[Source: Viking Penguin Books Published: Tuesday, 1 August, 1989]
Excerpt from Native Land, published 1989 by ‘Viking Penguin Books Ltd.’ This section based on a Channel 4 broadcast
The Jesus Army is the ‘rescue army’ of the Jesus Fellowship Church, a Baptist church that experienced a strong revival in the 1960s. The world religions are a rich soup out of which different groups can fish any parts that appeal to them. The Jesus Army homes in on notions of community and sharing. It deliberately seeks out the socially deprived, what it terms ‘the forgotten people’. One of its advertisements runs:
Ex-con, rentboy, prostitute. homeless, in debt, run-away, on drugs – it doesn’t matter how bad your scene. We want to help you!
The Army offers food and accommodation within its communities in the hope of saving the afflicted.
We went out evangelizing on the streets of Birmingham with the Army. A specially converted bus, with facilities for producing infinite quantities of tea, served as the battlewagon. Liz Donovan, a member of the movement, told us about it.
Liz: It’s our hand of outreach to the needy, to those who are trapped in various forms of social evils and it is the heart of the Church that feels concerned at the state of the nation… We see a real need to bring God back into the nation. Every member of the Jesus Army has had an experience, conversion experience, experience of God and as a result of that, we are very grateful people.
The bus was full of young people, teenagers, those in their twenties and early thirties. Community singing of a religious nature and to the accompaniment of guitars was a constant element. It was explained to me that this was to express the joy of the community.
Nigel Barley: Why is the community so important?
Liz: Jesus spoke about justice and equality. Living in a Christian community is one of the easier ways… because we are a Church which is a community, in fact, pools all its possessions.
NB: Absolutely everything?
Liz: Everything. Therefore you are able to live equally. We are able to live a simple life-style. We are able to let every area of our life be devoted to brethren and to God.
Although residence in a community is not essential, some two-thirds of the members do live in this way. Some work outside the community in normal paid jobs and contribute their entire earnings to a central kitty. Others work inside the community, which also owns businesses, such as a health-food shop. In such a system identity through possessions becomes an impossibility. Great stress is placed on love.
Liz: There are many hundreds of people who we help just in a human way, just in terms of from one human being to another. They may never join the Church. They may never come and stay with us.
But this is very much not erotic love. Indeed, the Army is quite keen on allotting separate spheres to male and female. Sex is one of the ways the Devil can get at you. Celibacy is held to be a “good thing’.
Liz: I’m celibate. I found the cost of celibacy, in other words the cost of devoting myself to God without being married, something to be considered very seriously. I’m thrilled to be celibate now. I find it extremely fulfilling and it gives me the freedom to devote myself more fully to the Church.
Celibacy, of course, is not unknown elsewhere in the Christian world. It is an interesting use of denial of sexuality as a denial of self, the avoiding of the fleshly material in the interests of the spirit. In a world where everything was shared, its only alternative would be free love, an option known in other religious communes.
The singers set up in the heart of Birmingham’s Bullring and sang lustily with apparent enjoyment, attracting a small crowd. not all of whom fled on being approached by other members of the Army. Members are recognizable by the wearing of a uniform. In the case of the men this is a sort of camouflage jacket with the sleeve badge. ‘We fight for you.’
NB: What sort of reaction do you normally get?
Liz: Oh, you get everything. You get people who say as much as ‘Leave me alone’ as you get people who are interested and those who are not, but I think you probably get more who are not today… There is in people sometimes a switch-off on religion as well.
NB: Yes. It’s also a very unEnglish thing to literally wear Jesus on your sleeve, isn’t it?
Liz: Yes, yes, it is. I think we’re very reserved in England and it’s almost a little bit taboo to talk about God and things that are very personal. I mean, you can have people say they don’t wish to discuss it because it’s private.
Most of the people seemed very polite but unenthusiastic. Two of the young men of the Army told me they had found a man drunk and asleep on a bench and prayed for him. Because he did not wake up, they left a note saying they had prayed for him. They prayed for me too. The Army has a strong belief in the external and direct efficacy of prayer in a fashion that would be distrusted by the Church of England. The Reverend Sue Summers, for example, remarked that she would not expect God to interfere in the course of an illness by curing, but rather by giving strength to the afflicted in his suffering. Again, the effect of ‘ritual’ is seen to be on the psyche, not the outside world. The Jesus Army, on the other hand. do not distance themselves from real implications with long tongs of rationality and expect a very personal know-ledge of God through a religious experience. Liz told us about hers.
Liz: My family had brought me up to fairly good standards. At that point I completely turned against my upbringing. I thought. ‘I want everything this world has to offer.’ That’s where I went for the jet set and started climbing. Now in the midst of that I met this girl who talked to me about Jesus. I felt convicted… So I thought about this for a while and one night, shortly after hearing this message. I was by myself. I was trying to go to sleep and I experienced God drawing nearer. I can only express it in that way. I experienced a warmth around, drawing near to me almost causing me to choose. To choose him or to choose the life I had. It was like a choice. It was like the power of love saying, ‘Choose me. That’s the way to life, the fullness of life, or carry on in your way of sin.’ And at that point the reality of it became very clear to me and I chose it, a little bit reluctantly, but I chose it. I said, ‘OK. God. I choose you.’
NB: So what did you do?
Liz: At that point?
Liz: I immediately fell asleep.
Liz’s account bears the marks of an account smoothed by repetition. One imagines that recounting one’s conversion experience is a regular part of Jesus Army life.
Despite the Jesus Army’s stress on the reality of God and prayer, its attitude to the sacraments is curiously ‘symbolic’.
Liz: At least once a month we break the bread and share wine, on a Sunday morning when the whole Church gathers together. At least a thousand members gather together. We also do it on a Tuesday evening. Our Tuesday evening is called our agape [love] meal and that’s an evening which is quite a special evening for us. We gather together as a sort of representation of our commitment to God and our commitment to one another, so it’s a meal to which you wouldn’t invite visitors, nor would you miss. Jesus says break bread and share wine in remembrance of him, so it’s a good thing to be remembering what he has encouraged. It’s an expression of our life together. It’s something that’s ongoing and so, therefore, say, you’ve fallen out with somebody, or you need to forgive someone, it’s there you do it before you take bread and wine.
NB: Within the established Church, of course, it’s only a priest who can break the bread and bless the wine…
Liz: That’s not common. I think, to all Christianity. Anybody can break bread and share the wine. Although normally you’d have leaders who would, at the head of the table, break the bread and share it.
Visions of life after death, too. are inevitably informed by our experience in this life. For the Jesus Army. life in Heaven will be communal.