Some of the Salvos’ best friends are gay

Jul 09

I decided it’s time I looked behind the headlines and did some reading about the Salvation Army’s position on same-sex marriage and sexuality.

I find this a particularly interesting issue because I’ve had some experience with the Salvos over the years and, more importantly, it’s a fascinating insight into what may be an organisation changing its stance on a long-held position.

The latter point is not particularly fascinating in itself; organisations change their official positions all the time. But the Salvation Army is not, contrary to many references in the media, a charity. What it is, on the other hand, is open to debate – and that’s a debate that goes on within the Army itself. But for most purposes today it’s probably fair to call it a denomination of Protestantism. In short, it’s part of the church, not a charity (albeit a part that does do a lot of charitable work). It was founded on very strong Protestant lines according to which the Bible is the inspired word of God, providing the blueprint for a happy existence. And whenever a denomination sets about reversing what it previously espoused as a fundamental tenet of its faith, that obviously raises very interesting questions about truth, revelation, interpretation, and authority. One Facebook commentator quite succinctly summed up one view of the tension inherent in the Army’s apparent position by noting “a neat combination of medieval brutality and twentieth century cultural relativism.”

And there’s the fascination for me – it seems that the Army is a crucible holding a mix of eclectic ingredients, undergoing reactions initiated in the presence of various catalysts, and that what the end product will be is uncertain. Upon reflection, it seems that the Salvation Army today could be undergoing some of the attempts at self-definition that the early church undertook after an initial spurt of energy and growth.

I refer above to the Army’s “apparent” position, because from what I’ve read, there’s been an element of beat-up to the news reports. Before I go there, it’s probably worth looking at the Army in a little more depth.

Some history…

To many Australians, the Army is indeed a charity, and one which has enjoyed a certain respect. Numerous people have told me stories about how Joe Bloggs won’t donate money, except to the Salvos. Whether it’s because the Salvos were there in times of war, or because they followed fire crews to bushfire HQs to serve tea and coffee, or because they’ve offered assistance in financially difficult times, the Army has cemented a degree of kudos in the eyes of Australians who have benefited from their services. For many though, all that’s known is that they collect money for charitable activities and run thrift stores.

The historical influence of the organisation also has legacies of which many are probably unaware. Here in Tasmania in this colder time of year, many households would be making use of a box of “safety matches” to light their wood fires.

The Redheads brand of ‘safety matches’.

As a child it always struck me as odd that something which we were lectured to not play with, would be labelled “safety”. I wondered whether it was another warning (i.e. “be safe”, not “these are safe”). It wasn’t until years later that I learnt that it’s a relative term. William Booth, the founder of the Salvation Army, was an active campaigner against the use of white phosphorous in the matches of the day, which was leading to a condition in factory employees known as “phossy jaw”, the symptoms of which ranged from toothache, abscesses, brain damage, and death. He took his cause so far as to open a factory to produce safety matches, which used the safer (and more expensive) red phosphorous, and he lobbied retailers to sell only the safer version.

The conditions of the “submerged” classes were always a chief concern for Booth, who worked in a pawnbroker’s store from an early age, and his book In Darkest England (and the Way Out) (which drew a contemporary allusion to ‘Darkest Africa’) was a wide-ranging social plan (featuring such elements as co-operative farms integrated with other aspects of a social system) designed to address the physical and spiritual needs of the “submerged tenth” of the population living in poverty. I read that work a dozen or so years ago and was deeply impressed with the evident effort and vision; it was clearly expressing his greatest concerns and deepest passions for the improvement of the lot of society’s under-priveleged (check out the intricate frontispiece; from memory this folds out to quite a large spread… we have a copy here somewhere but I can’t put my hand on it right now). This film of Booth’s funeral gives some impression as to the regard in which the man was held as a result of his work. But make no mistake, despite the social schemes, he was first and foremost about ‘getting people saved’ – converted to Christianity. It’s just that he held the rather practical view that one is unlikely to get people listening to one’s sermons if they were listening to their own bellies grumbling.

With such an intensely practical approach, the Army has always had to deal with issues of perception, although in the early days there was no question about whether it was known as part of the church or not; if you’d heard a Salvation Army band playing on a street corner, you’d have also heard a soapbox sermon, some “testimonies” (stories told by recent converts of their experience), an appeal for people to be converted there and then, and possibly a street march prior to and/or following on from all that. In the early days the street marches involved the ‘Salvationists’ copping a beating from organised opposition (it’s held that at least some of this opposition was a response by publicans, due to the threat they felt to their livelihoods in regard to the Methodist line of abstinence from alcohol that featured strongly in Army teachings). Many individuals belonging to more subdued formats of organised religion also took issue with the unorthodox methods of the Army.

While his methods were practical and novel, his preaching was of the type that would be classed “fire and brimstone” – an oratory of imagery and rhetoric appealing to the emotions as well as to the intellect, based on what would be considered fairly fundamentalist lines today (with, if this scratchy recording is anything to go by, a style that sounds like it could have inspired Leonard Cohen…). However, Booth was arguably not fundamentalist for his time, and indeed was rather visionary to the point that he may well have been considered a heretic in some quarters; he abandoned “the sacraments” of communion and baptism in Salvation Army services, chiefly because he viewed them as divisive, and therefore “a stumbling block” – since the church members were (and still are) prone to argue about things like the age at which one can be baptised or receive communion, whether the sacraments are actually necessary, and so forth, he just dropped them altogether.

This approach demonstrates the rather peculiar treatment of ‘procedures’ that the Army adopted (especially in regard to elements other parts of the church would regard as essential tenets of the Christian faith), and how it delivered its message. They were not people afraid of bucking the trends of the day. They “specialised” in preaching to individuals whom other congregations avoided, provided structured social support with such programs as ‘fallen women’ outreach, soup kitchens and so forth, but never intended to tip-toe around what they regarded as their central message; Catherine, William Booth’s wife, stated that if you don’t force religion down people’s throats, you’d never get it down.


Fast forward around one hundred and fifty years, and the mix of people attending Salvation Army meetings is still rather eclectic. Depending on the size of the congregation, there are likely to be two meetings on offer on a Sunday, and they could be frequented by people who have walked off the street, ex-cons, addicts who have signed up for Army drug/alcohol rehab programs, children, public servants, residents of Army aged care facilities, business people, tradespeople, housewives, and residents of Army refuge housing. Some of these people would be “in uniform”, some would not. The uniformed participants are “soldiers”, adherents who have signed on to the “Articles of War”, which are a statement of belief and practice, based on the central doctrines, or “Articles of Faith”. Soldiers may be members of the band or the choir (“songsters”). “Officers” are the equivalent of ministers in other congregations – soldiers who have trained at a college and are the spiritual leaders of a particular congregation (or “Corps”, as the pseudo-military lingo has it).

The Army is hugely reliant on public funding, either through donations direct from the public, or from public funds at one remove via government funding. In Australia in the 2011 financial year, funds from their own Red Shield appeal were dwarfed by more than twice the amount from government funding. Indeed, the Army now calls itself a charity where doing so suits its purpose: “The Salvation Army is possibly the most recognised charity in Australia and provides a broad range of services in the charitable sector.” The Army has historically been transparent in its reporting of funding and allocation (to its own advantage), and such information is still available. The Army does, like other congregations, take a collection from its members (including formalised tithing) but the network of social services provided by the organisation does not come close to being funded by the relatively small number of members.

Such a reliance on funding does place the Army in a bit of a bind, and it’s probably a safe assumption that this figures in the Army’s urgent response to the furore around recent gay/marriage statements.

Like a stunned rabbit (or “in the spotlight”).

The two incidents that seemed to have gained most media traction are Darren Hayes’ tweet on the Salvos’ stance on homosexuality, and Major Andrew Craib’s statement that gay people should be put to death. I’d like to look at these stories with a bit more of a balanced view.

Put to death?

Looking at the last incident first, that’s not what Major Craib said. All value judgements aside, there’s a big difference, semantically, between even just the face-value statements of someone saying that someone deserves to die and that someone should be put to death. To those identifying as LGBT, the semantics probably aren’t going to seem too important, but while it’s likely to be cold comfort, I’d at least like to state the obvious here and note that media outlets have given this a really good inflammatory beat-up. For example, the Herald Sun ran with the byline “LGBT People Should Be Put to Death, Says Aussie Salvation Army Major”.

In the context of the actual interview (you can hear a snippet in the video at the top of this NineMSN page), that’s not what Major Craib said, nor is it what I would expect any official statement from the Salvation Army, ever in its entire history, to have said. That media outlets feel comfortable saying that it is, amazes me, and I’d have thought that would nearly open them up to a libel suit.

However, it’s fairly clear that Major Craib was sticking to his guns with regard to his interpretation of the Army’s position, which was clear – he believes that the Army’s official line is that engaging in homosexual behaviour is not what God intended for humans. In looking to find what the Army’s position actually is on the matter, things start to get a bit trickier.

Salvationist Doctrine?

The interviewer who questioned Major Craib was reading from a doctrinal statement. NineMSN’s story again gives things a bit of a twist and implies that the doctrinal statement itself makes some specifically anti-gay comments:

Radio hosts Pete Dillon and Serena Ryan probed Major Craib on the section of the group’s manual, Salvation Story: Salvationist Handbook or[sic] Doctrine, which says:

“Men committed shameless acts with men and received in their own persons the due penalty for their error…

“They know God’s decree, that those who practise such things deserve to die — yet they not only do them but even applaud others who practise them.”

The quote here, beginning with “men committed…” is from the Bible, not from the Salvo’s own handbook of doctrine. Again, as a matter of reporting accuracy and integrity, that’s a pretty ordinary effort from NineMSN. If I were to start claiming that NineMSN is inciting violence against the LGBT community because they stated on their website that “those who practise such things deserve to die”, I imagine I’d be jumped on pretty quickly. NineMSN did state that of course, in quoting another source, just as the Salvos’ doctrine book quoted another source. But that doesn’t mean that the quoted text represents either NineMSN’s or the Army’s position on homosexuality. The Salvos, unlike NineMSN, never even reproduced those words in that handbook of doctrine (unless they’re referencing an edition I haven’t accessed); what the Army did here is reference a large section of scripture that spans that particular passage of scripture in discussing broad doctrinal tenets such as “the Fall”. For example, on page 61, they cite “Romans 1:18-32” along with a section of Genesis, in support of their view of the Fall (i.e. that sin came into the world from Adam & Eve and Satan’s temptation – nothing specific about homosexuality at all). So, literally, what they wrote is this:

Genesis 3:1-7; Romans 1:18-32

And that’s all.

Now, again, that’s not to say that you should hold your breath in expectation of seeing a Salvo float at the next Mardis Gras, but nonetheless I think the clarification had to be made; it wasn’t the Army that wrote all that stuff that NineMSN implied they wrote as their doctrine, it was a Jewish guy named Paul, some two thousand years ago.

Similarly, these two guys, after parroting that Craib believes that gay people “should be put to death”, at the end of their segment seem to be hinting that the Army’s quasi-military elements are indicative of a likely militant persecution of gay people. Take the Major to task over his comments, sure, but why not do it reasonably?

So what of Major Craib’s comments?  Well, for his own sake, as the territorial media relations director for the Army, I’d like to think that he was just having a really, really, really bad day. I’m wondering whether a “major craib” may some day come to mean dropping a clanger; “epic fail” or “major craib”, take your pick. But I suspect that his comments were intended to be an unapologetic demonstration of the fact that the Army is a church, and in making them he’s (somehow) forgotten to account for the lack of nuance someone not versed in their beliefs is likely to apply to the comments. So, I suspect they reflect his understanding, which I suspect is not that gay people should be put to death, but that homosexuality is contrary to God’s will, is therefore classed as sin (along with just about everything else humans do on a daily basis), and will therefore (along with just about everything else humans do on a daily basis) ultimately result in spiritual death if not addressed. Whether his understanding aligns with the Army’s position is once again a little trickier to discern, and my money is backing that this is at least partly due to Mr Hayes’ comments.

Savage Tweeting

Darren Hayes’ tweet was apparently a result of his coming across the Army’s position statement on homosexuality. I tried to find that statement, and the closest I was able to get with some quick trawling of the Australian Salvos site, is a media release, which refers to an older position statement. So it seems that Hayes found an anti-homosexuality statement, tweeted it, and the Salvos have removed that position statement and replaced it with a response to the criticism of that statement. This is pure speculation on my behalf, but many online paths (including, now, the actual link Hayes tweeted) for an Australian Salvation Army position statement on homosexuality do seem to lead to the media release, and the Australian Salvos site states that the position statement is under review. However, with some more targeted digging, it does look like the Army has fallen prey to Maxwell Smart’s “the old just because your website doesn’t link to it anymore doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist anymore trick”: here’s an Australian position statement they prepared earlier (the main bit in question is on page 3).

The media release that’s currently taking the place of the position statement is quite a deft piece of work; under the heading “The Salvation Army Position on Human Sexuality”, it dodges that question altogether and merely states the positives – that the Army doesn’t discriminate in service provision, employment, or church fellowship. Fellowship/worship is also a bit of a dodge – that section makes no comment as to whether gay people can become ‘soldiers’ or ‘officers’. So the media release states how they treat homosexuals, but not what they believe about homosexuality, which is surely what a religious organisation’s position statement on human sexuality should do, and presumably what they’re seeking to do with the review of the position statement proper.

If the media release is Major Craib’s work, he may have redeemed himself in the PR stakes somewhat – he’d have demonstrated that he can dodge and weave with the best of them. Oh, but hang on, there’s that bit…

Some of our best employees and volunteers are people who are openly gay.

Yes, it really does say that. I’d like to think that they’re having a laugh at themselves…

So, a real position statement, please?

The UK’s Army is currently a bit more up-front in saying what it thinks. Its website states that its view is that sexual acts should only occur within the context of a heterosexual marriage which is a covenant between “God and wife and husband”, but also suggests that those who don’t hold Christian beliefs should opt for “a state-recognised marriage characterised by mutual loving commitment and shared responsibility within a relationship.”  This certainly seems to be paving the way for gay marriage (if the Army allows for the removal of God in the “God and wife and husband” equation on the basis of the couple not having Christian beliefs, the wife parameter, presumably, ought to be able to be swapped for another husband – or vice versa – on the same basis), while evidently still holding a Christian heterosexual marriage as the ideal.

Now, this positional statement should indicate what the Australian Army’s position is, because the position statements are set on an international basis; according to International Headquarters, “official statements made on behalf of The Salvation Army by its officers and those who speak for the Movement must be consistent with the stated position.” Interestingly, however, there is no statement on human sexuality on the IHQ website.

“You will be assimilated. Or not.”

What I found even more interesting is the premise that preceded that last IHQ comment on positional statements:

While it is understood that individual Salvationists may hold different views on some subjects, official statements made on behalf of The Salvation Army by its officers and those who speak for the Movement must be consistent with the stated position.

This did my head in for a short time. The Army has had a military structure since it was renamed the Salvation Army in Booth’s time, when he became “The General” of the Army rather than “General Superintendent” of the “Christian Mission” as it was formerly known. The military aspects of the movement (especially prominent in the uniform and lingo) apparently appealed to contemporaries and contributed to the growing popularity of the movement. However, answering as to why the Army was an army, Booth stated that it was because they were fighting a war, and throughout human history, an army had proven the best organisational structure with which to wage war. I recall reading advice from a senior officer to a junior officer who was questioning the wisdom of the orders he’d received from another superior, and the advice was essentially, if I remember rightly, trust in God – and the Army as His instrument – and it will all work out for the best. So the command structure was a reality, initially at least.

So to read that it’s IHQ’s understanding that “individual Salvationists may hold different views on some subjects” was a surprise. What kind of an Army is that? But then, it’s an Army, it’s not the Borg… resistance may not be futile. I read somewhere that John Shelby Spong made the point that contrary to appearances, statements of doctrine are not about unity, they are actually there to divide – they’re there as a measure of who’s part of the “in” crowd and who’s not. That’s a good point, and perhaps that explains something of the Army’s tack. Even historically, the Army only had eleven central “articles of faith”, which, in their original form in their day, would not have been controversial to anyone in the Christian faith, and did not even touch on practicalities of life or worship like whether divorce is permissible in the church’s eyes or whether infant baptism was meaningful. No doubt the Army had a position on such questions, but the questions were not considered important enough to be central articles of faith. Soldiers were set upon in their street marches and went home bloodied and bruised for their tea-totalling influence, but abstinence from alcohol never made it as an article of faith, because it wasn’t – it was a matter of solidarity and practicality that you were more likely to convert alcoholics if you could demonstrate that alcohol no longer had any hold over their ex-drinking buddies.

Those eleven articles of faith were, however, considered important enough that Booth enshrined them in a Deed Poll, with the statement that:

…the religious doctrines professed and believed and taught by the Members of the said Christian Mission are and shall for ever be as follows…

And it was taken further… in an even more striking amalgam of church and state, British Parliament passed the Salvation Army Act 1931 into law, ensuring that those religious doctrines for ever shall be as follows…

…until 1980, when the Act was amended…

No additions or changes in the doctrinal statements of The Salvation Army were actually allowed from the 1878 Deed Poll and other succeeding documents until The Salvation Army Act 1980 when the following preamble of 1878 was omitted: “That the religious doctrines professed and believed and taught … are and shall forever be as follows …” Reversing the “shall forever be” wording in the 1878 Deed Poll, the 1980 Act indicated that schedule 1 on Religious Doctrines of the Army “may from time to time be extended or varied by deed executed by the General, such deed having the prior written approval of more than two-thirds of the Commissioners.” (According to Colonel Earl Robinson)

So, really, the Army can go wherever it wants, doctrinally, provided it has the numbers. And the questions of gay marriage and human sexuality don’t even qualify as articles of faith, so they’re well and truly up for debate. I wonder whether there’s a change in the air. The media release which sought to play down Mr Hayes’ tweet went so far as to say, “A Salvation Army statement on homosexuality that dates back to the 1990s has been the subject of public debate this week”. Back to the 1990s? Really, that far back? Such relativism must be confusing for some of the the people in the Corps who sing “he’s the same today, as yesterday, my great unchanging friend.”

The elephant in the Army

One wonders what Western history and society would look like if it were not for the few sentences on homosexuality penned by the Apostle Paul. As far as specifically anti-gay writings in the New Testament goes, he’s the poster boy. Indeed, in the Army’s 1996 anti-homosexual-practice statement, it’s Paul’s writings in the book of Romans that are cited in support of their statement that “Homosexual practice, however, is, in the light of Scripture, clearly unacceptable.”

The elephant in the room here is that Paul was also the poster boy for (by today’s standards) nearly misogynistic New Testament writings. For example, “I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she must be silent.” The current General of the Salvation Army is a woman. She’s the third female General. And Catherine Booth, wife of William, is frequently called the “Army Mother” and is widely recognised as the more theologically astute co-founder of the Salvation Army. And she preached, a lot. And she argued for her “settled view” that women should not be forbidden to preach (even before she was preaching herself). And women in the Salvation Army always have been allowed to preach and teach.

Interestingly, her arguments were based on scripture; rather than skirting around the ‘difficult’ verses she took them on head on, sought to highlight their context, and countered them with others. She also argued that while, customarily, women had not preached, “people wrongly confound ‘nature with custom.’…it would be wrong to thereby assume that woman is not by nature fitted to preach.”  (from Roger J. Green’s biography Catherine Booth).

So, given this strong free-thinking heritage, which tackled social mores that were perpetuated by the common Biblical interpretations of the day, combined with the Army’s track record of tailoring an effective message and delivery to its contemporary hearers, the Army really does need to do better than merely wheeling out a few lines from Paul’s epistles as the answer to a question that continues to cause turmoil to individuals and organisations the world over. If it seeks to revise its position to a stance of equality, it needs to do so in the same way as it did for feminism – with an engaging argument based on its core beliefs. The same is true if it wishes to maintain an anti-gay argument and be taken seriously; “because Paul said so, here”, was not good enough for Catherine Booth, and it should not be good enough today.


I don’t really have any, except that the updated position statement will be very interesting reading.

Position statements would not be issued lightly, and the Army has already issued a couple that either implicitly or explicitly comment on the status of homosexuality. I find it impossible to believe that the above ‘elephant in the Army’ has not come to mind in the considerations that formulated those statements, so I wonder as to the basis of those earlier positions.

The cynic in me wonders whether it really is just a matter of numbers. Will the Army simply change its stance when it becomes clear that the world has moved on (and when the money starts drying up)?

But I have too much respect for the organisation, its work, and many of its members – some of whom live as a shining example of Christianity and would restore some faith against even the most jaded view of organised religion – to really think that this, alone, could be the motivation. At least, I think I do. Maybe.

I’d like to think that whatever position the Army arrives at this time around, it will arrive at it because the hierarchy honestly believes it is the truth, and that it’s a truth that they can argue for rationally. But that’s probably just because I’m an idealist.

The author would like to point out that he has managed to avoid lowering the tone of this piece despite multiple opportunities to exploit terms such as “sexuality”, “Mission”, and “position statement”, for comedy purposes. Well, nearly.