Albert Orsborn on The Salvation Army and the World Council of Churches

orsborn via’ve been doing some reading today on The Salvation Army’s relationship to the World Council of Churches in the mid-20th century.  Salvationists didn’t really do a lot of reflection on the doctrine of the church prior to the late 20th century, but one of the ways in which Salvationists were pushed to reflect upon their ecclesial status was through their involvement in the WCC.   The Salvation Army was a founding member of the Council, and remained a full member until 1981 (the story on their withdrawal from full membership is interesting as well but needs a separate post).

In preparation for the first Assembly at Amsterdam in 1948, General Albert Orsborn engaged in consultation with Army leaders as to whether or not the SA should be involved in the life of the Council.  Though Orsborn declared that he did not want to impose his views on his advisors, he circulated a memorandum which concluded, “I do not wish my period of leadership to be associated with the gravitation of The Salvation Army nearer to church life in faith and order.” The advisory council to the General, however, responded in their report back to the General that “The advisory council has no hesitation in recommending that The Salvation Army continues its membership of the World Council of Churches.”  Orsborn went along with the consensus, though he continued to be resistant to the idea: “It occurs to me to wonder why we should participate in the Assembly…but the majority of our leaders think that we should be represented therefore I have told the chief to arrange it.” (Quotes taken from General Arnold Brown’s biography, The Gate and the Light: Recollections of Another Pilgrim, 232.)

Orsborn, like generations of Salvationists before him, insisted that the Army was not a church, and this conviction seems to have been part of the reason he was concerned about WCC involvement.  For starters, the WCC is a fellowship of churches, and therefore membership implied that the Army was a church, and signalled that other churches (at least some of them) were willing to acknolwedge the Army to be a sister church.

He had occasion to offer some further reflections on the relationship between the movement and the WCC in an article written for The Officer magazine in 1954, just prior to his retirement.  The article as a whole struck a defensive tone, beginning with am apologetic for William Booth’s decision to keep the Army autonomous. “How wise he was!  Nothing has occurred which would justify us in revising the Founder’s decision”(Albert Orsborn, “The Army and the World Council of Churches,” in The Salvation Army and the Churches, ed by. John D. Waldron, 88).

After noting that “…we are almost universally recognized as a religious denomination by governments,” he asserted,

That is as far as we wish to go in being known as a church.  We are, and wish to remain, a Movement for the revival or religion, a permanent mission to the unconverted, one of the world’s great missionary societies; but not an establishment, not a sect, not a church, except that we are a part of the body of Christ called “The Church Militant” and we shall be there, by His grace, with “The Church Triumphant” (Ibid., 88-89).

Orsborn was thus continuing in the line of argument established in the movement’s early years: The Salvation Army is an independent mission, and a part of the universal church, but is not, itself, a church in the sense of a denomination.

orsborn via fsaofAs for Salvationist involvement in the Council, he continued to posture the Army defensively against perceived threats of ecumenical involvement.  “We are there to listen, and perhaps to learn. But we are not prepared to change or to modify our own particular and characteristic principles and methods”(Ibid., 89).  They ought not to seek “closer identification with the churches” he urged, because it was the Army’s autonomy that had been its strength.  He closed his article with list of areas where the Army was not willing to compromise in its involvement with the Council.

We do not favour organic unity with the churches…

We can accept no discussion and no challenge to our position on the sacraments…

We cannot allow the effective ordination (commission) of our officers, including women, to be challenged…

We are not prepared to change our doctrine…

We must preserve absolutely our world-wide missionary freedom…

We cannot allow ourselves to become involved in those so-called “social” questions which in reality are political…

We cannot join anything which may tend to curb our spirit of aggression…

We must agree to nothing which might give our people the idea that it is all the same with us whether they are loyal to the Army or not…

We must not join any aims and purposes which might have the effect of gradually changing the nature and aims of our training colleges (Ibid., 92-94)

The extent to which Orsborn went in outlining the limits of Salvationist participation in the ecumenical movement suggest that he was not alone in his concerns regarding where it might lead The Salvation Army.  I think many of his concerns were unfounded, though some proved to be true over time.   It may be that full membership in the WCC did contribute in some way to the main shift he was concerned about – “the gravitation of The Salvation Army nearer to church life in faith and order.”  Although Orsborn wasn’t willing to budge from the early Salvationist line of thinking about the Army’s non-churchly status, within a couple of decades that would begin to change.

3 thoughts on “Albert Orsborn on The Salvation Army and the World Council of Churches

  1. I love General Orsborns poems and songs, a man truely touched by The Holy Spirit, and a man appointed at the right time for The Army.

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