Commissioner Shaw Clifton last week took over as New Zealand’s highest ranking officer in The Salvation Army, Territorial Commander of New Zealand, Fiji and Tonga.
The Army consistently ranks as New Zealand’s favourite charity and yet few people know exactly what the Salvation Army stands for and why its officers are so proud of the uniform they wear.
The role of Territorial Commander equates with that of a Cardinal or Archbishop in other religions. At the age of 56, Commission Clifton is one of the youngest officers to take on such a senior role, leading New Zealand’s 6000 Salvation Amy followers.
But Commissioner Clifton is well prepared for the challenge. He and his wife Helen, an Army Commissioner in her own right, have transferred to New Zealand from Pakistan where they served for the past four years.
His comfortable office in Wellington’s Cuba Street, Territorial HQ for The Salvation Army in New Zealand, is a far cry from the life he experienced in the Islamic state.
During their years in Pakistan, the Cliftons twice witnessed cruise missile attacks across the border in Afghanistan – the second taking place after September 11.
“We were 25 miles west of the Indian border – there was regular border tension,” he recalls.
Commissioner Clifton, a tall, commanding figure in his well-tailored grey army uniform, says you have to live in Pakistan to understand its position as an emerging nation – “and that’s not a euphemism for third world country,” he says.
“It’s a strange mix of ancient and modern. The capital, Lahore, is the leader in computer software on the sub-continent, and yet going into the villages is like stepping back into the pages of the Old Testament,” Commission Clifton says.
While not yet fully au fait with New Zealand’s culture (or those of Tonga and Fiji) Commissioner Clifton is certain it will be vastly different from Pakistan.
“A typical Pakistani young person will be a virgin until marriage; will never smoke, take drugs or drink alcohol. Marriage will be arranged by the parents. And they will experience the support of the community.
“But on the downside, the people are deprived of freedom of choice. They may be locked into an unhappy marriage.”
Religion is taken very seriously in Pakistan, The Salvation Army’s third largest territory. In a country with 140 million Muslins, there are just three million Christians. But Commissioner Clifton says the important issue for a Pakistani is that a person believes in God.
“If you don’t believe in God, you don’t count in their society. You can be upfront about your religion being different – as long as you have a faith, you have their respect.”
He expects attitudes here in New Zealand will be different.
“God is not in fashion in New Zealand. In the West we have the cult of the individual – one pleases oneself. Freedom of choice has become, in practice, choosing selfishly.”
Commissioner Clifton is also concerned about our “cult of disposability”.
“We not only dispose of the material, but also human relationships and people.”
He points to examples on television programmes such as The Weakest Link, and reality programmes where the unpopular or unable are ousted.
Unlike New Zealand, rest homes are unheard of in Pakistan, he says. “The elderly are revered; their wisdom and experience deferred to and respected.”
Commissioner Clifton says he doesn’t come to New Zealand with any preconceived or simplistic pre-packaged solutions to address the country’s problems.
“I’m looking forward to becoming part of New Zealand with my wife and son John who will be attending Wellington High School” (the Commissioner’s two older children are both involved with the Salvation Army in the UK and the United States)
“I’m pleased with the multi-cultural feel of the country. My wife and I have an instinctive respect for all cultures. And above all cultures is the gospel of Jesus Christ which is our primary loyalty. All human, national cultures sit under the culture of the gospel.”
During his years as Territorial Commander of Pakistan, The Salvation Army increased its membership by 17,000 new soldiers to a total of 53,000. Attendances at Salvation Army services rose by 61 percent.
He hopes to recruit more members to the Army while in New Zealand.
“I will be encouraging The Salvation Army to be faithful to its origins without getting stuck in the past. We must be relevant and modern, yet faithful to our calling.
“We want to have a lively, progressive evangelical church; to reach out to young people, married people, middle-aged families, old people, all ethnic backgrounds and all social classes.”
At the same time as Commissioner Clifton is fulfilling his role as Territorial Commander, his wife Helen will be leading The Salvation Army’s women’s programmes.
“In The Salvation Army, there is no role barred to women. Women have been in the ministry since The Salvation Army was begun in 1867.”
Commissioner Shaw Clifton was officially installed as the new Territorial Commander of The Salvation Army in New Zealand, Fiji and Tonga, by the retired Chief of The Staff, Commissioner Earle Maxwell on Sunday, March 10.
Commissioner Clifton (BD,LLB,PhD) and Commissioner Helen Clifton (BA,PGCE) come to New Zealand from Pakistan where they have been Territorial Commanders since 1997. In Pakistan they experienced rapid and consistent growth in the work and ministry of The Army, amid deep political and inter-faith tensions. In Pakistan, however, the rights of minorities, including those of Christians (about 3 million out of a population of 140 million), are enshrined in the constitution and no interference from government is experienced.
The Cliftons have held previous appointments in the United Kingdom, Zimbabwe, USA, and The Salvation Army’s International Headquarters in London.
In May 1999 the then Colonel Clifton was nominated for the office of General of The Salvation Army, at the High Council held in London.
The Clifton’s have three children. Two are married, Captain Matthew Clifton (UK),and their daughter Jenny Collings (USA) .Their son John (15) has accompanied them to New Zealand.