|An army retrenches|
Sally Ann marches into
the 21st century with a new mandate to demilitarize
by Colby Cosh
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
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
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."