One day I was at home working on my message for Sunday’s meeting when the phone rang. Trudy had forgotten to take her lunch in to the office and she was hoping I could take five minutes to run it up to her. So I picked up her lunch, got in the car, and delivered it. I had just about made it back to the car when I bumped into one of the saints of the Corps. ‘Hello Captain!’ he said, to which I responded. His next comment was interesting.
‘Oh, you don’t look very captainy today.’
What he meant was, ‘You’re at the Corps and you’re out of uniform.’ He’s the sort of person who would never question his officers publicly, but you could tell when he disapproved of something. This was one of those times. Whilst I didn’t see any need to justify myself, I explained that I’d just popped in to do a couple of quick things, and that I was going back home to work. Thankfully, he approved.
I’ve always liked wearing my uniform. I remember a Corps Cadet lesson many years ago where uniform wearing was explained. I don’t remember the details of the lesson, but I do remember Elijah Cadman’s exclamation: ‘I would like to wear a suit of clothes that would let everyone know I meant war to the teeth and salvation for the world!’
Now, as an officer, I’m the one teaching the Corps Cadet lessons and training recruits to be soldiers. The question of uniform wearing comes up frequently, and I’m always ready with the story of Cadman. Yet as I look at the reasons we really wear uniform I wonder if I’m being completely honest.
I first wore uniform in public nearly twenty years ago. I was cheating somewhat, because I wasn’t enrolled as a soldier until the next morning! I’d been waiting for this for years. I had my suit of clothes, and I was ready to tell the world that I meant war. I’ve been through a few uniforms since, but I still wear it proudly.
My concern is that in practical terms the Army has lost sight of the uniform’s purpose. Instead of being a means of publicly declaring one’s faith and willingness to stand against evil it has become an internal symbol of conformity and authority.
Before I became an officer I was involved in a paradenominational mission group. One Sunday afternoon this group had a particularly important meeting that I needed to attend. Consequently I wasn’t going to be able to go to the Army that night, so I explained the situation to my officer, who gave me her blessing.
The mission group meeting finished much earlier than expected. On the way home I realised I could make it to the Army on time if I didn’t go home first. I wasn’t sure if that would be appropriate. I was riding my bike, and it had been a hot day; moreover, the chain had fallen off my bike a few times, and I was covered in grease. I really needed a shower. Still, the Army’s proud of the fact that we don’t have a dress code, and I knew full well that there would be people there dirtier and smellier than I. So I pushed on, glad that I was going to be able to get there.
I arrived just as the meeting started. At the end of the meeting the officer shook my hand, glad that I was able to attend after all. After she’d moved on, another person, who was very influential in the Corps, came and quietly asked where my uniform was. I explained my reasons to him, suggesting it was better to be at the Army in regular clothes than at home in my uniform.
He disagreed. He told me that as a soldier I was expected to wear my uniform to meetings, and to do otherwise was an abrogation of my duty as a Salvationist. I naively thought that fighting the war was more important than simply dressing for it.
As a cadet I never quite got why and when I had to wear uniform. For example, there is apparently a rule in our Territory that requires officers (and by extension, cadets) to be properly attired when they visit THQ. It never occurred to me that people in THQ needed to be sure of my intentions in the Salvation War. (One cadet figured it must be because the devil is winning the fight there, and the staff need reinforcements. I’m not that cynical!)
Sometime we cadets would get a memo telling us to wear full Navy uniforms for particular lectures. Generally speaking, full blue uniform would be required if we had a visiting lecturer who was an active officer with a rank of full Colonel or higher. We had at least one retired Commissioner lecture us, and I’m fairly sure we had a retired General come to speak. We didn’t have to worry about full blues then.
Our choice of uniform was dictated by our visitors’ position within the Army. Our personal declarations of war were only incidental to the apparently more important aim of conforming to the structure of the Army. For many, uniform wearing is more to do with hierarchy than holiness.
Of course, forgetting the reason we wear uniform isn’t the sole preserve of Training College staff. In College we would wear uniform to class, and then get changed into regular clothes whenever we dared venture out into the ‘Real World.’ And it’s not only cadets who do it. I know people who leave their uniforms at the Army hall and get changed into them when they arrive on Sunday. Once the meeting’s over, they change back again to go home.
Sadly, many of us wear our uniforms because it’s expected. That’s part and parcel of officership, but it’s no different for our soldiers. We want to play in the band, or hand out songbooks, and so we proudly wear the costume prescribed by the Army. Yet when it’s time to go outside and declare war on the dominion of Satan, we’re not so sure.
So what do I tell my Corps Cadets? I’ve always been told that wearing uniform signifies my desire to fight, yet my experience tells me it is as much to do with fitting in and conforming to the rules. Hopefully those in my tutelage will be clear about why they make the choice to wear it. I can only pray that they will learn to fight in a way befitting such a potent and important symbol.