20 Bernard, Abbot of Clairvaux, Teacher of the Faith, 1153
20 William and Catherine Booth, Founders of the Salvation Army, 1912 and 1890
You might think that it took an act of some imagination to bring together for commemoration Saint Bernard of Clairvaux and the founders of the Salvation Army, William and Catherine Booth.
But it is again the lottery of death, or rather “heavenly birthdays” that governs the church calendar. Though I am glad that these names are brought before us together today.
Let me explain. Christ is the true cornerstone holding together what may seem to us at first sight opposites in terms of spirituality and religious practice. If we can have an idea, a conception of the Church which holds together Bernard of Clairvaux and the founders of the Salvation Army, then we are discovering a unity which is not expressed in uniformity, but in the richness of diversity , which is expressed in the gifts given to those who follow the way of Christ.
With this in mind, I am going to explore briefly these names of Christ’s followers that we now commemorate.
St. Bernard of Clairvaux is one of the greatest preachers of all time. Born to a noble family near Dijon France in 1090 AD, St. Bernard was inspired by the example of a new religious congregation, the Cistercians, who had abandoned the relative ease and security of Benedictine monasticism of that day to live according to the primitive pattern of St. Benedict through hard manual labor, solitude, and rigorous prayer. When St. Bernard decided to abandon the privilege of noble life to enter the monastery, he brought over 30 noble relatives with him. Once professed, he was very soon made abbot and went on to found over 40 monasteries in his lifetime. St. Bernard’s preaching and the appeal of his character changed the lives of thousands. His words were so sweet that he came to be known as the Melifluous Doctor. So for that reason, the Psalm appointed for today speaks of the law of the Lord as being sweeter than the honey of the honeycomb. We have no time to delve at length into his sermons or writings, but I leave with you some of his thoughts which have inspired others, and make sense to me :
The three most important virtues are humility, humility, and humility.
And now a big jump to William and Catherine Booth, Founders of the Salvation Army. The first comment I would make is that we have here the two names of a married couple, celebrated together; unusual in the Church calendar. But not just unusual in the church calendar, for certainly in the 19th century the accustomed pattern in Christian ministry was for the wife to be more or less invisible and for the husband to take centre stage. It was not like that with the Booths. Together they founded the Salvation Army in London’s East End in 1865. They had the vision to form an organisation modelled after the military, but with the purpose of living out the service of God in the world. While William Booth became known as “the General”, Catherine Booth became known as the Mother of the Salvation Army. Perhaps we might wince at these titles today, living as we do in a very different world. However there was no doubt about William Booth’s early motivation; he had begun his Christian ministry as a Methodist Reform Church minister, but now moved on independently to form with Catherine the organisation which from the first was dedicated to the conversion of poor Londoners such as prostitutes, gamblers and alcoholics to the Christian faith. Catherine spoke to wealthier people, gaining financial support for their work. She also acted as a religious minister, which was unusual at the time; the Foundation Deed of the Salvation Army Christian Mission states that women had the same rights to preach as men. William Booth described the organisation’s approach: “The way in which the Army administered to the ‘down and outs’ can be expressed as first, soup; second, soap; and finally, salvation.” When I began my first curacy at Hoxton in the East End of London I made friends with the local Salvation Army officers and was invited to lead a prayer at the opening of their Goodwill Centre in Hoxton Street. I can well remember a young woman Salvation army officer and myself carrying a mattress between us the length of Murray Grove, Hoxton, me in my cassock, she in her uniform, when a local family lost their possessions in a house fire. You can just imagine the ribald comments of the East Enders. Later in my ministry, as a hospital chaplain in Medway, Kent, I was very glad to recruit a Salvation Army major, Joan Phillips, as our Free Church Chaplain and it was one of the best decisions that I made.
As I think today of the Salvation Army, I cannot but help think of a mustard seed and its growth.
From that small beginning with a not-rich mission couple in London’s East End has developed the international network of the Salvation Army today with more than 14,500 branches – An organisation which is loved and respected widely within the Christian ecumenical movement.
A short poem about being a saint, something which of course William and Catherine Booth never laid claim to. They saw themselves simply as servants following Jesus.
Being a saint.
The word saint can be a bit off-putting for you and me
ordinary Christians trying to live out our faith;
the life of holiness is not just given for some
it is the call to all, to set out on a journey with trust
that will lead us to faith, hope, and love.