Three years after his retirement, General Shaw Clifton (Rtd) has written a deeply personal and engaging autobiography. In this collection of essays, entitled 'Something Better…', General Clifton shares openly about a range of topics from difficult leadership decisions, to his love of music and sport, to struggles with illness, to his philosophy on ministry. Geoff Moulton, editor-in-chief, spoke with General Clifton at his home in London, England.

Why did you call the book 'Something Better…'?

I wanted a title that echoed something of The Salvation Army, so instinctively I turned to a verse of the Founder's song: “I feel something better most surely would be if once thy pure waters would roll over me.” It signals that, with the reader, I'm always striving for something better in the spiritual life. We never quite arrive—not this side of heaven anyway.

This is a very intimate telling of your life. What inspired you to be so open?

I couldn't see the point in writing an autobiographical volume unless I was prepared to be candid. I didn't think an autobiography would serve a useful purpose if I confined it to generalizations. I also think the Army is mature enough now as a movement to take a few more risks with what we publish. In the past, we've been justly accused of being overcautious. So I hope this book will push out the boundaries and encourage others to feel freer with the pen.

I've read all of the biographies and autobiographies of Salvation Army Generals and each has its merits, but the one that made the most impact on me was Frederick Coutts' No Continuing City. He takes a topical approach and weaves in personal information with consummate modesty, yet in some parts he is stridently outspoken and dogmatic about things that really matter to him. I felt it gave me licence to be just as direct in my volume.

You tell of a happy childhood growing up in the Army. How did your parents shape your understanding of faith?

My parents impacted me and my sisters in intelligent and gracious ways when it came to matters of faith. They were rigorously objective about the Army. They loved the Army, but only because they knew that God loved it. They were not blind to its foibles, its idiosyncrasies or even its outright weaknesses. But they raised us to understand that, when true to its origins and primary purposes, the Army is powerfully effective. They also made it very clear that the Army was not God, and we were never to confuse the two. That's how my wife, Helen, and I sought to raise our own children.

Describe how God called you to officership and to holiness.

The book details key moments when the voice of God appealed to my soul. When I was 12 years old, I was coming home from school and heard a voice say, “Shaw, one day you'll be an officer in the Army.” Well, I wasn't thinking about that! I was wondering if it was sausage and mash or chicken pie for tea that night. The next day my parents told me, “Oh, God often speaks like that.” And that was the end of it. They were not going to make a fuss about it or get us all suddenly down on our knees. It was just normality. We were to expect it and treat it as part of God's ways.

As an officer, I had another strange experience on my morning train commute to International Headquarters. I got completely lost in reading the 1940 Handbook of Doctrine, particularly Chapter 10 on sanctification. The language today strikes us as old-fashioned, but the truths it articulated were powerful to my soul. When the train arrived in Liverpool Street station, I didn't even realize that I was at the end of the line. Reading that chapter marked me. It made me even hungrier for the holy life.

Why is a continued emphasis on holiness so crucial?

One thing that has kept me in the Army through the years is our holiness teaching. It is such an entrenched part of our DNA, entrusted to us by God. If we neglect it or diminish its emphasis, I regard that as betrayal. We're no longer who we were raised up to be. Too many Christians settle for being saved, but go on sinning. Our teaching on holiness and sanctification helps us avoid that syndrome. Jesus died for more than that.

Why did you take such a clear approach to Army doctrines and distinctives?

We haven't been raised up by God to be a watered-down version of something else. When we see shrinking congregations—especially in the West—the response is often one of desperation: officers don't wear their uniforms, the mercy seats are removed from the halls, no Salvation Army terminology appears on signage, red juice is distributed in the holiness meeting. This seems to me like panic, and the solution, in my view, is not to be less Army, but to be more Army. But we must do so intelligently and understand the social trends that have led to diminishing numbers. I'm not speaking about clinging to outdated methods, but rather to timeless values and truths. We need a renewed clarity about where we came from and a healthy pride at being the Army under God. We need never apologize for that.

What have you learned from your association with other churches?

Our ecumenical relations are crucially important. We relate to other churches on three levels: doctrine, structure and people. It's at the level of the people that we get our most fruitful experience. So if we cannot quite trust another church's doctrines or understand its structures, we can still have Christ-honouring personal friendships across denominational boundaries. The most rewarding friendships are when the other person doesn't want to convert me, but is proud of where they stand and is deeply respectful of my tradition. I think that's the way forward.

You write about your love for music. Why did you commission a new Salvation Army Song Book?

I consulted the Army world and the answer was unambiguous: “How can we be a self-respecting Christian denomination without a hymnal that articulates our faith?” So I brought together a Song Book Council, and by the time I entered retirement, the content was settled. We took out 30 percent of the 1986 book, which gave us a lot of scope for unused material. We subjected everything to doctrinal scrutiny and “singability.” We are now waiting for the music to be finalized and there is a skilled international team of musicians who are working on that.

You've served on five continents. How did overseas ministry shape you?

Overseas appointments broadened our outlook and made us deeply curious about other cultures. We learned that to benefit most we had to be humble and recognize that we did not have all of the answers. It's possible to surround yourself with the trappings of your native culture, almost in a self-protective manner. But that is a great shame because you miss out on so much. If you can allow yourself to be exposed to another culture it is challenging and uncomfortable, but in the end deeply enriching and formative.

These days, we're hearing a lot about “one Army.” We need to be cautious, because we are only one Army in a broad sense. We must not overlook the cultural richness and variety that God has gifted to us. We must not give the impression that we should all be the same. We share the same loyalties and the same mission, but we do it in a thousand different ways. I'm worried that over emphasis on one Army might diminish our spontaneity, our cultural self-expression.

You and Helen both battled cancer. How did you make it through those dark times?

It was difficult to write about Helen and her death, but I'm glad I did it. It still affects me deeply. I wanted to honour Helen and her memory for the sake of my children and grandchildren. It also allowed me to pay tribute to the Army who gathered around and upheld us. The Army is at its best when it offers loving support to those in trouble, whether outside our ranks or within them. Through those periods of ill health, we knew there was a globe full of people praying for us. That was uplifting. It helps you to bear the despair and the pain. When you can't pray, the Army is doing that for you.

What do you hope your legacy will be?

I don't want to be remembered for any particular policy initiative, because at the end of the day that's simply doing the job you are called to do. Rather, I'd like to be remembered as a faithful steward in each appointment I've held. I'd like to be counted faithful to my calling. But more important, I'd like to be remembered as a faithful spouse, and a loving parent and grandparent. We have always regarded that aspect of our lives as equally if not more significant than the official things we are called to do as officers. It's easy to get that out of balance.

What message do you hope readers will take from the book?

I hope that readers will get some new insights about the Army, where I'm able to say some things that haven't always been said openly before. I would also like the readers to sense afresh that our Generals are very human, completely dependent on God's grace and very much in need of prayer. Each General is an ordinary person given an extraordinary task.

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