Territorial Commander of The Salvation Army in UK on His Hopes for 2007

Christian Today recently spoke with Commissioner John Matear, Territorial Commander of The Salvation Army in the UK since his appointment in April this year. He shared with us some of his thoughts on how the year has gone for him and how he hopes to see God do His will in the UK through The Salvation Army in 2007.

CT: In the last five years before coming to the UK, you were Territorial Commander in the Caribbean. How has the transition between the two territories gone?

JM: I think in relation to the transition it's gone smoothly. We haven't been out of it for five years. We've been coming back annually and have kept a close interest in matters relating to the UK and also to The Salvation Army in the UK so there haven't been too many surprises in that respect.

In relation to my personal insights and development, I would say five years in the Caribbean impressed on me greatly issues surrounding poverty and hardship and have strengthened my resolve that where possible we should be addressing these matters from the relative comfort of the UK.

So that has been a deepening appreciation of how many in the world have to live and cope and an appreciation of being good stewards of our precious and limited resources when we have them.

Another privileged aspect of life in the Caribbean for The Salvation Army is that the territory over there consists of 15 different countries so I've had a greater appreciation and insight into internationalism within the Church and but I've also had the opportunity of meeting international politicians and prominent folks and that has all been a deepening development to my insights and understanding.

So you want to see The Salvation Army in the UK supporting The Salvation Army in the Caribbean on poverty?

I wouldn't say specifically the Caribbean. The Salvation Army is at work in 111 countries. My five years in the Caribbean were my first experience outside the UK so the insights gained and the impressions will be lasting. From my position now of leadership and influence I would want to see The Salvation Army in the United Kingdom continue to develop its project work to the overseas countries which are having to live in poverty with very few resources.

I have to say I have been impressed on my return with the work we do in this area but I want to give a very strong backing and affirmation that it continues.

Looking back since you took up the role of Territorial Commander, what highlights and challenges have you faced?

It's good to be back and it's been good to get into the swing and context of The Salvation Army in the UK after five years away.

I have been deeply impressed with what I would consider to be a seriousness about mission. The more and more places I go to the more evidence I see that people are prepared to pay the price involved in change, change in order to be more effective in reaching into their communities. And that has not only impressed me but it has reassured me.

I see a shift away from an exclusive 'come and join us' to an understanding that we have to go back to where we were in our beginnings which was to be increasingly focal in the communities and to be out there in the communities, in the heart of it, building relationships, building bridges, and I think that is where we get our credibility, that is where we ought to be.

And is that something you are going to continue developing over 2007?

That will be a continued emphasis.

What other issues are you going to be looking at in terms of the Church's development?

One of the main convictions I have is to stir up within The Salvation Army, a deepening awareness and confidence in God's ability to accomplish His purposes in us, for us and through us.

How are you going to be putting that into action?

We need to emphasise our responsibility, to have a prophetic voice and speak into the issues of our nation. We need to continue to speak up on issues relating to social justice and actively advocate on behalf of the marginalised. One is very weary of getting into sound bites so our words need to be backed with action.

Over this last year we have had a continued focus on anti-trafficking and since my return we have invested in creating a desk to co-ordinate that work. We have an important voice there. Our international network helps us and in this country we are seeking to raise people's awareness about the issue of human trafficking and we are working with women affected. There is much work to be done and that is a strong commitment we have.

Equally in the last few months since my return we have engaged in a partnership that will look at employment services, which resonates again with the roots, the raison d'etre, of The Salvation Army. And with those who have more experience in the field, the specialists, the single issues people, The Salvation Army will develop its work in relation to returning people to work, creating opportunities for some of those who have been unemployed for long, long periods of time.

Anti-trafficking has been a major issue for The Salvation Army. What is it about anti-trafficking that has struck so keenly at the heart of The Salvation Army?

Next year marks the 200th anniversary of the abolition of slavery and it is recognised that, 200 years on from the abolition, slavery still exists. We call it by another name in terms of trafficking but to a large extent it is still slavery. And what deeply affects me personally and The Salvation Army in terms of its mission is that this involves so many people, the statistics are horrendous. But it also involves a lot of children in exploitation, whether that be slave labour or sexual exploitation and that's horrendous.

There is no country in the world that escapes this, whether it is a country of origin, whether it is a country of transit or whether it is a country receiving people. So this is a major issue internationally.

Engagement in it can be dangerous because there are vested interests and there is big money involved, but for us it resonates because it is about human dignity, recognising the value of every individual, understanding that Christians have to be active in relation to serving the present age and this is a current contemporary evil.

This must be something The Salvation Army is very well-positioned to play a role in given your international network. How are you going to partner with The Salvation Army in other countries to fight against trafficking?

We are funding projects that offer safe houses both for children and families, and offer employment opportunities that help them to break free from a cycle of poverty that makes them vulnerable. So we will be funding projects that are into caring and offering safety and employment prospects and bettering the future.

The issue of church decline is affecting many churches at the moment. At the time you became Territorial Commander you noted that you came from the Caribbean which is a church growth area and have come to a country which is facing major church decline. How are you approaching this within The Salvation Army?

The Salvation Army clearly isn't immune to the culture of Western Europe where for years there has been a pattern of decline. Within our own statistical gathering, we would recognise that, yes, there is a pattern of decline in membership. One would qualify that immediately by saying that it has levelled out over recent years.

Another key statistic of course, apart from membership, is attendance and we see attendance to not be in decline. We would also say that our folks are very creative in terms of doing programmes and it is my conviction that there are many people attending The Salvation Army's mid-week programmes. They may not be with us at this stage in worship but they attend our mid-week programmes. In short, The Salvation Army touches the lives of many more people than our statistics record. And for me that isn't a cop out or a denial but just a factual recognition.

I think there are elements that play into this. I think we live in an age where it is recognised that commitment to membership isn't as fashionable as it used to be. I think too that in terms of denominational affiliation in this post-modern culture people are more focussed on a local church than they are on a denomination and some of that we benefit from.

I am not merely optimistic, because optimism is a matter of temperament, but I am hopeful, because that is a matter of theology, that the Lord who said 'I will build my church' will do that. And we need constantly to catch the wind of the Spirit.

As far as I am concerned the emphasis for us is confidence in God's ability and a continued focus on outreach into the community, investment in discipling, heavy emphasis on prayer and an understanding that the Salvation Army's mission and ministry should always have a bias towards the poor.

How are you going to work with other churches to tackle certain issues like anti-trafficking or poverty?

We are part of Stop the Traffik and will continue to play a part across a whole series of issues. We have been doing some serious work over the last year or 18 months in relation to the Gambling Act. And we have been speaking up and speaking out as far as that is concerned.

We are ecumenically committed. An emphasis on that will be the fact that my wife will be the Moderator of the Free Churches in England next year in succession to the Rev David Coffey.

We will continue to develop our homeless services alongside our alcohol addiction services and that will be feeding into our commitment.

Next year you are holding a multi-ethnic mission conference. Why have you decided to hold this conference at this time?

I think I have come back from the Caribbean with a sharpened insight into the wonder of God's creation and I want to celebrate our diversity.

I think politically and culturally this is a significant statement to make in the UK at this time. I think there are always tensions and certainly that's the reality in which we live today. I want The Salvation Army always to be seen to be inclusive.

We are currently working with asylum seekers and I read a new report which says that 11 per cent of new members made in the UK last year are from overseas and I was encouraged by that figure. I would like to see more evidence of ethnic diversity within our membership. And I think it is growing and it will grow even more as we are demonstrably and intentionally out there in our community.

You said at the moment there are always tensions and one of the tensions prominent in the media at the moment concerns the celebration of the Christian Christmas and concerns that Christmas may cause offence to non-Christians and among secularists who feel that it may not be politically correct. What do you make of this?

I think it's been grossly overstated and my interaction with leaders of other faiths suggest to me that there is no active lobby from them for the Christian church to tone down its celebration of Christmas.

I think there is a recognition of how important this is to the Christian church and many of them celebrate Christmas if not share in the significance of it with us. I think what resonates often in some headlines is a rather superficial challenge to what is perceived to be political correctness. I think it is out there certainly but I don't see it as a major issue in interfaith relations. The real issue for me is that the other faiths are not putting us under any pressure.

Political correctness is there but it would be sheer folly to take Christ out of Christmas. And to those who would bemoan, 'Look what the world has come to,' we would say, the whole point about Christmas is not, 'Look what the world has come to,' but rather, 'Look who has come to the world,' and that is the Lord Jesus. I think it is an opportunity to get the message across. So The Salvation Army will continue to support every effort in relation to Christmas.

Some local councils and companies want to avoid using the word Christmas and many companies do not want to put up Christmas decorations. Are you alarmed by this development?

If they are removing them not because of health and safety but because they are risking giving offence then I think that is sad because that is further evidence of political correctness gone amok and it is a skewed view and I think we will lose something very precious in terms of our traditions as a country.

I can recall, when I was away from the country, one or two instances where some of these councils wanted to celebrate winter something-or-other and Christmas was taken out and The Salvation Army band which had always played in that event took itself out of the picture. But I think common sense prevailed and Christmas was reinstated and the band signed up again.

So we are prepared to challenge it where we come across it.

Looking ahead to 2007, how are you feeling in general about your own personal development within the role of Territorial Commander? How do you want God to use you and how do you want to see God using The Salvation Army through you?

I think after six months back I can say with some measure of confidence that by the grace of God I have a clear sense of where I believe under God He wants to take us. Some of that is a strong confidence in His ability to accomplish His purposes through The Salvation Army. I want that to be the backdrop and to govern everything we do. I would like to see a continued development of our prophetic voice, a strong presence within the communities of this nation, a bias to the poor, standing alongside the underprivileged.