I have very fond memories of the Sally Army from my teenage years not that I ever attended a church service. During my adolescence I was not even aware that the Salvation Army had a church but instead associated the organisation with a cluster of charity shops I frequented for cheap retro clothing along with Cancer Research, Peta, Marie Curie, Oxfam, Christian Aid, and Save the Children. When I think of the Salvation Army I am tickled by nostalgia of my sixth form years, racing my friends to raid the clothing rack, laughing at the terrifyingly tedious tat that redefined bad taste, telling a girl she looks fetching in a Granny styled bonnet, and amusing the old ladies behind the counter at our wonder at the unwanted junk that filled the shop. I still wear clothes bought from the Sally Army, and I visit their stores when I can find them hidden amongst the various unvarying chain brand shops that occupy the high street. My other overriding memories of the Salvation Army are the brass bands that would musically adorn school jumble sales, summer fetes and Lord Mayor Processions. In London my only memory of the Sally Army’s brass bands is the sound hymns played lightly underneath the Tannoy announcements in Paddington station. The Salvation Army bands were like granddad rock; dressed in military regalia and consisting of membership with an average age of 60, they provided a warm sentimental feeling in my stomach. The band’s shy sound was quintessentially British in its reserved manner, playing so softly you presumed they felt it impolite to be too loud. The restrained and august personality of the Paddington brass band was not an accurate impression of the congregation that met at the Salvation Army citadel on Lower Clapton road.
Instead of the mannered and sentimental image of the Salvation Army, I was confronted with a more conventional evangelical church community which I had come to expect from an east end Sunday service. It’s sad that as my expedition continues I have grown so used to the kindness of strangers that the warm welcome from Salvation Army was expected. Lower Clapton’s Salvation Army had all the key attributes: firm and friendly welcomes that scare you with their sincerity, communal and private prayers in which you feel you have spiritually eavesdropped on everyone, a children’s crèche in the corner that spills over into the service whenever a hymn is sung or a parent is distracted, light Christian rock tunes are sung well by women but undermined by a lone male mutter , some communal emotional outpouring (that you would never find in the more rigid Anglican and Catholic services), modern news stories shoehorned into bible passage comparisons, and a general celebration towards the brilliance of God and his followers in the most banal of settings. My list reads offensively but it’s not my intention as everyone was so warm and welcoming but I feel it’s important to be honest that kindness is not a rare thing and can easily become boring.
Not that I wanted to feel unwelcome but I was looking for another form of worship or one that would inspire me or rekindle some adolescent nostalgia. As my eyes wandered across the floor mid hymn between the swaying and the hand flapping of the congregation I spotted two rigid and regal figures standing at the back of the hall and realised my prayers had been answered. The name of my salvation was Evelyn and John who where a married couple who had been members of the church for over 70 years (John said his first service was as a boy in the 1930s and Evelyn had later joined the church in 1940s), so far back they remember London Olympics 1948.
John was pristine, in his uniform more squadron leader than Boy Scout, he sat firm and upright, with a posture that would scare the average teenager. Still with a full head of white hair which he neatly combed as a side parting his appearance was so classic it may have been unchanged from the war years. Stiff and slow in manner you did not know if it was his old age or sense of authority that ailed him in conversation but his calm consideration and polite temperament made you presume the latter. Born in Homerton, only a short walk from Lower Clapton he remembered the original church and how the army had moved to the more modern citadel in the 1970s. When I asked him how modern Christian pop anthems compared to hymns of yesteryear he informed me that the congregation in Lower Clapton once had a 30 piece brass band and choir and it was a very “different,” experience. No unkind bitterness or at least no unchristian words were going to leave John’s mouth but in his pause he implied the sheer unspoken amazement of the 70 years he had shared with the Sally Army. Pleasantries were as far as I could quiz John but with Evelyn I did find more revealing information on the changing face of the Salvation Army of Lower Clapton and the east end in general.
If John looked like the World War Two soldier he never was then Evelyn was very much dressed like women from the home front who would most likely have aided her as a child. From her smart black heels to the brooch that did up her collar, her appearance neatly reordered the meaning of smart. Evelyn must share the elixir of life with John as she also had a great thick shoulder length head of hair or her bonnet was keeping hold a luscious wig. Wearing glasses that appeared to open up her eyes to you it was easy to keep the conversations flowing. On the subject of seeing the community change Evelyn went through the many different migrants who had made the area their home. I must admit I did feel apprehensive touching on the subject of immigration with an elderly lady dressed in military regalia but never once did Evelyn appear to be racist.
As a pupil at the school on Linscott street (currently Clapton Girls Technology College) which is still situated round the corner, she was one of four other Christian girls and the rest were Jewish refugees from the war. Next she mentioned the nice but poor Indian boys who used to come to the service and how they also were adherents to the Sally Army but forced to leave by the priest as they would not swear sole allegiance to the church. And finally she commented on how I may think that all the black people within the congregation are “the same,” but actually some were from the West Indies and the others from Africa. At this point I was glad that my presumption that Evelyn was racist and ignorant was mirrored in her lack of faith in my cultural knowledge. Evelyn went on to state that on Sundays the majority of the non-white congregation are African but if I had come on Tuesday most of the non-white congregation would have been from the West Indies (who visited their other churches on Sunday). The migration history of the congregation of lower Clapton’s Salvation Army did fascinate me and especially the unanswered question “Can you be a member of two churches but just not two faiths.” From how Evelyn explained the Indian boys predicament I wanted to ask why the Salvation Army were happy for the West Indians to visit other churches on Sunday. Let’s not forget that all racially motivated speculation was taken from a gossiping granny in a church hall so perhaps I should presume that both stories have far more elaborative details. Regardless of the total accuracy of Evelyn’s claims, her faith and love for a good natter was thrilling in comparison to the regular church theatrics.
As the final hymn was sung I did take pleasure that my lack of singing, clapping and swaying did not necessarily demonstrate a lack of faith (though it did) as I looked across at John and Evelyn who had had two lifetimes of faith and remained stiffly standing tall like the king and queen of Lower Clapton road as they had stood year after year. But the Sally Army is not embodied in John and Evelyn, it does not belong to my adolescent nostalgia, it’s not some community group for the elderly. The Sally Army is one of the largest Christian organisations in the world: in 1994 The Salvation Army was ranked as the 4th "most popular charity/non-profit in America" of over 100 charities researched. The Salvation Army is not just a church but a massive Christian outreach programme and charitable organisation (important to separate the two) and continues to expand from its humble roots in east London. Visiting the Wikipedia page of the Salvation Army the vast confusing collection of information made the Sally Army appear more intriguing and frightening. Instead of hurting my head I still prefer to think of the Salvation Army as a collection of second hand shop owners who occasionally play as a brass band in city centres on weekends and public holidays. Forget the now I prefer nostalgia.PS
I now have photos, finally caught up with technology. Please look back at previous blogs to make sense of my architectual musings.