Personal is not the first word that springs to mind when describing a big event in central London, but the Welcome to the High Council and Farewell to General André Cox and Commissioner Silvia Cox (World President of Women's Ministries) managed to be spectacular and yet highly personal.
The General's message that every person can change the world if they give themselves over to God was backed up by stories from the international leaders' lives that demonstrated how, through service and sacrifice, they have made a personal impact around the world that will last long after they retire in August.
The event, in Central Hall, Westminster, began in a lively fashion, with a fanfare from the Fanfare Trumpeters of the Household Division of the British Army, resplendent in red tunics and bearskin hats. The congregation rose to welcome the General and Commissioner Cox, who were followed into the hall by the 108 members of the 2018 High Council.
The Chief of the Staff, Commissioner Brian Peddle, welcomed the congregation to the 'best ticket in town' – a nod to the royal wedding which had just taken place about 25 miles to the west.
The General turned to face the members of the High Council, who were seated behind the stage, to charge them to consider carefully the 'sacred purpose' of electing the next General. He told them it was 'time to cast aside any personal opinions', adding: 'God does not always work in the way we expect.'
Music played an important role in the meeting, from lively pre-meeting contributions by the International Staff Band (ISB), International Staff Songsters (ISS) and Boscombe Timbrels to pieces that brought about an atmosphere of prayer and contemplation.
This mix of styles was demonstrated when the hushed atmosphere after 'The Prayer' was sung by Gemma Hinchliffe, accompanied by the ISS and trumpeter Simon Cox (nephew of the General and Commissioner Cox), was followed immediately by the lively singing, dancing and drumming of African Praise, a British group made up of Salvationists from Zimbabwe and other African countries. The African influence – appropriate for the farewell to The Salvation Army's first Africa-born General – was felt throughout the afternoon, including some extra-loud cheers when African leaders marched onto the stage!
'If I Were the General …' gave opportunity to three young people to offer their thoughts on what a General should be and do. Daniel Rose and Joel Lalhmingliana – featuring in a video presentation – came up with innovations such as giving out chocolate bars to encourage people to attend worship, allowing trombones to play at double forte and keeping sermons to four minutes long! Addressing the congregation in the hall, Emma Góchez considered some ideas for making Army uniforms more practical and fashionable but also spoke about the importance of using teenagers already in The Salvation Army to help other teens who were struggling. 'We need to let more light into this dark world,' she said.
An African-style arrangement of 'They Shall Come from the East, They Shall Come from the West' began with playing singing by some of the ISB and then grew to take in the whole congregation, with drumming and dancing from African Praise.
This was followed by a prayer and Bible reading given by the writer of the original music to the song, Retired General John Larsson, who prayed that High Council members would receive 'a generous supply of wisdom that comes from above'.
'Consecrated Service' was a new piece by Bandmaster Richard Phillips, written as a musical tribute to the General and Commissioner Cox. Featuring the ISB, ISS, Gemma Hinchliffe, Simon Cox, African Praise and Boscombe Timbrels, the work took the listener on a journey through the term of office of the General, from the early sacred moments following election through to their taking the message of being a consecrated, mobilised people around the world, all using well-known Salvation Army songs.
Tributes to the retiring leaders were paid by two members of the High Council. Commissioner Margaret Siamoya (Territorial Commander, Zambia) thanked the Coxes for showing Spiritual leadership. She complimented the 'dancing General' ('when you visited Africa!') on his championing of the Accountability Movement, his leadership at the International Congress in 2015 and the introduction of The Whole World Mobilising initiative which she said has had a great impact in her territory.
The commissioner paid tribute to 'Mama' Silvia's impact on souls and particularly her advocacy for women's development.
Commissioner Massimo Paone (Territorial Commander, Switzerland, Austria and Hungary) spoke about how the General and Commissioner Cox had embraced their roles with 'commitment, passion and energy'. He made a particular point to highlight the example that the leaders had made in working closely as a team, saying that this type of joint ministry could be seen as The Salvation Army's 'secret treasure'.
It wasn't all good news, however. Thanking the international leaders for choosing to retire in Switzerland, he warned them: 'From 3 August I will be your territorial commander' and said that he expected them to be coach and mentor to him and his wife … 'and I won't take no for an answer!'
A video put together by the Coxes' family showed how the international leaders has kept in touch over the past five years while visiting every Salvation Army territory and command. Their children and grandchildren received a postcard from every country they visited, along with a selection of gifts. Some of the grandchildren made their way onto the stage to return the favour, with Sarah Makanjera – one of the General and Commissioner Cox's three daughters – saying that the next appointment was 'as full-time grandparents'.
In response, Commissioner Cox spoke about the 'immense' privilege that has been hers and that she was 'thankful for the adventures'. She told the congregation that she could never imagined how a shy person who was scared of flying could have done what she has over the past five years, travelling all over the world to speak to crowds that sometimes contained several thousand people. Through everything, she added, she has 'learned to trust God'.
She said that she had been aware of the power of prayer, which she knew had been supporting her, and paid tribute to the support she had also received from her husband, who she described as 'such a wonderful man' – to the delight of the congregation!
Stirring songs from the ISS, 'More than Wonderful' and 'All Rise' (including soloist Kerry Sampson), led into the congregation singing of 'Holy, Holy, Holy' before a video presentation reminded the congregation of the General's 'I Dream' statements that had underpinned his whole term of office, focusing on The Salvation Army he wanted to see – an accountable, mobilised Army that gave young people a voice.
The General took up the last 'dream' statement, then told the congregation – and thousands of people watching the live stream online – that he had been delighted to see some aspects of his dream become reality.
He acknowledged the support he has received as General, from the prayers of Salvationists worldwide to the way that he and Commissioner Cox have been 'released' by their family.
Far from being satisfied, however, he warned: 'The Salvation Army around the world has the potential to be so much more!' And while he acknowledged that there are successes, he pointed out that when things are going well, it can become easy to stop relying on God. 'Woe to us,' he challenged, 'if we ever forget the Lord in our Army.'
He told his listeners not to allow compromise to take hold, and to avoid being taken in by the spirit of the world. Asking: 'Do we rely on ourselves or do we rely on God's strength?', the General pointed out that 'the light of our lives can sometimes be diminished by compromise', and yet 'the world in which we live is desperate to see light and hope'.
Referring to Joy Webb's song 'The Candle of the Lord', which talks about taking the light of God to the darkest places of society, the General called on everyone listening to join him in saying: 'Lord, light me so I can make a difference in the world.'
There followed sacred moments as the ISS sang the song referred to by the General. People moved from the congregation to kneel at the mercy seat in front of the stage. Some members of the High Council moved to speak to the seekers while others quietly stood from their seats, in an attitude of prayer and solidarity.
The General challenged the congregation to 'stand and make this song your prayer', which brought a unanimous response from everyone present. Following the meeting online, many people added comments such as 'Amen', 'Praise God' and 'Lord, light me'. (At time of writing, the stream had been watched live or on catch-up more than 40,000 times.)
The meeting finished in spectacular, joyful style with 'O Boundless Salvation!', the song known as the Founder's Song and, as explained by the Chief of the Staff, 'A bit of an anthem for us!'
As the congregation gave a full-throated rendition of the seven verses, the music groups that had taken part joined in one by one, including the fanfare trumpeters who stood on the balcony, and officers from International Headquarters who waved flags, until the final verse, 'And now, Hallelujah, the rest of my days shall gladly be spent in promoting thy praise', reached a glorious conclusion, followed by a long, spontaneous round of applause.
The congregation may have come to pay tribute The Salvation Army's international leaders and welcome the group that will choose the next General, but they left having praised God and committed themselves – on a very personal level – to being a light for God in the darkest places of the world.
The whole event can be watched again at www.salvationarmy.org/highcouncil2018