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January 22, 2001 Issue Full Text
An army retrenches

Sally Ann marches into the 21st century with a new mandate to demilitarize itself

by Colby Cosh

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THE Salvation Army (SA) is like God in that it incorporates three complementary aspects in one being: it is at once an army, a church and a charity. Salvationists have never believed that any of these functions interfered with one another; a church militant, doing good works in the world, was the vision of the Army's founder William Booth, and it is the vision of today's Salvation Army. But the symbols that make Sally Ann unique--the uniforms, the bands, the bonnets--are quietly disappearing or changing in its territories around the world. And now, with the issue of an extraordinary letter by the General of the Salvation Army, the leadership is taking a close and unprecedented look at its very nature.

The changes the Army has undergone in the last 10 years have been compared to the effect of the Second Vatican Council on the Catholic Church. Canadian Salvationist spokesman Stuart Cornie suggests that is an exaggeration. "The Catholic Church underwent a deep examination of itself," he says. "We aren't revisiting any of our activities or regulations in anything other than a pragmatic light." Yet others argue that it is precisely the peripheral, "pragmatic" trappings that helped distinguish the Salvation Army from other churches. Theologically, the Salvation Army is a conventional mainline evangelical church, but which other evangelical church makes members sign "Articles of War" upon joining?

The astounding success of the Salvation Army as a charitable organization is almost too overwhelming to summarize. Here in Canada, the Salvationists pioneered a number of social welfare efforts we now take for granted--halfway houses for convicts, thrift stores, senior citizens' homes. Salvationists played a noteworthy role in all Canada's major wars and disasters in the 20th century. And all this applies to the United States as well, where the SA remains the largest charitable organization in the country. Despite all this, with its demand for a lifelong commitment from officers, the organization is having unsurprising recruitment troubles in many of its territories. Moreover, the ranks have remained largely Caucasian. And there are signs that the church's frontline work is becoming saddled with an unfamiliar and inhibiting amount of red tape.

Reforms to this structure are among the changes being proposed--gingerly--by the leader of the world's Salvationists, General John Gowans. Last year Gen. Gowans convened an International Commission on Officership which offered 28 recommendations for changes to the church. In a letter issued to all Army officers on August 24, Gen. Gowans accepted most of the recommendations. The group is to "move away from authoritarian models of leadership"; develop "culturally sensitive models" to fit non-Anglo ethnic groups; and introduce a "greater mix of generations" into a scheme of promotion traditionally based on seniority. It will become slightly easier for officers of the Army to be married to non-officers, a hitherto unthinkable concession.

Much of this merely ratifies stylistic and cultural changes already underway in the SA. That may surprise Canadians somewhat, for the Army here has preserved a good deal of its Old World rigour and charm. SA officers here, unlike those in the U.S., are still required to wear uniforms while on duty, for example.

How did this strange beast come to exist in the first place? In 1878, William Booth, who had a mission in London's rowdy East End, was probably the most notable Protestant evangelist in the United Kingdom. He transformed his church into an Army, says historian Ed McKinley of Asbury College in Kentucky, for three reasons. The first was theological: Booth believed that the war against Satan was a literal one requiring martial discipline. The second was that militarism suited Booth's personality, which the Salvationist Prof. McKinley describes frankly as "autocratic and unattractive." The third was promotional. The military model gave sooty hordes of Londoners a sense of pride (and a decent set of clothes). "The 'old-fashioned' bands we now associate with the Salvation Army were the popular musical medium of that day," Prof. McKinley says.

The general impulse toward change concerns the traditionalist Prof. McKinley a little. He reports that some older officers are angry about the prospect of "generation-mixing," and he does not want to see the church lose its distinctiveness. Stuart Cornie notes, however, that the SA has always adapted its practices to new territories--and when existing territories change, a similar adaptation must occur. "We were able to succeed in India because we took the opposite tack we did in Canada; the last thing Salvationists wanted to do there was to resemble the British army." The Salvationists must, he argues, do something similar to reach out to new generations and ethnicities.

So yes, the SA may gradually become less of a "Victorian bastion" in its appearance and structure, Mr. Cornie admits. "But we will retain our Victorian moral outlook," he promises. "That, I assure you, is not up for change."

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