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Army recruits

17 January 2014

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USEFUL reflection on the C of E's practice of selecting and training ordinands was delivered in spades by God's Cadets: Joining the Salvation Army (BBC4, Tuesday of last week). To be technical, it was not about joining, but about training to be an officer at the imposing William Booth College, in Denmark Hill, London.

There was much to admire: the willingness to give up all that had been achieved in life to sign up to an organisation that would determine when and where you served; the relinquishing of all worldly pleasures even unto the heady delights of ginger beer, which makes Anglican clerical life seem like sybaritic indulgence.

The film focused on a few individuals, who told their stories with admirable candour. But the negative aspects were also exposed: the majority of the students were not called out of secular careers - they had been from their childhood embedded in the hierarchical structure of the SA, most of them being the offspring of other officers, and many from dynasties stretching back to Booth himself.

The need to "widen the gene pool" of the Army was expressed, twinned with anxiety that it has become a closed-in world, engaging less and less with those outside; and, of course, there is the sheer diminishing of numbers - there are fewer than 30 officers in training.

The most disquieting element was doctrinal: their struggle with the required insistence that only a verbal expression of personal faith in Jesus Christ can save an individual from an eternity of excruciating torture. We heard not just bereaved students, but also staff members, agonising over how a loving God could so condemn the sister, grandmother, parent who nurtured them, but who somehow failed to utter what they themselves called "the magic words". Of course, you can find Anglicans who similarly believe this harsh creed, but most of us don't, and won't.

We saw a celebration of a UK secular religion in Hurricanes and Heatwaves: The highs and lows of British weather (BBC4, Wednesday of last week). Many millions insist on staying tuned in - in a manner that can be considered only as participating in the national religion of engagement with the weather - to the forecasts that are broadcast after the main news bulletins, although research has shown that, five minutes later, they have no idea what was said.

The programme was confused in structure, encompassing a history of meteorological analysis, having as its main focus the story of UK TV weather forecasting, on the 70th anniversary of the first broadcast by a visible as opposed to disembodied forecaster, and yet also making space for a series of vignettes of people for whom accurate weather information is of the utmost importance.

Embedded in this was some good stuff: the difficult path trodden by the forecasters themselves, trained scientists who will succeed only if they are taken up as TV personalities; and the ritual aspect of the way in which the forecast imposes structure on, in reality, uncontrollable chaos, embodied above all in the magnificent incantation, central to British DNA, of the Shipping Forecast.

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