old War Cry uniform and introduce something with jeans, sweatshirt and baseball cap (no doubt to be worn backwards), the idea being to become more ‘relevant.’ God save us from relevance!’ Later he remarks, “God save us too from national surveys!”

The newspaper leader-writers take space to tell Commissioner John he should think again. “What is wrong with Auntie Mary?” asks the Daily Mail. “We all have, or have had, an Auntie Mary in our lives, and we infinitely prefer her company to that of Cousin Kev…Old fashioned Auntie Mary may be, in the sense that many familiar objects such as the teapot or the wireless set or the ironing board, are old-fashioned–but like them, she is still very serviceable and still very much in demand…If the Sally Army evicts Auntie Mary and installs Cousin Kev with his ear-shattering ghetto-blaster and his drum kit and his posters of Oasis, it will regret it.”

The Daily Telegraph takes the Army to task with much concern: “Haven’t they considered the fact that the uniforms are precisely the reason why so many people take them seriously? Members of The Salvation Army command respect on a Saturday morning in the market place because they bravely stick out from the crowds of ill-dressed shoppers. People know they are prepared to stand up for their principles. If they jettison the blue and red uniforms, representing purity and the blood of Christ, they could be any buskers. They should think again.”

Well, is Commissioner John right or wrong? One thing for sure: the Army in this old country commands an astonishing amount of interest whenever it raises its head above the parapet.

By the way, I promise to send New Frontier a photograph when I first venture out in my baseball cap (worn backwards) and jeans.


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