UK journo's 'General' Salvation Army confusion

London's Telegraph newspaper generally does a serviceable job when reporting on religion, but a recent commentary news article contrasting the beliefs of The Salvation Army (they prefer the article capitalized) with those of the rest of Protestantism and those of the Roman Catholic Church, titled, "The Pope and the Salvation Army," accomplishes nothing, in my view, as much as muddying the waters. One wonders what Pope Francis (shown above greeting General Linda Bond, who retired in June 2013 as the movement's international leader) or General André Cox, the Army's current chief executive, would make of it all.

First, there's the confusion -- in my mind, at least -- as to whether this is a news article or a commentary. It's labeled as "news" on the Telegraph's website, but perhaps the word "commentary" or "analysis" or "opinion" appears in the printed version. It may well be intended as a commentary, but it's not presented that way.

But either as a news story or a commentary, the piece, written by Christopher Howse, a Catholic journalist who did a stint at Britain's Tablet magazine, fails on several levels in relation to the Army, its beliefs and its reasoning. (Disclosure: I can speak with some authority here, having been a Salvation Army lay church member for 17 years before joining the Seventh-day Adventist Church in 1999. I also married a Salvation Army officer, or pastor, and wrote for several Army publications, including their annual yearbook in 1997.)

There's little to suggest a hard news angle as the story begins, however:

What is the difference between the General of the Salvation Army and the Pope? Less than I presumed a week ago. Both, of course, care about the poor, which has ever been a mark of the Church.

“Not to enable the poor to share in our goods is to steal from them and deprive them of life,” declared St John Chrysostom 1,600 years ago. “The goods we possess are not ours, but theirs.”

Until last week, I’d thought the Salvation Army was Calvinist. That is no crime. But the Army, I find, believes that the “saved” can backslide. “We believe that continuance in a state of salvation depends upon continued obedient faith in Christ.” That is No 8 in the 11 succinct doctrines of the Salvation Army. As William Booth put it in 1879: “We are a salvation people – this is our speciality – getting saved and keeping saved, and then getting somebody else saved, and then getting saved ourselves more and more.” One hostile commentator on the internet characterises such a belief as “demonic works-salvation”.

It's only three paragraphs later that we come to the startling revelation that William Booth, the Founder and first General of The Salvation Army was -- wait for it -- a Wesleyan Methodist. That, if you can believe it, is why Booth and his Army weren't Calvinist, because John Wesley wasn't one. Phew! That was a close one! (And, yes, there's a bit of snark here, which I'll explain in a moment.)

Howse then goes on to chastise the Army for being non-sacramental, performing neither baptism nor celebrating the Eucharist:

Yet, if I may say so without impertinence, the scandal of Salvation Army doctrine is its rejection of the Supper of the Lord as a sacrament – as the effective memorial that Jesus commanded his followers to perform.

It is all very well the Army saying that there is a danger of ceremony being mistaken for the grace it signifies. It also says that each meal at which a grace is said, and thanks given, brings to mind the injunction of Jesus to remember him. Nor does the Army prevent members from taking part in other denominations’ Communion, if they are welcome. But none of this excuses doing away with the central act of worship which at all times has defined the Church.

The Salvation Army sets no store by Baptism either, which is consistent. But it has a strong idea of what Baptism is intended to mend: sin. Salvationists believe that mankind fell into “total depravity” with original sin. Do they mean that eating a piece of toast deserves hell fire? I’m not sure.

As you can see, gentle reader, snark in relation to this matter isn't limited to a GetReligion writer's comments. What "eating a piece of toast" has to do with salvation is unclear. Maybe it's one of those Britishisms best explained by Hugh Grant to Julia Roberts in a gauzy closeup or some such.

Howse -- who said he was impressed by a BBC4 documentary about Salvationist ministers-in-training -- said he jumped into these questions because he "was troubled to see Salvationists suppose their close relations were damned because they had not shown outward expression of faith in Jesus." Fair enough, but doesn't John 14:6, with its bit about "no man cometh unto the Father but by me," as Jesus' words are rendered in the Authorized (King James) Version, make the same point?

The theological history of The Salvation Army can best be understood, I believe, by a grasp of the conditions which created it. Booth was a "New Connexion" itinerant Methodist evangelist, and in the mid-19th Century, found his calling among the poorer classes of London's East End. These people -- often poorly clothed, dirty, odiferous perhaps and certainly not as cultured as middle- and upper-class Victorians fashioned themselves -- were not all that welcome in the Methodist chapels of Booth's day. That's why Booth's Christian Mission to East London began holding services of its own, adopting "The Salvation Army" as a name a few years later in what can only be described as a marketing masterstroke.

Because many of Booth's early (and later) converts, were enslaved by alcohol, communion with wine was out of the question. Moreover, Booth, who'd early in his life advocated moderation, was persuaded to adopt a teetotal position by a young Catherine Mumford, later to become Catherine Booth and known as the "Army Mother." Baptism was described as the outward symbol of an inward change, and, that thief on the cross didn't have time or opportunity for baptism, did he?

Much of this, and more, would have been available to just about any journalist willing to telephone the Army's headquarters in London, which, oddly enough, is where the Telegraph is published. That Howse relied, apparently, solely on the Internet and maybe a printed book, enabled him to skip over not only nuance, but also context, leaving the reader, in my view, under-informed, if not misinformed. Whether intended as "news" or as reported commentary, the lack of speaking with someone from The Salvation Army is a glaring omission that would have been very easy to avoid.

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