Generally unnecessary

by
20 June 2014

Ted Harrison on the origin of Salvationist disuse of sacraments in the convictions of William Booth's wife

Catherine Booth: Laying the theological foundations of a radical movement
John Read
Lutterworth Press £17.50
(978-0-7188-9320-0)

THE Salvation Army is widely respected for its hands-on response to the gospel message; and its uniformed members are instantly recognisable. What is less well known is the Army's distinctive theology, shaped largely by Catherine Booth, wife of the first General. It is this that John Read examines in his book on Catherine, which he subtitles Laying the theological foundations of a radical movement.

While the Army is on friendly ecumenical terms with the Anglican Church, its practices and teaching are very distinct, especially is its approach to the sacraments. Catherine went so far as to argue that the sacraments could become a dangerous substitute for true religion, "a hindrance to the true religion of the heart". After William stopped receiving the sacraments in 1883, it was Catherine who strengthened her husband's resolve to turn a provisional decision into a permanent practice. As Read puts it, she believed in a sacramentality of a common human life, although she used the language of holiness rather than sacrament to describe this life. At the centre of her theology is her understanding of the doctrine of holiness. Holiness is a perfection of intention, "an inward transformation into the very likeness of Christ".

On many issues, Catherine's thinking was in advance of her times, especially on questions of social injustice and the part played by women. Her Christ-centred theology informed and shaped radical views. Yet many contemporary Anglican readers will find the theological debates that exercised her unfamiliar, in that they are grounded in 18th- and 19th-century Nonconformist debate and preaching.

The book is thus one for those interested in the history of the period rather than one to inform contemporary discourse, even though the need for a Christ-like response to injustice and inequality remains as relevant as ever.
 

Ted Harrison is a former BBC religious-affairs correspondent

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