Sunday, March 25, 2018

A non-dualistic perspective on Easter

Most of those who went to church this morning will have heard the Palm Sunday story of Jesus riding into Jerusalem on a donkey and being adored by the crowds who welcomed him. As we approach Easter, the liturgy encourages us to consider what it means for Jesus to be the Christ. You may have heard that many of the people wanted a messiah who was a political revolutionary, a warrior that would free them from the shackles of the Roman Empire. To their surprise (and probably disappointment), they got a crucified saviour instead. Jesus died and the Roman Empire flourished for centuries to come.

We are told that this was the plan all along. That Jesus’ death accomplishes far more than a temporal revolution; it brings us back into right relationship with God. Jesus didn’t fail to fulfil expectations, the crowd were looking at the wrong thing. “My kingdom is not of this earth” is interpreted to mean that what happens here matters far less than what is going on in another separate, eternal, spiritual realm. But what if this was a false choice? What if we didn’t have to make a choice between a messiah concerned with the troubles of this life and a saviour oriented towards the next?

Over time, I’ve become less interested in forms of Christology that focus almost exclusively on Jesus’ death as a spiritual transaction to the neglect of his life as the incarnational bridge between the Creator and creation. The dualistic separations between material/spiritual; human/divine; earth/heaven-hell have become for me unhelpful constructions that obscure the presence of the sacred in everyday life. This notion of God’s presence in the most normal of places, things and encounters is at the heart of Salvationist orthodoxy. God is not just ‘up there’ somewhere, God is to be found here – where the Samaritan responds with compassion to the wounded traveller. Our actions on earth have spiritual consequences, not just in the sense of adding credits or debits to some heavenly scorecard but because our very existence is inscribed with spiritual meaning. So, what might this mean for the Easter story?

Was Jesus opposed to the Roman imperial rule? I think the answer to this question is a resolute ‘Yes!’. Despite Monty Python’s “what have the Roman’s ever done for us?” sketch, the reality of empire is never truly benevolent. Empires endure through structures that hold power by any means – political, military, ideological and, almost always, violence. Jesus, on the other hand, spoke about and illustrated in his life a vision of community in which no one was left out: the poor and disabled were invited to banquets; physical and relational healing took place; people shared from their abundance and all were fed; those who were socially marginalised were restored into the life of the people. These actions directly challenged imperial power structures that relied on social hierarchy and a culture of shame that elevated elites while pushing down the poor. What if it was the inauguration of a radically inclusive community of grace that was the real means for bringing down empires? Could this be part of what Jesus meant when he prayed that God’s Kingdom should come ‘on earth as it is in heaven’?

Before people’s heads explode (too late?), I’m not dismissing the Christian hope of heaven, neither am I advocating for a purely materialist understanding of religion. I am not suggesting that Jesus’ death is only a non-violent protest against imperial power. I don’t want a reductionist faith, I want a more expansive one. I want the kind of faith that meaningfully connects the realities of everyday life with Jesus’ vision of a Kingdom that has very different values to most of the world we currently inhabit. I do want to question versions of the Easter story that skip over Jesus’ life and reduce his death to a spiritual transaction that entirely ignores the social and political context of his time. I believe that, perhaps especially in The Salvation Army, we need an understanding of Easter that can account for why Jesus spent his life with the poor, the sick, those who were socially marginalised. Why did he seem to value those who had been labelled ‘sinners’ by their own community above the self-righteous religious people of his time?

It’s ok to take a moment over Easter to think about how Jesus deals with our own personal sin. We should do that. I’m not interested in a version of Christianity that has no place for self-reflection and acknowledgement of our own personal failure. But I don’t want to stop there either. I want to explore what Jesus might be saying about the sins that are bound up in our social structures, how sin is endemic in the way prejudice and exclusion are used to maintain power for some groups to the detriment of others. What does his self-sacrifice at the hands of an empire say about this? For me, that’s the kind of Easter story that makes sense of the incarnation – where that which is truly and properly divine meets our humble, human existence.

Saturday, March 24, 2018

An open letter to The Salvation Army on social officers

We are entering a new era of The Salvation Army in Australia. The structural merger of two autonomous territories, separated for almost a century, presents new opportunities and challenges for the organisation as we reconsider how best to approach mission in the 21st century. We’ve seen decades of growth in our social programs and, sadly, corresponding decline in engagement with our corps. Though I have a few thoughts about the latter problem, my primary area of expertise and experience has been in Salvation Army social programs. After more than 20 years working and studying at various levels and different types of social programs, I’ve gained a few insights to the organisational challenges we face as one of Australia’s most prominent service providers. It’s become increasingly clear over this time that I embody one of the key issues – social officership.

It’s not surprising that the role of officers in Salvation Army social programs has changed significantly since James Barker started visiting the Old Melbourne Gaol in 1883. The growth of the welfare state, outsourcing of government services and professionalisation of social work have radically shifted the context and manner in which services are delivered. This dynamic context continues to change today, for instance with the introduction of the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS) or the latest round of welfare reform, which lays an increasingly difficult burden on unemployed Australians. Despite a range of efforts by dedicated stakeholders, we are struggling to keep up with the contemporary world of social services.

While we still have many officers involved in social programs, almost all of them are at the frontlines of service delivery. It’s a good thing to have officers at the frontline. Almost 30 years since my first job in a Salvation Army social program, I continue to draw on the learnings of that frontline experience on a regular basis. However, it’s also clear that we are living with the legacy of a failure to consistently invest in the professional development of those officers with the desire, capacity and skills to take their place at other levels of our social services infrastructure. We rely on a handful of officers, many of whom still feel underqualified, to take on roles that they may not have won in open competition with the professional market.

Let me be clear, this is not to denigrate those officers (myself included) who have stepped up to tasks that they might not have been ready for. It is also not a criticism of our outstanding employees, whose professional skills, intelligence and dedication to our shared mission I have learned so much from and who continue to inspire me every day. However, I do think it’s time for a wake up call if we want to continue in this mission of service, in which we have established a remarkable reputation over many years. We need to take seriously the governance and oversight responsibilities for the hundreds of programs we manage and ensure that decision makers at all levels of the organisation have the appropriate skills, understanding and qualifications necessary. If we don’t have these in roles that have traditionally been held by officers, then we need to put a suitably qualified employee in their place. An officer’s calling is an incredibly special thing but it is not a substitute for capabilities that match the tasks that need to be done.

I’ve heard far too many officers bemoan the loss of officer presence at the management level of our social programs. Not only do I find this incredibly disrespectful to the employees who have taken their place but it fails to take seriously the work that needs to be done in order to keep officers involved at these levels. There is much to do but I believe such change is possible.

Instead of wondering where all of the Salvationists have gone from our social programs, why don’t we ask ourselves why we’ve so consistently failed to inspire our own young people, including new and aspiring officers, to prepare themselves for a career in social services? Why isn’t there at least one Salvationist in every university social work course around the country? Where is the long term strategic plan to develop the necessary proportions of our officer workforce with the experience, skills and qualifications necessary to engage at all levels of this work throughout our movement? Why shouldn’t social officers compete on equal footing with employees to ensure that key roles go to the very best candidate?

A new vision for The Salvation Army’s mission in Australia needs to fully take into account the significant social shifts that have defined the contemporary context for service delivery. I don’t underestimate the difficulties that this involves but surely this is a time for us to be visionary and ambitious about what we can do, in partnership with God, to live up to our historical identity as a world-changing movement.

Saturday, November 11, 2017

Understanding and valuing expertise

I've been playing an online game for a few weeks now and I've become a bit addicted to it. It's one of those games where you start with almost nothing and build a city. If you learn along the way and stick with it, your city becomes stronger and stronger, you form alliances with other players and the alliance becomes stronger. In the virtual world in which this game exists, I'm probably a medium level player now. I'm just about to make level 15 in the game, which means nothing to you but felt unreachable to me a couple of weeks ago.

As I've been playing, I've been reflecting on a theory about expertise that has been bouncing around my head for a few years now. You see, when I started, I advanced very quickly through levels 1-5. The goals were simple and could be easily achieved. Each level relied on the foundations built in the previous one and became more complex and harder to advance each time. I used to be in awe of people who had reached level 10, now I have level 16 in my sights. I still have no idea of the challenges faced and skills needed for players at level 25 and higher.

I've seen this pattern before. As a musician, I remember the difficulty of learning those first few scales. Practicing was dull and repetitive but the only way to really build competence. You don't need to learn all the possible scales, modes and arpeggios right away. You learn a few and then make music from them. Then you learn a few more. If you switch to another instrument, the basics usually come with you and you pick up the earlier levels much more quickly. You don't immediately assume the same level of competence but you can get there faster if there are similarities. For instance, if they are both stringed instruments or both brass instruments with similar fingering patterns.

I know people who find the same thing with sports. Not so much me, but people with natural sporting ability. They start with some basic skills, build up some hand-eye coordination, for instance, and then seem to be able to more easily adapt these skills to other sports. In both sport and music, I've had the experience of playing with others who are much better than myself. In both cases, it improved my playing. The experience and expertise that my team mates brought to the activity challenged and helped me to be better myself. Unfortunately, none of the musical scales that I had learned made me a better basketball player. Some skills are non-transferable and you have to start all over again.

Much of this is happening in the same way in this online game. I can still remember the challenges and tricks for making it through levels 1 to 14. I can help newer players to find their way through these phases of the game. I can identify the kinds of questions and answers that apply to learners and the things that you can skip over for people who have been playing for a bit longer.

I can also teach almost anyone the first few chords on a guitar. But I can't tell you if Jimi Hendrix or Brian May is the better guitar player. I don't even know how you would begin to make such a comparison. My current level of competence tells me that they are both so far ahead of where I am, that there is no point even trying to make an assessment of their comparative skills and technique. You might prefer the music of one or the other, but that's an entirely different kind of judgement.

There was also a time when I would have rated myself in the top 5 guitarists in The Salvation Army in Victoria. That was back when there seemed to be only about 5 guitarists in The Salvation Army in Victoria. That never put me close to being in the top 100 players in the rest of the state. It's easy to be a big fish in a small pond. I'll also never make it into the top 100 brass players in The Salvation Army but those who do are probably more comparable with peers outside the organisation. We've invested in that expertise, not just for years but for generations. That has earned a rightful place on the world stage in that field.

So, what's the point of this incredibly long introduction and drawn out analogies? It seems to me that both expertise, and the authority that once came with it, are being challenged at the moment. A person with dubious success in the business world thinks that their experience is sufficient to run a large country. Everyone claims the right to their own opinion, regardless of the foundation, or lack of it, upon which that opinion is based.

In my own context, The Salvation Army, we've spent decades training officers to be generalists with as many transferable skills as possible, so that they can be used anywhere the organisation needs them. There has been little room, and little point, for the development of deep expertise. As the world around us has become more professionalised, we've outsourced much of that expertise and by doing so, lost the ability to understand, evaluate and make competent judgements about it. You see, you need a certain level of expertise to apply those functions. As in music, sports and even my online game, I can competently offer critique and advice to those at or below my level. In some areas, I may even stretch to do the same a level or two above but I know that I may be playing on dangerous ground when I do so.

I think we now face the problem of how to rebuild significant expertise again. If you have enough high and medium level players in a game, you've got a good structure to bring through new players. If you haven't invested in those foundations, then you have a longer and more difficult road ahead. As the Australia One project moves forward in bringing The Salvation Army's two territories together, there are new opportunities and new challenges regarding expertise and authority. I'll do what I can to contribute in those areas where I've built up some understanding and try to refrain from making non-transferable calls on areas in which I have no comparative expertise - and there's plenty of those!

It seems to me that this is a critical time to look beyond our own borders and try to learn from what's happening in the rest of the world. Expertise can't be faked - though many have tried. It only fools those who know even less than the one doing the faking. We might, therefore, need the humility to lean on and learn from better players for a while. That tests our tribal tendencies but as far as I can tell, it's the only way to get better.

Saturday, April 2, 2016

The Emblem of Identity Crisis

It's been a long time since I last blogged as I've been rather caught up lately with writing my PhD thesis.  However, a thought struck me the other day that I haven't been able to shake so I decided it might be worth sharing.

Like many Salvation Army officers, my wardrobe is lined with quite a few white shirts.  The difficult morning choice used to be whether I would wear a long sleeved or short sleeved shirt.  Now I have a new problem - which logo to choose from?

This might seem like a silly thing to dwell on (and it probably is) but I think it's actually quite symbolic of an organisational crisis in identity and mission that I've been talking about for some time now.  To the casual observer, it may be curious for an organisation to have two logos but not overly significant - it's not unheard of for a company to rebrand or change their logo.  However, what is unusual is that the image on the right, the iconic red shield of The Salvation Army, is one of the best known and recognised brands in Australia (it's known worldwide of course).  You don't change your brand if it's the symbol of your success - and yet, on our uniforms at least, we did.

Now, I don't know why that happened but here's a few guesses at contributing factors.  The red shield is widely recognised as the symbol of a charitable organisation, known for their good works in the community, helping the homeless, feeding the hungry, caring for the stranger and the forgotten.  That all sounds pretty good but there are many Salvationists who think that the acclaim of our social services has overshadowed the movement's identity as a Christian church.  In the logo on the left, the letter 'T' in Salvation has been shaped in the image of a cross to explicitly affirm this Christian identity.

Now perhaps I'm reading too much into this, but since when was compassionate service to the poor and marginalised an insufficient symbol of Christianity?  Did someone really suggest that instead of being associated with charitable works in the community, it would be better to start again with a wonky cross in the middle of our organisation's name?  To me, the red shield has always encompassed our historic Christian identity as the driving motivation of a world-changing movement. However, I'm not sure that discarding it didn't send a message about what's important and what's not. These two logos actually represent quite different ideas of who we are and what we do - and they reflect competing ideas about identity and mission in The Salvation Army.  This isn't about corps versus social programs, it's about how big our notion of salvation actually is.

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Thinking about sex (again)

I’m spending this weekend talking and listening about sex.  With perhaps a few exceptions, most people I know don’t relish these conversations.  On the whole we haven’t been particularly well socialised to talk openly and publicly about sex and sexuality and those of us within the church are quite a few steps behind the rest of society in this regard.  As you can imagine, there’s been moments of discomfort, some awkward squirming at times and lots of laughter, because that’s a common way to deal with difficult topics.

The subject has come up as the key area of discussion for an annual Salvation Army conference called Thought Matters.  This year’s theme is ‘Honour God with your body: A Christian view of human sexuality’.  Whilst the matters under discussion haven’t been limited to same-sex relationships, it’s not surprising that these have had a fair bit of attention.  We’ve had some excellent presentations with, what I imagine has been, a massive effort in preparation to ensure a range of perspectives, a balanced viewpoint overall and great care not to offend anyone in the process.  Now that I say that, I realise perhaps why I’m not down as a speaker this year.

You see, I think there’s great danger in pretending to be balanced here.  This isn’t just about competing concepts.  We’re not dealing in abstractions.  It’s not like debating the nature of the Trinity or the number of angels that could fit on the head of a pin.  It is deeply  personal and there are real human casualties.  For me, that has to be our starting point.  To take a position of neutrality, while opponents work their way through theoretical arguments, is to side with the status quo and the status quo is hurting people.

Today we heard some truly compelling personal stories from people who have been hurt by their experience of church, and specifically by The Salvation Army.  I can’t imagine anyone in the room wasn’t touched in some way and a number were certainly brought to tears, myself included.  We can’t fix this by saying sorry if we don’t in fact stop hurting people right now.  We need to take responsibility for the messages that we put out that tell LGBT people that they are wrong, deviant, unacceptable to us and to God, because these messages are causing real and long-term damage.

Perhaps because of some of the tumultuous nature of the world right now, the notion that occurred to me as a way forward is that we need to institute an immediate ‘ceasefire’.  It may be that the solutions we are seeking are still some way off and, as much as we might want to hurry them along, there is no evidence that this is likely to happen.  So the least we can do is to stop the rate of casualties in the meantime.  As the party with the most power in this situation, The Salvation Army will have to make the most compromises in order for a ‘ceasefire’ to be effective.  I don’t have a clear or comprehensive idea about what this might look like but some possible features could include:
  • We stop making public statements about other people’s sexuality.  (Frankly, I think we’re kidding ourselves if we think we have any credibility in this area anyway)
  • We do make intentional and specific statements and efforts to welcome LGBT people into our corps unconditionally.
  • We work on the default assumption that LGBT people can participate as fully in corps ministries as anyone else, rather than figuring out reasons why they can’t.

None of this is to presuppose a permanent solution.  There will still be much discussion to be had and that discussion will need to prioritise the active participation of those most affected.  However, I can’t help but think that if we stop the processes and activities that are currently causing so much hurt and pain in people’s lives, then perhaps, just maybe the discussion might be a little more fruitful because its context is one of genuine love and grace rather than pain.

I know that for some people, even a temporary move like this will appear to be a grievous compromise of dearly held principles.  I’m honestly not sure what to say to those people.  I understand their viewpoint but I can’t with any integrity accept that the church can harm people in the way that it has been doing and not take responsibility for its own complicity in that.

It has to be more than a battle of ideas and we won’t be able to take any pleasure in what we perceive is the moral high ground, while LGBT people continue to feel self-hatred and loathing to the degree that they do, and while they continue to self-harm and suicide at the rates that currently exist.  The church isn’t the only cause of these things but followers of Jesus should never be counted amongst those who crucify others. 

Saturday, May 17, 2014

How does a straight guy become a rainbow flag bearer in The Salvation Army?

So, it’s the International Day against Homophobia today.  It’s become a day that I can’t let pass without some reflection and usually a rave of some sort.  The Salvation Army has a wonderful tradition of testimony, so I thought today I’d apply myself to the task of testifying about my journey towards the inclusion of LGBT folks in my life and the life of the church to which I belong.

I grew up in a culture that was overtly anti-gay.  The word ‘poofter’ was a derogatory epithet hurled across the school playground at regular intervals to anyone who crossed the line of unpopularity.  Their offence didn’t have to reflect anything at all characteristic of male homosexuality, it was just a punishment for someone that wasn’t liked at that moment.  The equivalent today would be the way that young people say things like “That’s so gay”, meaning that something is stupid or ‘lame’ without pausing for a moment to consider the implications of associating a particular sexual orientation with stupidity.

I never really gave this much thought at the time, though I’m sure I was both the giver and receiver of this term as a weapon of schoolyard abuse.  It also never occurred to me that people in my school could actually be gay.  I was much too busy chasing girls to consider that any of my peers might have objects of desire that were of our own sex – or that some of those girls might not be interested in me because they’d prefer to be with another girl.  In retrospect it seems rather blind of me not to have noticed this more but I guess you get to be a bit self-absorbed as a teenager.

I guess the first gay people I noticed were those that came out publicly – usually celebrities or notable people of some sort.  Many were musicians and as a musician myself, I had long ago learned to judge people on their music and not worry about anything else.  Their sexuality didn’t affect me directly and I just assumed that some people were naturally like that.  On reflection, this assumption may reflect the fact that I didn’t grow up in the church, so I never had any kind of indoctrination to suggest that same-sex attraction was a choice that people might make against God’s desire for humankind.

The first time I became aware of heterosexism and homophobia within the church was an assignment that I did in my first year of theological studies.  I was in my late teens and had only been a Christian for about a year myself and the discipleship processes that I’d gone through were much more oriented on curbing my own heterosexual impulses towards the young women within my social circles at the time.  It was the late 1980s, the time of the Grim Reaper ads that fuelled a degree of panic and prejudice about HIV/AIDS.  In my Pastoral Care and Counselling class, I took up an essay about how the church should treat people infected with HIV.  In my research, I was shocked at the open discrimination against gay people that suddenly seemed so predominant in the church.  Even then, I couldn’t help but wonder if homosexuality was really a choice that people made against God but the key issue for me was how people who claimed to love God could be so unloving against other humans, specifically those who were ill and suffering what was commonly understood as a death sentence at that time.  The idea of HIV/AIDS as the judgement of God on the gay community didn’t just rest uneasily with me but created a distinct disturbance within.  I couldn’t help but get up and walk out of church when I heard one officer preach this from the platform one Sunday.

Over time, I got to know gay and lesbian people as people long before I found out about their sexuality.  Some of them were my colleagues, working alongside me doing their best to build a better world and care for those who had been marginalised by society.  I can’t imagine how I could ever have constructed a worldview that saw them in any way as inferior to myself – or worse still, condemned in some way to eternal punishment for who they were and the people they loved.  They were, and are, people of deep compassion, great commitment and have given sacrificially of their lives in service to others.  Could God really ignore this in order to focus on what went on in their bedrooms?

I also got to know people who came to The Salvation Army for help who had been bruised and battered, physically and emotionally, because of their sexuality.  All too often the perpetrators of this abuse had been people in their churches, which added a dimension of spiritual abuse to their trauma.  I came across people who had been taught to hate themselves because of attraction to their own gender, who had harmed themselves, who had contemplated and even attempted suicide because they thought that they were abominations in the sight of God.  I couldn’t, and can’t, believe in any kind of God that would want that to happen.

I tried to get my head inside the opposing arguments – was the Bible really as clear on this subject as people said?  I studied the handful of passages that appear to reference same-sex activity in the scriptures.  I looked at them in Hebrew and in Greek and scoured dozens of commentaries seeking insight.  What I learned didn’t give me clarity about a singular biblical position – it revealed a multitude of positions on a variety of behaviours and relationships, none of which seemed to reflect anything like the same-sex relationships I had witnessed and most of which simply mirrored the kind of prejudices and social attitudes that one might expect from their historical contexts.  I struggled to believe that God could really be the author of such hatred.

I was once asked to share my exegetical insights on this subject at a Christian conference and afterwards I was shocked that none of those present in that session really challenged my conclusions about the scriptures.  The dominant questions were no longer about the Biblical messages but instead sought affirmation in the hope that people would be able to ‘pray away the gay’.  I had naively thought that those who seemed to be saying that the Bible was the biggest barrier to their acceptance of same-sex relationships might be swayed by a deeper investigation of the biblical passages in question.  Instead, it seemed like a nagging discomfort with homosexuality was at the root of people’s prejudice and if the Bible wasn’t the most effective tool to sustain their viewpoints, then the ground could easily be shifted sideways to a less empirical space for discussion.  Since then, the evidence of the overwhelming failure of gay ‘conversion’ ministries seems to be well and truly in – though those most determined will persist I’m sure.

Much has happened to affirm my understanding of the boundless love of God that embraces people of diverse sexualities and genders.  I’ve been blessed to witness and occasionally to be a part of the healing that comes into people’s lives when they are truly accepted for who they are.  I’d like to think that I’ve played my part in beginning to repair some of the damage that the church has done to gay and lesbian people by affirming God’s unconditional love for them and demonstrating their value to the world, the church and myself.  The relatively minor costs that I have borne along the way have only helped me to share a fraction of insight into the wounds that my gay brothers and sisters have had inflicted upon them by others for years.

I don’t expect to change the world.  When it comes down to it, I don’t even think I can change one other person.  Frankly, it’s hard enough to change those parts of myself that could do with a bit of improvement.  But I can’t stand by and be silent while the church that I’m a part of continues to discriminate and cause pain to people because of their sexuality.  This is my journey and here I stand.

Monday, December 2, 2013

Public occasions and gender matters

It might surprise a few people but I really don't mean to be controversial. I'm writing this off the back of a Facebook status that gathered much more attention than I expected. Giving a fair response to those who commented on this status was going to take much more than I could reasonably squeeze onto Facebook, so I've chosen this space to capture my thoughts instead. In order to preserve the context, here's the status that I originally put up:

"Of all the weirdness that is Commissioning, tonight's highlight is sending the women of each married couple across the stage to pick up their kids before receiving their appointments. How very 1950's!"

Before I get into why I feel the need to give an extended response to some of the comments, I have a few initial comments to set the scene:

1. I don't want to take anything away from the signficance of Commissioning for those who were involved. They were my students, are now my fellow officers and deserve to be congratulated, not simply for making it through Training College, but for their commitment to ministry within The Salvation Army. Thanks to one person's comment, I now understand that the decision about who went to receive their children was made by each couple, so the predominance of women taking on this role was perhaps simply coincidental.

2. I acknowledge that men and women are different in some ways. Whilst the details of what, how and why are highly debated, that's got nothing to do with my original point. I'm also pretty sure that the parenting roles in each of the families that were represented are more evenly shared at home than how they appeared on stage. I'm only making a point about the latter and why it matters. So, why does this matter at all?

Firstly, let me explain why I described what happens at Commissioning as 'weirdness'. It's perhaps important to say that I don't even mean this as a derogatory term. I enjoy almost all of what happens at Commissioning and have been a regular attender since I first became part of The Salvation Army. I was even commissioned once myself. However, I'm keenly aware that it's an event for insiders. Much of the language, concepts and symbols are tailored to Salvationists - and perhaps even more significantly, an older generation of Salvationists. Put yourselves in the shoes of an 'outsider' for a moment and imagine their confusion when someone shouts 'Fire a volley!' or people start clapping all over the place during singing (which may include songs that you're just meant to know because the words may not be on the screen). I could go on but hopefully you get the point. It is about pageantry and sometimes even in-jokes, and it makes those of us who are insiders feel good about being in a very special club. There's absolutely a place for such events and Commissioning is probably one of them - but that doesn't mean that it's not weird at times.

I think that symbols matter. That's why the flag is important, as is the shield, the crest, our uniforms (yes, I was there sweating it out in full navy). However, symbols also include what we do and who does it. This gathers even more importance at an event like Commissioning, which I suspect is the best attended Salvation Army event annually across the Territory. This is the place and time when we gather together to affirm our identity as a movement and specifically acknowledge the new breed of officers who are starting their journey as the both the representatives of a glorious tradition and the vanguard of what we will be tomorrow. Everything about Commissioning says something to someone about who we are and who we want to be. This includes who's on the platform, what they wear, how they behave (I'm sure many officers remember learning how to sit correctly on the platform for Commissioning) and what they say. It's expected for the Staff Band to be there - even though only a minority of Corps have brass bands anymore. Same goes for the Staff Songsters. There's a very good chance we'll sing Boundless Salvation and finish the night Storming the Forts of Darkness. It's all very intentionally arranged and nothing happens by accident.

Throughout the comments on my Facebook status, it became evident that some people had noticed the same thing that I did and others either didn't notice or didn't care. I guess that's only to be expected but the reason that I care is that I think what we notice and what we don't is very important (and as I say this, I have to confess that there's a lot that I don't pick up on!). The things we take for granted are usually the things we should think most about. They are often the signs of power in our society - power that goes unnoticed, and therefore unquestioned, is the most pervasive of all. It's this kind of power that is behind both explicit and subtle forms of oppression. One of the most challenging aspects to this is that it's much harder to see the dimensions of these power dynamics if you are one of its benefactors. I'm a perfect example - as a white, straight, middle-class, tertiary educated, Australian-born male in this country, I'm on the 'winning side'. Those who are the victims of power struggles can see what's happening far more clearly than I can. I need to train myself to become attuned to all of the subtle but pervasive ways in which the power that I benefit from is effected around me. I am still learning to do this when it comes to gender differences, despite some training in feminist perspectives and some great examples around me. Because of this, I'm better than I was at picking up the multitude of ways in which women are treated differently in our wider society and in The Salvation Army.

As a husband, brother, son and father of two daughters, I've got a vested interest in some of the women who have been and will be impacted by different pay scales, glass ceilings in the workplace, loss of sick days due to childcare and reduced superannuation, in addition to generally carrying the greater burden of household tasks. Despite the way we celebrate an early commitment to equality in ministry for women in The Salvation Army, it's pretty clear that there are different rules and opportunities for women and men in our own organisation as well. This is why something apparently small matters. Because in both our society and The Salvation Army, women experience disadvantages and a reduction in opportunities just because of their gender. There's a long and powerful history of patriarchy that won't be broken down overnight but small symbols such as a father being the first to pick up their young child in a public event - or even both parents going together - can be an important step in the right direction. This is true for those who didn't notice what happened last night and for those who did. The dynamics of power are such that even unintentional acts can reinforce the domination systems that we exist within and that, unchallenged, continue to shape our lives.

Well, that's a long rave for a Monday morning. I want to finish by saying that none of this is to cast blame on those involved. The madness of the Commissioning weekend is such that I'm sure a range of decisions get made without the opportunity for deep reflection. Perhaps this itself illustrates the significance of our default positions, the paths of least resistance. Let me be clear, I'm not saying that what happened shouldn't have occurred. I support the right of each family to make the kind of decision they did. I just think that it is worth thinking about and sometimes what seems to be little things have a greater significance than initially realised.