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Raising the C of E’s Spirit level

by
17 May 2013

The Charismatic movement has had a powerful and growing influence on the Church of England over the past 50 years. Ted Harrison traces its effect

BENEDICT PARSONS

"THE evening involves relaxing and resting in the Lord, and allowing praise and worship music to wash over us. During the soaking times, we enjoy resting in the Lord's presence, and waiting on him to receive prophetic words, scripture verses from the Lord, and visions."

These are words from the website of the parish church in Kent where, 55 years ago, I used to sing evensong in the choir as a treble, using the Book of Common Prayer, with no deviations.

Today, St Luke's, Hawkinge, looks very different from the place that I recall, and not just because of rebuilding. The traditional ecclesiastical hardware of pews, hymn boards, and prayer books has been replaced by a bar, café tables, and an overhead screen. St Luke's - now rebranded as The Lighthouse - is a Fresh Expressions church. It is experimental, and Charismatic.

The story of St Luke's is a vivid illustration of how, over one lifetime, the Church of England has experienced massive change. When future historians review the period, they may well conclude that the most significant, and revolutionary change was neither the ordination of women to the priesthood, nor the widely adopted liturgical revisions, but the infiltration into the mainstream Church of the Charismatic, or renewal, movement in its many guises.

What has happened within the Church was not initiated by the hierarchy; it did not require synodical legislation; it bypassed the structures of establishment. It was the Holy Spirit taking everyone unawares - or so believe the many people caught by the wind of change that has swept through, and invigorated, what they saw as a dying institution.

The Anglican family worldwide has been caught up in an international movement that began in the 19th century, on the edges of Christendom, and is now a dominant force within Protestantism, and a growing movement within Roman Catholicism.

THE spread of the current Charismatic movement "was one of the great surprises of 20th-century Christianity", Professor Diarmaid MacCulloch wrote in A History of Christianity.

Its origins lie in several strands of debate, both in Europe and North America. "A holiness movement sprang out of the teaching of the early Methodists, proclaiming that the Holy Spirit could bring an intense experience of holiness or sanctification into the everyday life of any believing Christian," Professor MacCulloch wrote.

"There existed a widespread instinct that Protestant emphasis on sermons and the intellectual understanding of the word of God did not give enough room for human emotion."

Yet the movement, and in particular speaking in tongues, "has very little precedent in Christian practice between the first and 19th centuries", Professor MacCulloch says.

There have been independent Pentecostal churches in Britain for more than a century. It was in the 1960s, however, that the Charismatic movement arrived in the Church of England, influencing, initially, the Evangelical wing. A generation of young churchmen, many from public schools, with a background in university-based Muscular Christianity, were in the vanguard.

The Revd David Watson took his enthusiasm for renewal to York, and grew a tiny congregation into one that had to move to a larger church building at St Michael le Belfrey. In the early 1970s, I recall attending an evening service there that attracted so many people that they had to decamp to the Minster. It was my introduction to this new style of lively and uninhibited worship.

WATSON had been Assistant Curate at St Mark's, Gillingham, Kent, where the Revd John Collins was Vicar. Mr Collins dates his own first experience to one cold February night in 1963. He had been persuaded to hold a night of prayer in his parish for worldwide renewal, starting at 10 p.m.

"At about 2.40 a.m., something happened. The Holy Spirit fell! I found myself fully awake . . . full of energy and very happy. And what was happening to me was clearly being experienced by everybody else. Some were singing. . .

"Was there an emotional atmosphere? Yes, plenty of it. . . How can you praise without emotion?"

Some discovered renewal in unexpected circumstances. One night, in 1965, the Revd Tom Smail, then a Church of Scotland minister, was washing his face and getting ready for bed. "Some strange syllables and unknown words came unbidden into my head. . . Next day, driving home, it happened again. . . There and then, in the car, I started to sing in tongues, and, as I sang, a bit of me deep down, that had been bottled up, began to be set free."

Mr Smail later became an Anglican priest, and was one of the leading advocates of renewal. He served as the General Secretary of the Fountain Trust, an organisation founded in 1964, by the Revd Michael Harper, to promote Charismatic renewal both within Anglicanism and ecumenically.

Harper had been an assistant curate at All Souls', Langham Place, where the Revd John Stott was rector. The first reaction of this highly respected Evangelical teacher was to advise extreme caution.

The Rt Revd Dr Tom Wright, Professor of New Testament and Early Christianity at St Andrews University, and a former Bishop of Durham, says that Stott's particular objection was to the theology of a necessary "second blessing", which was "always to be accompanied by speaking in tongues", and "was to be interpreted as the baptism in the Spirit".

The background to his animosity was "the long memory of the 'second blessing' teaching in the late 19th and early 20th century", Dr Wright says. This had created divisive debate, and "had sometimes gone completely overboard on private revelations which had led to serious abuse. I don't think many of today's mainstream Charismatic teachers would hold those views, which I think were the things that John Stott was principally objecting to."

ENGLISH renewal was, like many cultural phenomena of the 1960s, shaped on the other side of the Atlantic. The Episcopal Church in the United States was ahead of the Church of England. The Revd Dennis Bennett emerged as the most high-profile Episcopalian Charismatic, in circumstances that caused controversy.

"Unknown to most parishioners, Bennett and 70 other members had been 'speaking in tongues' -making utterances that most mainline churches equated with overheated Pentecostalism and Holy Roller tent revivals," John Dart, the former religious-affairs reporter for the Los Angeles Times, wrote.

After the main Passion Sunday service in 1960, "an assistant priest pulled off his vestments, put them on the altar, and stalked out, saying, 'I can no longer work with this man!' Tumult reigned. One man stood on a chair, shouting, 'Throw out the damn tongue speakers!'"

Bennett resigned, but what came to be described as "renewal within the historic churches" had begun - not a merging of hardcore Pentecostal theology with Anglicanism, but an adoption of practice.

Nevertheless, as Anglican renewal grew, theological questions had to be addressed. Was the glossolalia really the same phenomenon as was witnessed on the day of Pentecost? How should the contemporary Church understand St Paul's teaching on "spiritual gifts" in 1 Corinthians 14? Might it all be an emotional fad - the product of group hysterics?

IN 1963, Bennett came to St Mark's, Gillingham, where Mr Collins was Vicar, to speak to an invited meeting. "I was inwardly amused that some of my guests seemed apprehensive, as if a speaker on the Holy Spirit might well have fire coming out of his mouth and ears 'to consume us'," Mr Collins said.

A clergyman from Canterbury came, in cassock and cape, and addressed the Evangelical vicar as 'Fr Collins'. He stayed behind after the meeting, and Mr Bennett prayed with him.

On his way home to Canterbury, this unlikely recruit began speaking in tongues. "Was that the real thing?" he later asked Mr Collins, who assured him that it was.

Renewal spread steadily through the 1970s, but received a transatlantic boost early in the next decade, when John Wimber, of the Californian Vineyard church, came to Britain.

He made a huge impression, particularly at St Andrew's, Chorleywood, and at St Michael le Belfrey. The Rt Revd David Pytches, then Vicar of St Andrew's, and Watson welcomed Wimber's ministry, and received his team with great excitement. The New Wine ministry, with its popular and colourful summer festivals, can trace its roots back to that visit.

Andrew Atherstone, in his biography of the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, writes that the Welby family travelled to the United States, and found help at the Vineyard Christian Fellowship after the death of their baby daughter. Their introduction had been via Holy Trinity, Brompton, which Mr Wimber first visited in 1982.

Mr Wimber was not without his critics, however. He had conservative views on the part played by women within the Church; and his talk of supernatural forces, and spiritual warfare, was viewed as alarmingly over-simplistic.

Some even accused him of creating a cultic mindset within the Vineyard church. "I am not referring to specific doctrines," one anonymous critic wrote, "but in the way rank-and-file members relate to the leadership, and accept their teachings with little, if any, serious critical evaluation."

The writer had, perhaps, identified a problem. Even in Britain, star performers on the Charismatic circuit have emerged, attracting followers by strength of personality as well as message. The early death of Mr Watson from cancer confused many of his followers, who were left wondering why God had not answered their prayers.

Mr Wimber was aware of the dangers of Charismatic excess. He found himself embroiled in arguments over alleged Charismatic heresy, and, in 1986, he disassociated himself from the Toronto Airport Vineyard Church, where a sub-movement within renewal, known as the Toronto Blessing, began.

THE Toronto Blessing was one of the strangest things I have ever witnessed in a British Christian context. Lines of people falling over; people standing for hours, shaking, laughing, screaming, and barking like dogs. At one gathering I attended, the congregation included several police officers, who ended up lying on the floor, writhing.

The Toronto Blessing peaked and faded, and yet, as the Revd Dave Tomlinson, Vicar of St Luke's, Holloway, London (and a former leader in the house church movement), has noted, there remains a tendency for the Charismatic movement to lurch from fad to fad.

The Archbishops' Missioner, Bishop Graham Cray, agrees with this. "At its best, Charismatic spirituality is open to this continual and unpredictable renewal," he says. "At its worst, it is vulnerable to faddishness, to an overemphasis on novel phenomena, and the comparatively trivial."

Nevertheless, he puts in a good word for the Toronto legacy. "I have no doubt that the Toronto Blessing was a time of authentic renewal, and of some trivialisation. My own experience was of a deep encounter with God, which, I believe, prepared me for a future ministry of which I had no imagination at that time."

He dates the spread of the Alpha Course from that time. "The fruit of the Toronto Blessing in the UK may well include the large numbers who have come to faith through Alpha." Could there be another Toronto blessing? "Of course; the Spirit continually renews the Church."

FROM its first tentative steps at the Evangelical end of the Church of England, renewal grew. During the '70s, the movement made significant inroads among Anglo-Catholics. In 1973, the first Anglican Catholic Charismatic Convention was held in Walsingham, and, by 1979, had outgrown the shrine, and was transferred to the larger conference centre at High Leigh.

Canon John Gunstone, of Manchester, estimated, in 1984, that about ten per cent of Anglican communicants had been baptised in the Spirit, and perhaps a slightly higher proportion of the parochial clergy.

A Church Times survey in 2001 suggested little change. It reported that nine per cent of clergy described themselves as either "Charismatic", or "very Charismatic", with a similar figure for the laity. The survey probably underestimated the true figures, as it included clergy ordained before the '60s.

When more than 1000 ordinands were questioned by Dr Andrew Village, of Warwick University, between 2004 and 2007, he found a markedly different picture. Forty-two per cent said that they had spoken in tongues, 39 per cent gave words of prophecy, and 71 per cent believed that they had been directed by God through visions or dreams.

Dr Village also found that, while Charismatic practice was found among Anglo-Catholics, it was more frequently found within the Evangelical tradition. "It is surprisingly widespread," he said, "especially in its more 'general' expression'."

ONE of the driving forces behind renewal in England, in recent years, has been the Alpha Course, the introduction to Christianity honed by Nicky Gumbel and his team at Holy Trinity, Brompton, in London.

To be a Christian, the Revd Nicky Gumbel says, in his video talk at the end of the course, is to have the Spirit of Christ living inside: "It is like being a boiler with the pilot-light burning - but to be filled with the Spirit is when the boiler goes 'whoosh!'"

The Alpha script is careful to put speaking in tongues into context. "In Corinth, they went right over the top. . . Paul says 'Stop it! No one understands what you are saying! -In private? Tongues? Go for it! In public? Be very careful!" The Alpha script admits that "to our logical minds it is weird! But it's also amazing, and it's perfectly biblical."

While the Alpha Course leads, week by week, towards the question "How can I be filled with the Holy Spirit?", the organisers emphasise that those who do not find themselves speaking in tongues have not "failed".

Then, what happens post-Alpha? Joining a close-knit charismatic congregation, some new Christians find themselves entering a world where they have to "switch off some of their critical questioning faculties", Mr Tomlinson, of St Luke's, Holloway, says. "This suits some people on their journey, but others run out of steam. The social environment they find does not lend itself to people asking further awkward questions."

There needs to be not just a Beta Course, but Gamma and Delta Courses as well, he argues. He also believes that there should be research into the mechanism of speaking in tongues. Is it the Holy Spirit at work, or a technique for allowing someone to temporarily close off the rational mind? And what part does music play in inducing Charismatic behaviour?

IN 1978, Justin Welby was profoundly influenced by a Charismatic speaker who talked of the Spirit-filled life, and praying in the Spirit, and "urged her audience to utilise their spiritual gifts". His appointment to Canterbury is confirmation that renewal is now mainstream within the Church of England.

The wider population, with its residual affection for, and allegiance to, the Church, does not, however, perceive the national Church as a Charismatic movement. As they watched the ceremony broadcast from Canterbury Cathedral in March, how many viewers appreciated that the man at the centre of the welcome was an alumnus of Holy Trinity, Brompton, and had drawn spiritual sustenance from Vineyard?

Renewal has not affected the Church of England in an even or consistent way. It is undoubtedly the driving force behind many growing congregations, and it has reached the highest echelons of the established Church; yet there remain many parts of the Church of England untouched by contemporary Charismatic practice. It is largely a characteristic of urban rather than rural, churchgoing, as research by Professor Leslie Francis, of Warwick University, confirmed in 2010.

In some quarters, serious theological doubts about the movement remain. Can the Church be sure that the movement is truly of the Holy Spirit? Might the national Church have been hijacked by a strange, peripheral Christian practice? Consequently, the question is: has it become increasingly alien from the general population which it has the duty to serve. Has the Church, the unique society that "exists for the benefit of those who are not its members", become a members-only club?

IN THE '80s, when Josephine Bax was asked by the Board for Mission to research spiritual renewal in the Church of England, the General Synod was still unsure in which direction it was going. Her report, The Good Wine, was published in 1986, and makes interesting reading. Perceptively, she wrote of a shift from "private to corporate religion" - from "me meeting God", to "God with us", which she saw at the core of Charismatic renewal. She described it as "the corporate experience of the immanence of God, expressed in living worship and grasped in our relationship to our neighbour."

The new liturgies introduced by the Church contain wide elements of choice and flexibility. Fresh ways of expressing what it means to worship God have been encouraged, including café churches and the like. Interestingly, the Archbishops' Missioner and leader of the Fresh Expressions team, the Rt Revd Graham Cray, spent 14 years at St Michael le Belfrey, York, where he worked with, and then succeeded, the late Mr Watson.

Bishop Cray's two special concerns are the engagement of the gospel with contemporary culture, and the theology of renewal. Does that mean that all Fresh Expressions initiatives are Charismatic?

"Definitely not," he says. "One of the remarkable characteristics of fresh expressions . . . is the wide range of traditions of Christian spirituality which are involved - Evangelical, Anglo-Catholic, mid-Church, contemplative, radical, and, indeed, Charismatic."

The Holy Spirit is at work "at the missionary edge of the Church's life. This is a renewal of the Church for mission, but it transcends 'traditional' Charismatic categories."

CURRENTLY, it is the Charismatic congregations that appear to be growing. For many new Anglicans, worship bands, speaking in tongues, spiritual healing, the deliverance ministry, prophecy, and visions are as familiar as Hymns Ancient and Modern, pews, cassocks, and surplices were to their grandparents' generation.

A corollary of this is that the informal nature of much Charismatic worship has given new members little awareness of spiritually fulfilling liturgy. "Hence the radically impoverished liturgical life of many Charismatic fellowships," Dr Wright observes.

In some benefices and deaneries, while the growth and money from "renewed" churches is welcomed, asking questions about their Charismatic side is off limits. It is the elephant in the room. Where a gulf of incomprehension and suspicion divides neighbours, it is potentially too divisive to have a free and open discussion around some difficult issues.

Perhaps common ground will be found, not through language or practice, but action. Jointly, as the body of Christ, all will share the same imperative to be involved in care and social action.

Certainly, Dr Wright has noted a changing attitude within the Charismatic movement. "The rediscovery that God is interested in bodies - not just 'souls with ears' - has led to the thought that God might be interested in other people's physical circumstances.

"So far from being escapist, it has been a high road back for many Evangelicals into that concern for the poor, and for global justice, which reflects Jesus's own constant teaching."

 

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