On Saturday morning last week, on my way to buy a newspaper, I walked through the park and up the hill to the Crystal Palace Triangle. I was nearing the top of the hill when I heard the sounds of a brass band playing Christmas carols. As I arrived in the main street it turned out to be not a brass band at all, but a silver band. Although I suspect that to all but an inner core – and maybe even to them too – the difference is cosmetic. The range of instruments looks the same, the sound sounds the same and both, I suspect, are brass underneath. And the players of these silver instruments – which gleamed wonderfully in the low, winter sun – were members of the local Salvation Army.
I have a great respect for the Salvation Army – or Sally Ann as it’s often affectionately known in the UK. That’s not out of any uniquely Christian feelings of my own – conventional, organized religion is not for me and I tried it enough times in the past to know – all without success. But that doesn’t stop my admiring people such as those Christians of the Salvation Army who have enough faith in their own beliefs to put their money where their mouth is and go out to the people.
They don’t, sadly, do it as often as they used to – at least not in this part of the country. There was a time I can remember when the Salvation Army band would be out on the streets of umpteen towns around the country on any Sunday morning, not just a morning in the run-up to Christmas. And it doesn’t seem all that long ago – though time flies, and it may be a lot longer than I care to think – when the sight of a young, uniformed Salvationist, very often a woman, was not an uncommon thing in some pretty rough pubs on the roughest nights of the week. They came in selling (or was it free?) their magazine, ‘The War Cry’. That got my admiration. It seemed to me that it was one thing to stand at the church porch on the Sabbath, wearing a well-fed smile in order to welcome in the faithful all got up in their Sunday best – and quite another to risk, in the interests of the same fundamental beliefs, getting ribbed and ridiculed by Friday night drunks in smoke-filled public houses. Who was it who consorted with outcasts, and averred that prostitutes and tax collectors would enter the Kingdom of God? Who was it who told the thief at his side that that day they would both be in paradise?
Organized religion – as personified by Anglicanism and the Roman Catholic Church – has, for me, lost touch with its roots. Way back in the past, looking for something I couldn’t find in the world around me, I searched chapels and churches. Somewhere in one or both of them I thought, there must be that elusive something which huge numbers – perhaps even the vast majority – of us, in some corner of our psyche, believe exists as a permanent bedrock underlying the ephemera of life in this world.
I didn’t find it in any of those places. The chapels (Wesleyan, Pentecostal etc.) were, for me, confusing jungles inhabited by rather noisy people who had views so rigid and so chained to every word of the Bible that it was clear I either espoused those views in toto, or moved on. I moved on. The churches – at least in their corporate incarnations and aside from the totally devoted individual local vicar of whom there are, I’m sure, unsung thousands – turned out to be moneyed bastions of hypocrisy. They so often preached one thing and did the opposite. I cannot see, for example, how an organisation which has as its prophet a man who lived in poverty, preached against killing, healed the sick, consorted with all manner of down-and-outs and was put to death at the hands of the state can, at the same time, countenance being an integral, uncomplaining part of a state which sells arms (including cluster bombs) to others and has no difficulty in sending armies to fight wars in other countries. (I do not include in that criticism the actions of the UK government in the case of WW2 and maybe also in the recent case of Libya). But that is what you are inevitably into if the church is established, as ours is.
Once, in my searching days, I went to Mass at St Patrick’s Cathedral in New York. I was stunned by the magnificence, not only of the interior of the building itself, but also by that of the service which was more on the scale of grand opera than any church service I had attended before. There were priests in the most extraordinary finery, performing bizarre rituals involving gold vessels, and incense drifting like morning mist throughout the cavernous interior. The whole piece of pseudo-religious theatre would have done both Covent Garden and La Scala, Milan proud. I was fascinated. And I wondered at the same time what on earth any of that had to do with the message of the man who championed the underdog and the poor and who chose his ‘priests’ from ordinary people – four of whom were simple fishermen – in the local community.
So long live the Salvation Army. I may not be one of you in the sense of your exclusive belief in the doctrines of Christianity. I finally found my own home in eastern philosophy and the works of certain Christian mystics – Julian of Norwich and the writer of ‘The Cloud of Unknowing’ – along with the Quakers and the works of people such as Omar Khayam and Khalil Gabran. But in that there is no conflict with you who play your instruments to the masses on the streets of our cities. Truth is universal. It cannot be claimed as the exclusive preserve of any man-made religion or sect. It is the attempts to do just that which have wreaked such havoc with the world and its peoples. Play on!
And on another subject entirely –
Chicago film-maker David Spodak is preparing a film about a film. Entitled ‘Paths of Glory: Anatomy of a Film’, its subject is Stanley Kubrik’s 1957 film ‘Paths of Glory’. I blogged about this movie some weeks back. It is, in my view, one of the most powerful anti-war films ever made and its impact has not lessened over the years. Spodak is looking for funding. It sounds a very interesting and worthwhile project. If anyone is interested, please take a look at this link –