No match? Britain's Guardian misses church context in Salvation Army's down-under funeral venture

You might wonder what a video about The Salvation Army starting a match factory 129 years ago in London's East End has to do with commercial funeral services in Australia, but there's a connection, trust me. (Click the "match factory" link above to see the Army's take. It's worth your time, I believe.)

In that connection lies a tip for Godbeat journalists today: look beyond the immediate story for any deeper background. Both you and your readers will be rewarded.

My thoughts turned to the "Match Girls' Strike" of 1888 when I read this article from Britain's Guardian about a new company in Australia promising to cut the burdensome costs of cremations and funerals:

The Salvation Army has entered Australia’s funeral industry, a move welcomed by consumer advocates concerned by a “long history” of unscrupulous providers taking advantage of the newly bereaved and a lack of competition.
Salvo Funerals officially launched in Sydney this week, following a successful six-month trial in which it delivered more than 90 funerals. Malcolm Pittendrigh, the chief executive, said it was a social enterprise designed to both meet the needs of the community and return money to the not-for-profit.
He had worked at the Salvation Army as an accountant for nearly 20 years and pitched the idea of a funeral service to senior leadership as a “natural extension” of its work.
“Part of our approach was a lean, start-up methodology, where you build, you test, you learn – just to prove that you have something that’s worthy of putting into the community.”
In a market dominated by “a couple of big players”, he said Salvo Funerals’ point of difference was its lower-cost offerings.

There's little doubt that The Salvation Army, with 152 years of service as an evangelical Christian church and about 2 million adherents worldwide, could use some positive press in Australia. Decades of alleged physical, emotional and sexual abuse have been reported in children's shelters there, and a plan to redress victims is in the works.

There is, of course, no excuse for mistreating young people, and the Army has deservedly paid a heavy public price for these transgressions.

But Salvo Funerals -- "Salvo" being the Aussie colloquialism for the organization -- offers a chance for some public redemption. So, on that level, it's certainly valid news.

What's missing? Well, some discussion of the fact that the Salvation Army is a church -- just mentioning this subject -- for one. The connection between churches and funerals rites is certainly a longstanding one. It would have been nice to explore that rather obvious angle.

But more crucially, the discount funeral venture has direct links to the Army's early years.

William Booth, a "New Connexion" Methodist evangelist, found his calling in the Victorian slums of East London. Working with ill-mannered and poorly clothed followers spurned by more respectable churches, his "Christian Mission to East London" morphed into a "Salvation Army" whose military-style uniforms both democratized worship -- everyone wore the same style -- and marked out members as available for service to others. (Disclosure: I was a Salvation Army church member for 17 years before joining the Seventh-day Adventist movement, and still have a number of connections there.)

Barely 20 years into the venture, General Booth and Commissioner Elijah Cadman, a pioneering officer (minister), confronted a crisis in the East End. Women, young and old, were dipping small wooden sticks into a white phosphorous compound to make matches, an invention that revolutionized aspects of daily life. But "phossy jaw," an affliction that could be fatal without surgery, took a harsh physical toll on the workers. Wages were also disastrously low.

A solution existed: use a more expensive red phosphorous to promote worker safety, as well as paying a better wage for the piecework of match-making. When workers went on strike in 1888, Booth and Cadman stepped in, opening a factory, employing many, and producing matches safely. The matchboxes were branded "Lights In Darkest England," an echo of Booth's groundbreaking book "In Darkest England -- And the Way Out," which dealt with the horrific poverty of the times.

It took 10 years, but the Army's match venture finally caused capitulation by the top firm, and Booth sold the factory.

This history of social justice involvement by The Salvation Army, though perhaps not as prevalent in the United States, continues today in Britain, where Salvationists such as Lt. John Clifton are active in working for positive change. The definition of the Army as "Christianity with its sleeves rolled up" still holds, it seems.

The bottom line: A little research by the Guardian's antipodean reporter, or a little knowledge on the part of their editor in Britain, would have made this a richer and deeper story.

IMAGE: Icon photo of Salvation Army match box from YouTube video screen capture.

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