Paul O’Grady’s new BBC TV series “The Sally Army and Me” is certainly good popular light entertainment and Paul is his usual camp self, often funny and seemingly able to get the best out of those he meets. At the same time as we laugh at his antics – for example, getting the drum beat wrong when playing with the band or cracking jokes while serving tea – we also learn about the social work of the Salvation Army, and gain some understanding as to why Paul admires the organisation.
He recounts how, in the early days of HIV and Aids, the Salvation Army was at the forefront of providing services for those with HIV.
Yet the series glosses over – indeed, omits to even mention – controversial aspects of the Salvation Army, and particularly its attitudes towards LGBTI people, despite being fronted by an out gay man.
Let’s make one thing clear from the outset. The Salvation Army does wonderful work with homeless people, with disabled people and many others. Its staff and volunteers do all this regardless of who the people it works with are. Whether they are gay or straight, cis or trans, drunk or sober, have an addiction problem or not – and regardless of religion or race – if people are in need, the Salvation Army will help provide that need. There have been incidents in which individual Salvationists have allowed their prejudices to take over, but these are rare and have generally been dealt with quickly. Like other faith groups, Salvationists are often at the forefront of providing for those who have fallen through the welfare safety net. If I needed their help, I am sure it would be forthcoming.
It should come as no surprise that the Salvation Army, like many other faith groups, has theological issues with homosexuality and transsexuality. It takes the view that both are condemned by the Bible. In this it is no different from the Catholic Church, most of the Anglican Communion and much of the Church of Scotland. Its uniformed officers are, like ministers, priests and clergy in other denominations, required to obey certain rules: they can only marry someone of the opposite sex and sexual relationships outside marriage are not allowed. Until recently, this was the situation in many Christian groups, and the question of same sex relationships remains controversial even in those denominations that are beginning to change.
What about the position of the Army’s volunteers and paid staff? A good place to start is its stated position. Its policy statement on inclusion contains the following statement: “We employ a large number of people of other faiths, cultures and sexual orientation and we respect and value the rich diversity of our staff and the communities in which we serve.” It adds: “The Salvation Army does not permit discrimination on the basis of sexual identity in the delivery of its social care or in its employment practice.”
All that sounds fine. But does practice differ from theory? An employee of the Army, who does not wish to be named, told KaleidoScot: “While other churches are at least having a conversation, the Salvation Army seems determined not to address LGBTI issues. We’re not supposed to be open about it at work, and I certainly don’t think my workplace is a ‘safe’ place to be myself. Officers aren’t even allowed to be gay or bi by orientation – at least, the official line is they cannot express their sexuality.”
They added: “Its employment policies on inclusion are okay, but it’s how they are applied or not that often becomes a problem. Certainly, there’s a difference between a diverse team and an inclusive one. My own experience is that not enough has been done to create an inclusive environment, and that’s a problem.” There seems to be a mismatch between policies and practice. And the fact that the employee who spoke to me would only do so anonymously indicates some of the issues faced within the Army by LGBTI people. If people cannot be open within the Army, then it is difficult to imagine how it can fulfil its statement “where required by law spousal benefits will be available to domestic partners or those in same sex marriages in accordance with applicable laws.” (From a letter from Paul R Seiler, Commissioner, USA Central Territory, 21st February, 2014, and marked “internal document only”).
If the leadership of the Salvation Army is “determined not to address LGBTI issues”, it is acting very differently than most other denominations. Most other major denominations, including the Church of Scotland, have held and are holding these discussions, sometimes very publicly. Such discussions are the precursor of any change, and it seems the Salvation Army has not yet even reached this stage. Secrecy and attempts to prevent debate help no-one.
The role of the BBC is also of some concern. The BBC has, quite correctly, raised controversial issues in programmes about other denominations. As the public broadcaster, the BBC has a duty of impartiality and of incisive questioning of organisations and individuals, whether public or private, religious or secular, and often carries out this duty conscientiously and thoroughly. We should perhaps ask the BBC why it is giving the Salvation Army free publicity and avoiding questioning the Army on its equality policies and practices. Was this decision taken by the BBC itself or was it imposed on it by the Salvation Army?