Last week the Salvation Army celebrated its 130th anniversary. James Penn talked to Fr Michael Seed, who was brought up by the Sally Ally.
FR MICHAEL SEED iS the perfect person to talk to about General William Booth, legendary founder of the Sally Army. Not only was he brought up in the Army (his mother was a Salvationist, his father a Catholic) but, as one in the business of winning over converts, he is well placed to talk about one of the greatest converters of souls of all time.
The Salvation Army without Booth would be like Methodism without John Wesley. Unthinkable. The movement simply would not have existed without the force of his personality, his determination, commitment and strength of faith.
The Salvation Army took
to the streets on 2 July 1865. Booth himself was a Methodist minister with a radical commitment to helping the poor, the homeless, and the inebriated.
The sight of the SA band bringing the message of Jesus Christ to the high streets soon became a common one, from Land's End to John O'Groats.
Looking like a bunch of overgrown scouts, the brass band, traipsing up and down high streets all over the British Isles, used to be as much a part of the Saturday afternoon ambience as "The Green 'Un"or "Pink Final". Banging out umpteen renditions of "Onward Christian Soldiers" or "Stand Up, Stand Up For Jesus", they bore out Booth's
belief that the godly could enjoy the pleasures of music just as much as the sinful. "His great saying was that
the Devil shouldn't have all the best tunes. Music was very popular at the time think of all the bandstands in the parks. And it was the time of Strauss and the waltz. And then there was the military band," said Fr Seed. The fact that Britain was a very militaristic society then, the centre of an Empire of conquered countries on which the sun supposedly never set, greatly influenced the set-up of the Salvation Army, its very name being the first give-away sign.
Never mind the uniforms, ordinary members are "soldiers" and there is a command structure ranging from "Lieutenant" all the way to "General". Field Marshall seems to be about the only rank that isn't represented. Ministers are "commissioned" rather than "ordained".
"It's a bit like Sandhurst," said Fr Seed, "all these officers passing-out every year."
This great street presence, whether through the band or the evangelism, epitomises everything the organisation stands for. Taking Christianity out of the closet and making it relevant. Bringing it into ordinary people's lives.
"In the 19th century the accepted idea was that people went to the church. What the Salvation Army did was to take the Church out to the people. I don't think today we understand how radical it was." In the end, their radical commitment drove the Salvationists away from their parent organisation, the Methodists. Just as Wesley had always wanted to work within the Church of England and had never wanted to form a separate body, Booth had not set out to form a new group. It just turned out that way.
"I'm sure it's like this with all religious leaders," said Fr Seed.
That the SA band has become less familiar in the last ten years or so is testimony perhaps to an ageing membership and also, says Fr Seed, to the fact that the movement is currently going through an "identity crisis". "We now have social workers, we have a National Health Service, we've got all kinds of things we didn't have then. The Salvation Army has had to move into areas like training itself in child care or geriatric illness." Despite this decline, he is convinced it will "survive the tide of time".
Although he left the movement at the age of 16 when he joined the Catholic Church, Fr Seed is unequivocal about the impact his Salvationist adolescence has had on his life. "It totally formed my Christian values. It taught me that the Church can't be stuffy and aloof but has..to relate to peoples' lives and circumstances." High praise indeed.