Heroic Soldier, Heroic Peacemaker
Ormond Edward Burton (1893-1974) was perhaps the most outstanding Methodist leader of the 20th century. No others have displayed courage under fire in quite the same Biblically prophetic way. Few have been more vilified by a Methodist Conference, and indeed wider society, and fewer still received honours and accolades from the same.
He grew up in Remuera, was successful at school, and enjoyed Sunday School and Bible Class at St Luke’s Presbyterian Church. He didnot seem to be much fussed by the emotional appeals of religion. Loyalty to Christ was much more important to the young man.
He went to the Teachers’ Training College as well as university. Eventually he had sole-charge schools in rural areas. Burton took the teaching vocation seriously, he was imbued with a passion for learning and wanted to pass it on.
He loved the Bible, and read widely in history and other fields. But by 1915 all that changed. War came. Burton served with the New Zealand Field Ambulance, but in 1917 became an active combatant in Flanders. Three times he was wounded in action, and his bravery was recognised with the awards of the Military Medal and the Medaille d’Honneur.
Burton was asked to write a short history of the New Zealand Division while still a serving soldier. He also wrote the official history of the Auckland Infantry Regiment after the war.
But the end of war did not mean peace for Burton. He saw that the Treaty of Versailles was a sham. As a Christian he believed that the only antidote to war was justice for all, and the desire to follow Jesus in every situation of violence by turning the other cheek. But these views were highly unpopular in New Zealand in the 1920s. Nevertheless, he had the courage to voice his pacifism. Because sworn oaths of loyalty to the Crown were required of teachers, he campaigned and won the right to have a conscience clause in the oath of allegiance.
By the 1930s Burton had felt a call to ministry in the Methodist Church. He was stationed at Webb Street Methodist Church, Wellington. It was a very poor area, but Ormond and his wife Nell built up the struggling cause against the odds. He had a tremendous ministry along with his Circuit Steward A C Barrington, who was an equally ardent pacifist. They established the Christian Pacifist Society in New Zealand (CPSNZ), affiliated to an international body.
One cannot help but wonder whether Burton’s dislike of religious structures enhanced his pastoral and preaching work in Circuit life. He wrote of his wartime experience with chaplains thus: “From disunion, timidity and lack of vision the official representatives of religion failed even more deplorably than under civilian conditions to touch the hearts of men in the mass.” Burton’s proven physical, mental and spiritual courage allowed him to capture this high ground. Few others could match it; he spoke with experience.
But the outbreak of WW2 meant that open-air meetings and campaigns against recruitment and the war effort were regarded as seditious. Burton was arrested on a number of occasions and received progressively harsher sentences. On the first occasion Peter Fraser, the deputy prime minister - later to be prime minister - visited Ormond Burton in prison. A decorated war hero preaching pacifism and stirring up anti-war sentiment was the last thing the government wanted. Fraser’s request to give it up met with staunch resistance.
When Burton was arrested and charged for the fourth time Justice Blair sentenced him to 2½ years imprisonment. The jury which had found him guilty had also asked for clemency for the WW1 hero. Blair instead chose to make an example of him.
The Methodist Conference, meanwhile, had adopted a resolution that strove to walk a middle road. It required that pulpits not be used as vehicles for recruitment to war nor enrolment in pacifism. This was intolerable to Burton’s conscience: it undermined the Gospel call to be peacemakers. He argued the case that the Church had no moral right to impose such a restriction on pulpit preaching and refused to accept the discipline. Consequently the then President Rev Walker dismissed him after a vitriolic debate and the taking of a vote: 70 to 45 in favour of dismissal, but more than 100 abstentions. Thus Burton served his time in prison as a dismissed clergyman, and had no contact with the Methodist Church for 12 more years. (E W Hames, Coming of Age, pgs 88-9, gives an account of other factors in the Conference President’s decision to dismiss Burton. Hames rather belittles Burton's Presbyterian background. E Crane, I Can Do No Other: A Biography of Ormond Burton, Auckland, 1986 is the most definitive study to date.)
Ormond Burton found work as a teacher in 1946 and rose to become the Principal of Wellington Technical College by 1953. The Methodism he loved was substituted by attendance at the local Anglican parish, a most Wesleyan action in the circumstances. In 1954 he sought and was granted re-instatement to Full Connexion in the Methodist Church and stationed at Otaki. Burton was theologically literate and steadfastly orthodox. And, in some ways, chose the narrow gate in a theological sense.
He regarded liberal theology as heresy. He remained absolutely committed to his position that the Church and the Church alone had the divine mandate to carry out the Christian plan for deep, broad and universal peace. No other kind of peace could work. Hence he was at odds with secular campaigns for peace such as the campaign for nuclear disarmament (CND) or United Nations’ initiatives. As the CPS became more secular, both local and internationally, he felt it had no Christian mandate, would therefore be ineffective, and so resigned.
But it was not until well after his death in 1974 that the Conference acknowledged its mishandling of the affair. The record was set straight. Ormond Burton had been a towering prophet in New Zealand church history. There have been none like him in Methodism. Despite the treatment the 1942 Conference meted out, he could write this in the preface to his last book The Ways of God To Men, “This I feel is my last will and testament to the Methodist Church in which I have exercised a ministry and indeed the whole Christian Church in which I have moved so freely and gladly. Practically all my life I have lived in and by and for and with the Church. She is my mother and in her I am caught up into the very Body of Christ. I may write some other things before I die but this is what I want to say in and to the Church.”
Burton wrote a number of books on war and soldiering, peace and pacifism, and Christian faith but it is the Ways of God To Men that is his final word on the sweep of the history of humanity. He believed that God is pursuing us at every turn for compassion’s sake, even unto the Last Judgement. It is written in free verse, a distillation in itself, a reduction to essentials, but not to absurdity. The clear tones of a prophet, as of old, are never that, they are ever new and fresh. Let him have the last say.
The Ways of God to Men
Following are the final two sections of the poem Ways of God To Men. “The Age of Humanism” and “The Things to Come” are indicative of the depth, profundity and richness born of the experience of the futility of war and the power of the Gospel to confront it despite personal cost. Copies of The Ways of God to Men, Ormond Burton, Forward Books, 1966, can be obtained through the WHS.
With the Reformation came the Renaissance.
Medieval man emerged into this new day
With the immense powers inherited
From the ascetic disciplines of monk and knight;
And with enormous and pathetic trust in himself
Fashioned a new world of his own devising...
So it was that even in the dead century
The hearts of the Wesleys were strangely warmed.
And the fire of revival kindled again
The evangelical passion for the souls of men.
The missionary fires blazed once more
And the philanthropic spirit kindled again,
And men dreamed again of a Christian Society...
So the Holy Catholic Church, the Body of Christ
In her triumph crosses the last barrier,
Bloodstained yet triumphant, alive for evermore,
And with her begins the heavenly history.