Easter 2017 coincided with the 30th anniversary of the commencement of the Melbourne Staff Songsters, inaugurated on 11 April 1987.
The power of vocal music has long been recognised by The Salvation Army in Australia, with groups such as “The Speaking, Singing and Praying Brigade”, the “Western Musical Company” and the “Federal Choralists” operating during the early decades of the Twentieth Century. In 1911 Commissioner James Hay gave blessing to the formation of a National Headquarters songster brigade. Archives includes a 1913 photo of the National Staff Songsters [Note: digital copy supplied], and the Headquarters Songsters are mentioned as late as 1944.
In 1978 the Salvation Army musical “Glory” was performed in Melbourne, with a local cast of capable singers and performers, including Wes Young in the role of Captain Campbell, and chorus master Owen Harris. The bringing together of this group of capable singers and performers led to the formation, by the end of 1978, of an elite vocal group, The Master’s Singers. Its function was governed by a memorandum of operations, “Task Force - New Frontiers”, and operated for eight years, initially led by Wes Young (until 1983), then Bruce Dench (until 1986) and finally by Owen Harris.
When Commissioner Eva Burrows returned from the United Kingdom to become the Territorial Commander of the Australia Southern Territory, she had the vision of The Master’s Singers becoming the nucleus of a territorial singing group with a wider range of opportunities to proclaim the message of Jesus Christ in music and song. Hence, Commissioner Burrows commenced the procedures which eventually resulted in the inauguration of the Melbourne Staff Songsters in April 1987, by which time she had become the Salvation Army’s General.
Hence, it was Commissioner Donald Campbell who, on 11 April 1987, conducted the inauguration of the Melbourne Staff Songsters, to be led by songster leader Owen Harris, and executive officer Lieut-Colonel Keith Earl. For the event General Burrows sent a greeting, as did Lieut-Colonel Norman Bearcroft, the then-leader of the International Staff Songsters, which had commenced in London seven years earlier.
At the inauguration, Commissioner Campbell linked the formation of the Melbourne Staff Songsters to the event, 97 years previously, when a group of bandsmen was given the title, Melbourne Staff Band. He exhorted the members of the Melbourne Staff Songsters to “... sing for the salvation of people and to the glory of God!”
Reporting on the inauguration in The Musician, Major Howard Davies said, “The night not only included high quality music, but I could sense a seriousness underlying proceedings, in that this new service group in the territory was being properly and carefully appointed to its task. ... I left with the feeling that the Melbourne Staff Songsters will provide a high standard of both music and salvationism, of which our territory should be proud. May God bless its service in coming days.”
During the past 30 years the Melbourne Staff Songsters, in addition to supporting Territorial events, has made approximately 300 Salvation Army Corps and Centre visits, including nearly every corps in the state of Victoria, plus many corps in South Australia, Western Australia, Tasmania, and the Northern Territory. Also there have been visits to New South Wales, Queensland and the Australian Capital Territory, three visits to the UK, one to Canada and the US, one to NZ, an extended mission trip to Brisbane and rural Queensland, and an extended mission trip to rural South Australia, the Centre and Darwin. One of the UK tours was in 2000, when the MSS joined other Staff Songster groups in supporting the International Staff Songsters’ 20th Anniversary celebrations.
In its 30-year history there have been four songster leaders (Owen Harris, Rod Reeve, Brian Hogg and Merryn Steel), 114 singers (including 96 alumni), seven pianists, six percussionists, five guitarists, seven technicians and three marketing assistants. Territorial Headquarters has appointed 15 people to the role of Executive Officer.
The current leaders of Australia Southern, territorial and divisional, recognise how dedicated the members of the MSS are to fulfilling their charter. Many of the Australian Corps visited have been without their own singing group, and the MSS has shared gospel vocal music rarely heard locally. The interaction of MSS members with congregations has been a gift of great encouragement, and God has communicated with the hearts of thousands of people through their vocal and spoken word. In addition, the MSS has supported Territorial and National Headquarters leadership at “signature” events throughout the annual calendar.
The 30th Anniversary was marked by a special lunch, held on Easter Saturday. It was attended by past and present MSS Songster Leaders, Executive Officers, members and partners, Chief-Secretary-in-Charge Colonel Graeme Rigley and Secretary for Programme Lieut-Colonel Winsome Merrett. Special guests were the leadership and members of the International Staff Songsters.
The lunch was both a reflection on the past and, in a segment conducted by Lieut-Colonel Merrett, a rededication of the current members of the Melbourne Staff Songsters, as each reaffirmed their desire to embrace the challenge of “communicating the love of God and inviting listeners to respond to the gospel.”
Colonel Rigley brought a greeting from Territorial Headquarters, current Executive Officers Majors Mark and Judith Soeters shared a brief history of the MSS and greetings from past Executive Officers, past songster leaders and current leader Merryn Steel shared some of their memories, and ISS Executive Officer Lieut-Colonel Paul Main brought a greeting and made a presentation on behalf of the ISS. Rod Reeve led the ISS, MSS and alumni in singing “More Than Wonderful”. The event concluded with the singing of John Rutter’s benediction, “The Lord Bless You”, as people stood around their tables.
A greeting to current MSS members from National Commander, Commissioner Floyd Tidd, included the following: “This celebration comes at an historic time in the life of The Salvation Army as we move towards a new and revitalised Salvation Army in Australia. May each of you continue to be a demonstration of what God chooses to accomplish through lives surrendered to him and his power working through them. As the Apostle Paul wrote to the church at Ephesus, and as Tracey and I have proved throughout the years, ‘He is able to do immeasurably more than we could ever ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us.’ As you continue sharing the love of Jesus as part of this music ministry, we pray that our gracious Father God will not only bless you and those you love, but will bless others because of who you are.”
Each place setting at the lunch included a souvenir bookmark, on which were written the words of the prayer which MSS members wished to share with their friends, and which is the basis on which the ministry of the MSS continues into the future.
I love you, Lord, And I lift my voice
To worship You, Oh, my soul rejoice!
Take joy my King In what You hear
Let it be a sweet, sweet sound in Your ear.