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7 November 2002 10:40 AM GMT


Author: International News

THREE thousand Salvationists and friends packed the UK's London Arena for the retirement meeting of The Salvation Army’s world leaders, General John Gowans and Commissioner Gisèle Gowans. The thunderous applause of the standing ovation honouring their joint active service of 95 years brought a typical John Gowans response: ‘The Salvation Army doesn’t owe me anything. On the contrary, I’m indebted to The Salvation Army for a rich, fulfilling and exciting life, in which I was encouraged to discover gifts I never knew I had.’

Those gifts were evident, as ever, throughout the day’s three meetings. It was a busy day, containing much of significance.

While the evening focused on the Gowans’ retirement (taking effect 10 days later), the morning meeting featured the first public welcome to the General-elect (Commissioner John Larsson), and Commissioner Freda Larsson, and Chief of the Staff-designate (Commissioner Israel Gaither) and Commissioner Eva Gaither.

The afternoon meeting, entitled 'Gowans and Larsson in Concert', memorably featured a General and General-elect reminiscing around a grand piano on their 35 years of ground-breaking musical collaboration.

The overall theme of the day was 'The Salvation Army in Celebration', and that was the mood from the very beginning of the first session, 'In His Presence'. Looking around at the initial congregation of 2,500, General Gowans declared that he could see at least 1,500 people he knew personally! It was probably not an exaggeration. Although the Gowans spent 20 years of their officership outside the UK, they have always been dearly loved by British Salvationists, many of whom had clearly made a pilgrimage to London’s Docklands to honour them on their retirement.

Others had travelled further to do the same, including a delegation from Commissioner Gowans’s home territory of France – vocal throughout the day in more ways than one! Also present were many members of the Gowans family, proud to share in the happy occasion.

‘To God be the Glory’, sung at a cracking pace by order of the General, began the day’s worship. A vocal solo by Bandsman Steven Collingham of Nottingham William Booth Memorial Halls reminded the congregation of the possibility of being ‘in his presence blest’ before UK Territorial Commander Commissioner Alex Hughes prayed God’s blessing on the occasion.

Presenting Commissioner Israel Gaither as Chief of the Staff-designate, General Gowans declared that the new Chief and Commissioner Eva Gaither were ‘beautiful people … people with a strong conviction about mission, who have proved themselves in battle’.

In his response, Commissioner Gaither declared that it was wonderful to be at ‘the epicentre of mission’ on a day when history was being written. ‘We have been gifted a sacred privilege in standing alongside the Larssons in serving the global mission,’ he said.

In ‘a word from the Word’ Commissioner Gaither pondered on just who Salvationists are. ‘You and I,’ he said, ‘are called to be serving missioners in the world, who hear from God and speak what we have heard.

‘Eva and I give ourselves to this task,’ he vowed. ‘I’m glad to be a salvation soldier.’

A time of ministry through music and Scripture followed, featuring items by Sutton Songsters and Nottingham William Booth Memorial Halls Band, before the General presented the General-elect and Commissioner Freda Larsson to the warmly-receptive crowd.

It was, he said, an odd feeling. The first speech he had made on John Larsson’s behalf was at his wedding, some 33 years earlier, at which he had been best man. ‘It’s difficult to say nice things about your friends,’ said the General, ‘as people assume you are biased. But I have found the Larssons to be faithful friends, dedicated and capable leaders, and humble people … God’s people. I believe the Lord has led the Army in their selection. John Larsson has been an impeccable Chief of the Staff, a seven-star Chief of the Staff, and I believe he will be a nine-star General!’

Before leading the congregation in the singing of ‘My Jesus, I Love Thee’, Commissioner Freda Larsson responded with the words, ‘Everything we do is because we love the Lord. We are simply responding to his love.’

The General-elect preceded his Bible message with words of tribute. ‘It’s an awesome responsibility to follow John Gowans as General,’ he declared. He said that there hadn’t been a single dull day at International Headquarters during his period of office. But, more importantly, General Gowans had focused continually on mission, and he pledged to do the same.

Basing his thoughts on the apostle Paul’s words of advice to the Christians in Rome not to conform to the pattern of this world, Commissioner Larsson powerfully urged his hearers not to be nominal, conventional Christians, but to ‘dare to be different’.

Following his impassioned plea, while the congregation sang ‘I Want to Say Yes to the Lord of My Life’, a number made their assent publicly visible as they made their way to kneel at the mercy seat, before a closing prayer was offered by Commissioner Eva Gaither.

During the break before the afternoon meeting, many people took advantage of the opportunity to visit the exhibitions of various aspects of the Army’s work in the adjacent ‘marketplace’ and to listen to informal music programmes by Sutton Songsters, Nottingham William Booth Memorial Halls Band and Clacton Singing Company. During the teatime break similar programmes were offered by the International Staff Songsters, International Staff Band and London South-East Youth Chorus.

The afternoon meeting, for which the congregation had swelled by 500 people, saw the General and General-elect take their place on the small stage in the lightweight grey uniforms in which they conduct many of their overseas campaigns – a small touch which heightened the audience’s expectations that this was to be a different sort of occasion.

And so it was! It proved more than a singalong – though there was opportunity for everyone to join in the singing of 18 favourite songs from the 10 musicals co-written by ‘the two Johns’. They were also treated to insights into how the songs were written, including excerpts from some of the versions which failed to make it into production.

A highlight of the afternoon was the reappearance of the original charlady from Take-Over Bid, the now-retired Lieut-Colonel Glenys Heins, who sang ‘Army Cup of Tea’ in her inimitable fashion. As ever, her ad-libs brought the house down.

‘This is what retirement does for you, mate!’ she told the General, gesturing to her charlady’s mop and bucket. ‘It was the only job I could get!’ And turning to the General-to-be, she said, ‘I hope you’re going to do something for us retireds!’

The afternoon included warm tributes from the General and General-elect to their respective wives, who had been involved in the musical productions in so many ways, and to Commissioner Denis Hunter – present in the meeting – who, as the British Territory’s National Youth Secretary, commissioned the then captains to write the first musical. ‘Without him,’ said the General, ‘none of this would have happened.’

Making valuable contributions to the afternoon’s performance, to either side of the stage, were a showband and a six-strong team of dancers, skilfully choreographed by Keith Turton (UK THQ).

The final meeting of the day centred on the retirement of the Gowans – marked by the presentation to them of retirement certificates signed in his capacity as Chief of the Staff by the General-elect.

‘How does The Salvation Army thank you for 95 years' joint service?’ he asked the international leaders. ‘With a certificate – exactly the same certificate as given to every retiring officer. But that’s how you would want it.

‘It doesn’t tell the whole story, of course,’ he went on. ‘It does not tell of your pilgrimage, of your achievements, of your influence on countless people around the world. That is recorded in Heaven, in the Book of Life. This is merely a token.’

Earlier, warm words of appreciation and gratitude to Commissioner Gowans and General Gowans were spoken, respectively, by Major Joy Webb, a fellow member of the Soulwinners Session of cadets, and Captain Charles King, Editor of Salvationist.

The major recalled Denmark Hill memories of the then Cadet Gisèle Bonhotal – ‘a lovely, feisty lady’ – and paid tribute to her lifetime of service, characterised by charm and grace. Not her least achievement, the major said, was ‘to have been married for 45 years to a wonderfully gifted man with a touch of artistic genius. It could not have been easy!’

Captain King, introduced by the General as ‘the person I have chosen to speak in my defence’, painted a word picture of one who had been an adventurous, risk-taking, faithful steward of God’s Army, a brilliant communicator, charismatic leader, innovator, and a truly great poet whose writings crystallise Christian doctrine in a form accessible to all.

‘When you sing Gowans, you sing great truths, expressed in deceptively simple terms,’ he said.

Making musical contributions to the meeting were the International Staff Band and International Staff Songsters, London South-East Youth Chorus, Clacton Singing Company and Véo, a four-voice ensemble from France, whose delightful songs, sung in French, added an appropriate Gallic touch in honour of Commissioner Gowans.

The opening prayer was offered by Dr Jack Anderson, of the USA Western Territory, and Scripture was read by the General’s ADC, Captain Adrian Allman, to whose service, along with other members of his IHQ office staff, the General paid warm tribute.

In a few moments of her own, Commissioner Gowans spoke movingly of her experiences, acknowledging the many people who had influenced her. ‘There are no words to describe how I feel,’ she said, ‘but I promise to continue to pray that The Salvation Army will go on from strength to strength.’

And so to the conclusion of the meeting, which gave a London congregation their last chance to hear the General as the Army’s active world leader. His Bible message took the same theme as the title of his newly-published autobiography, There’s A Boy Here …, based on the feeding of the 5,000.

‘None of us is “enough” of ourselves,’ he said, ‘but, in the hands of Christ, “not enough” becomes “enough”. What God has done in the past with “nobodies” he can do with today’s “nobodies”. When you put your little something into the hands of Christ he multiplies it in sometimes breathtaking fashion. I’ve been doing that all my life and that’s why I’m recommending it! Stop talking about what you haven’t got or cannot do. Put your hand in the hand of God and trust him.’

In the closing moments of the meeting, as the congregation sang the General’s song ‘At the Moment of My Weakness’, many did just that, making their way to the mercy seat even as the devotional song gave way to a final, enthusiastic rendition of ‘I’ll Go in the Strength of the Lord’.

The benedictory prayer of Commissioner Israel Gaither captured the spirit of the day: ‘Help us to live for you. Help us to be Jesus to someone in our world.’

Report by Captain Charles King
Editor, Salvationist
Four archive videos are now available from last weekend's 'The Salvation Army in Celebration' day held in London:

1. Presentation of Retirement Certificates
Presentation of Retirement Certificates to General John Gowans and Commissioner Gisèle Gowans.

2. Gowans and Larsson 'In Concert'
The full programme featuring music, stories and performances from the Musicals.

3. The General - 'The Salvation Army in Celebration'
General John Gowans' sermon from the 'Thanksgiving' meeting.

4. The General Elect - 'The Salvation Army in Celebration'
Commissioner John Larsson's sermon from the 'In His Presence' meeting.

5. The Chief of the Staff Designate - 'The Salvation Army in Celebration'
Commissioner Israel Gaither's talk from the 'In His Presence' meeting.

All five are in the Real Video format.


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Downloadable Images

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file size:1835k
brief description: The Chief of the Staff-designate addresses the congregation (photo by Gabriel Sim)
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brief description: The General-elect presents the General and Commissioner Gowans with their retirement certificates (photo by Gabriel Sim)
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brief description: The General and General-elect share the platform during the Gowans and Larsson celebration (photo by Robin Bryant)
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brief description: The General-elect presents the General and Commissioner Gowans with their retirement certificates (photo by Gabriel Sim)
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file size:1670k
brief description: The General-elect at the piano (photo by Robin Bryant)

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