Charismatic history in the spotlight

23 September 2016

FR MICHAEL HARPER FOUNDATION

Impact: a "Glory in the Church" meeting at Worcester Cathedral in the 1970s. The Fountain Trust, led by Fr Michael Harper, held such events in cathedrals throughout the country   

Impact: a "Glory in the Church" meeting at Worcester Cathedral in the 1970s. The Fountain Trust, led by Fr Michael Harper, held such events in c...

AS WITNESSES to the early days pass on, the time is ripe to study the history of the Charismatic movement, a historian at Wycliffe Hall argued last week, after a conference addressed by international scholars.

“We learn by reflecting upon our family history,” the Revd Dr Andrew Atherstone, a tutor at Wycliffe Hall, said. “There are lots of lessons that the Church would do well to ponder. . . Christians need good memories to be effective in the present.”

The conference, “Charismatic Renewal: Historic perspectives 1950-2000”, co-sponsored by the Open University, heard from speakers, from around the world, who gave the lie to the suggestion that it was a “middle-class suburban expression of Christianity”, Dr Atherstone said. It was an “influential global expression in many of the poorest communities”. Connie Ho Yan Au spoke on “The Migrant Spirit and Filipina Catholic Charismatic Migrant Workers: A case study of the Loved Flock in Hong Kong”.

Despite being a “major movement of significance for global Christianity”, the Charismatic movement had been subject to little historical study, Dr Atherstone said. As senior figures from the 1950s and ’60s died, it was vital to capture their “oral history”. He gave the example of the Revd Michael Harper, a curate at All Souls’, Langham Place, who founded the Fountain Trust. Lambeth Palace held 43 boxes containing “mountains of correspondence”, he said. This was an example of “new sources coming to light for the first time”.

Definitions formed part of the discussion. Whereas 20 years ago there had been a focus on “miraculous gifts”, such as speaking in tongues, today it was “often best demonstrated by acts of service and transformation”, Dr Atherstone suggested. The influence of the movement could be seen across “traditional divides. . . It has had dramatic expression and exuberance, which is easily noticed, but it has also been gently and quietly percolating right through every corner of the Church of England.” He gave the example of the worship songs written over the past 30 years, and church-planting, which, having once been “frowned upon”, was being embraced as “a really important strategy for growing the Church.”

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”I don’t think you can minister effectively in the Church today without an appreciation and better understanding of the charismatic movement,” he said. “It has been so significant that there are lessons for everybody here.” He gave the example of attempts to “make sense” of new expressions and experiences, such as speaking in tongues, within a biblical and theological framework.

“Sometimes this was divisive and some churches have split on these issues; sometimes it was deeply painful,” he said. “But as we have grown in maturity so there has been corporate wisdom on these questions.”

He hoped that the church wouldn’t have to “go round the same theological loops again but can remember the wisdom achieved in a previous age and try to hold onto it”. Aged 50, the movement had “got through the angsty teenage years to a much more solid theological maturity”.

He hopes that fresh studies will be stimulated and that a network of people interested “from a historical and theological angle” will grow.

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