Like a Mighty Army? The Salvation Army, the Church and the Churches
David W. Taylor
James Clarke & Co. £22.50
IN VICTORIAN Britain, the soldiers of the Salvation Army were the stormtroopers of the faith. They literally went into battle, they were often beaten up on the streets, and initially had little support from many in the existing Churches. Today, the Salvation Army remains at the battlefront, focusing on the needs of society’s rejects, but with the wholehearted support of both fellow Christians and the secular world.
But how does the Salvation Army see itself? In Like a Mighty Army? David Taylor, himself an officer in the Army, explores that identity. Is it a Church? Is it a denomination? If so, where does it fit into the spectrum of Protestantism?
The Army evolved out of the holiness revival of the 19th century, and adopted a form of aggressive evangelism which both reached the unchurched and discomforted the churched. Over time, William Booth’s riffraff of enthusiasts became organised and developed a military-style hierarchy that survives to this day, both in the retention of a ranking system and in widely used terminology. Yet Taylor exposes tensions inherent in this pattern of discipline and seniority, especially when the wider Church emphasises servanthood, and the gospel teaches that the first shall be last and the last first.
There is also a danger that members of a tight-knit professional army can become isolated from the wider world, even within the context of the Christian community. And for the Salvation Army to be a full participant in the ecumenical dialogue and be “on the pilgrim journey towards the visible unity of the Church”, it needs to re-examine its own theology, Taylor suggests.
Salvationists might reflect on what it means for the obedient human response to God “to be militant rather than military. A more limited focus upon the metaphor of the self-sacrificing soldier of Christ would enable Salvationists to move beyond the Church as an army, to embrace the primary metaphors of the Church as . . . the body of Christ and the temple of the Holy Spirit”.
Taylor’s book is a work of self-examination, which for Salvationists is also a work in progress. In the first section of the book, he reflects that there has been “a defensive lack of real engagement by Salvationists. They are too preoccupied with form to the detriment of reflection. . . This is dramatically seen in the way Salvationists discard baptism and the Lord’s Supper as being of no importance, when they should be retained as visible signs and symbols of fellowship.” The second section takes the form of a dialogue between the Army and the theology of Karl Barth, which Taylor proposes as a way forward.
The book is revealing of a debate within the Salvation Army which previously had been an internal family matter. It helps other Christians to understand Salvationists better. This will perhaps open up new forms of dialogue and avenues of welcome and cooperation. There is a huge well of good will towards the Salvation Army, but there is much less understanding.
Ted Harrison is a former BBC religious-affairs correspondent.