WHERE HAVE THE CHARISMATICS GONE?
by Bishop David Chislett SSC
Any narrative of Australian ecclesiastical history must come to terms with the charismatic renewal movement that began to gather momentum in the late 1960’s, a few years later than in the USA. In the 1970’s it impacted the mainstream churches in this country with such a sense of refreshing and restoration that many Christians felt they had experienced an outpouring of the Holy Spirit of the kind that was known by the early Church in the Acts of the Apostles.
Of course, this movement had its antecedents. They included the visits of well-known healing evangelists of various traditions, and the establishment of pentecostal churches in the first two thirds of the 20th century. Of note in Sydney, the city in which I grew up, there were the large healing services conducted by Canon Jim Glennon in St Andrew's Cathedral, and the remarkable ministry of Father John Hope, Rector of Christ Church St Laurence from 1926 to 1964, who combined a deep understanding of the supernatural working of the Holy Spirit with his leadership of the Anglo-Catholic way in New South Wales and beyond.
During the social upheavals of the 1960’s many baby boomers left the churches. A good proportion of those who remained were touched by the charismatic renewal which drew people from right across the Christian spectrum. Before then, real ecumenical relationships had been few and far between, with the exception of the co-operation of evangelical denominations and the Anglican Diocese of Sydney in the 1959 and 1968 Billy Graham crusades. So it became newsworthy when Roman Catholics, Anglicans, Orthodox, Presbyterians, Baptists and classical pentecostals began sharing in prayer meetings, study groups, retreats, conferences and evangelistic rallies.
Ecumenical prayer meetings at St Michael’s College at the University of Sydney, as well as an informal lunchtime group at that same university, saw evangelicals and pentecostals learning about the life of discipleship and prayer from Roman Catholic Professor Alex Reichel and the Cistercian monk, Father Gerald Hawkins, while Roman Catholics and Anglo-Catholics, gained much from the insights of evangelical and pentecostal leaders. Participants were connected with spin-off activities such as retreats, renewal weekends and outreach missions. I was part of this cluster of young men and women from a wide variety of Christian traditions for whom this period of the renewal was experienced as a time of divine visitation, real Christian community, and deep ministry formation. Similar manifestations of the renewal were seen in the other capital cities.
Classical pentecostal groups, such as the Assemblies of God, the Foursquare Gospel Church and the Christian Revival Crusade, themselves entered a new phase of growth, and new independent pentecostal churches sprang up in the cities and countryside. At the same time, large suburban prayer meetings and then covenant communities developed in the Roman Catholic Church. Structured renewal fellowships emerged in most of the denominations, including the Anglican Church. And who could forget the great ecumenical Charismatic Conferences organized by The Temple Trust and the Catholic Charismatic Renewal, which drew tens of thousands together from all over Australia and beyond.
Looking back at that period, we can say that at its best, the charismatic renewal of the 1960’s and 1970’s emphasised:
* Jesus Christ as Lord
* Scripture as the Word of God
* The supernatural working of the Holy Spirit, especially in the healing ministry
* The Christian life as primarily communal or corporate
* The sacraments as real and personal encounters with the risen Christ
* The ministry of every Christian
* A holistic view of our life and witness in the world
* The imperative to evangelize
In 2002, Pope John Paul II celebrated 30 years of charismatic renewal in the Italian Church. He said:
"The Renewal in the Spirit can be considered as a special gift of the Holy Spirit to the Church in our time."
Summing up the experience many have had of charismatic renewal, he continued:
"Born in the Church and for the Church, in your movement one experiences in the light of the Gospel the living encounter with Jesus, the faithfulness of God in personal and community prayer, confident listening to the Word, the vital discovery of the sacraments, as well as courage in trials and hope in tribulations."
But the Pope also encouraged charismatics to be aware of the pitfalls to be avoided, notably
"the risk of remaining, unwittingly, in a merely emotional experience of the divine"
" . . . an exaggerated quest for the 'extraordinary,' and a private withdrawal that avoids apostolic commitment."
Many who were involved in the charismatic renewal movement understand only too well the relevance of these remarks.
I say this because – sadly – what began as a movement focusing on Jesus Christ as Lord often seemed to evolve into the people of Jesus focusing on themselves and their spiritual experiences. For me, this is uncannily reflected in the music of the renewal. By the mid 20th century much popular hymnody, protestant and catholic alike, had become individualistic, with words like "I", "me", "my" and "mine" dominating. But in the late 1960’s and 1970’s the Scripture songs and worship choruses of the renewal on the whole took the attention off "I", "me", "my" and "mine", placing it instead on God and his glory in the face of Jesus Christ, together with the Church – corporately – as his body.
It would seem to be no understatement to say that as time went by those charismatic circles that undervalued the wider church’s experience of 2000 years of lived worship and discipleship – which is how I see the “catholic tradition” – tended to experience a movement away from real praise and worship. I don’t say this to be unkind or over-critical, but it is a matter of observation that since the mid 1980’s, particularly among pentecostal and evangelical churches, this has gone hand in hand with a drift from the actual words of Scripture set to music, and a corresponding use of songs of a more subjective kind that seem to concentrate not so much on the Lord and his glory, but on the feelings of the worshipper.
I’ve thought a lot about this over the years, and I now wonder if in English speaking countries it wasn’t at least in part that the King James Bible and the Revised Standard Version – the Scripture translations overwhelmingly used in the early days – with their innate rhythm of expression and memorable cadences – provided many passages that were incredibly easy to set to music in a way that doesn’t quite work with the more prosaic translations and paraphrases that have come into use since.
Whatever the reason, the drift away from singing “actual Scripture” as praise and worship (when you think about it, one of the most “catholic” of all practices that there is!) paralleled the demise of the most ecumenical phase of the renewal. Furthermore, the various traditions managed to hold together for as long as participants were content to confine themselves to traditional classical pentecostal language when describing the charismatic experiences they had been granted. But many – though not all – Catholics, Orthodox and reformed evangelicals became dissatisfied with a narrow use of "baptism in the Spirit" terminology and "second blessing" theology from the holiness tradition. They also questioned the level at which it is legitimate to stereotype spiritual experience – that is, whether in all details an "is" in the Acts of the Apostles is necessarily an "ought" for the whole Christian community of all time.
So, while wanting to affirm what had happened in their lives as a real work of the Holy Spirit, many felt the need to understand and interpret the charismatic experience in the context both of what they felt to be a sounder biblical exegesis and the cumulative insights of the catholic tradition. The inability of the movement to happily comprehend this modest theological breadth meant that the classical pentecostals and the new independent congregations developed along lines of their own, often becoming more fundamentalist the less they were encumbered by regular fellowship with those who right from the early days sought to anchor the renewal in a two thousand year old flow of spiritual direction and discernment. The maxim I heard many times in the 1970’s, that “the Church needs the renewal, but the renewal also needs the Church”, went unheeded, on the whole, to the impoverishment of both. Though, I must also acknowledge that in more recent years there has been a parallel development of serious pentecostal scholarship at the tertiary level which is already enriching the world of theological studies.
I still believe that the charismatic renewal had an effect for good on Australian churches and Christians quite disproportionate to its numerical strength. Roman Catholic leaders often credit the renewal with facilitating the incorporation of the most important insights of Vatican II into church life. Most Anglican parishes and traditions – including those that were openly hostile to or dismissive of the renewal in the 1960’s and 1970’s – have been influenced by its early music, its experience of spontaneous prayer, and its emphasis on the ministry of all the baptized. Then there is the fact that in Christian circles today the ministry of healing in one form or another is so normal as not to excite comment. The same can be said of lay ministry. I also think that the decline in the proportion of Australians who worship regularly would have been exponentially greater had the charismatic renewal not taken place.
What of the negatives?
Good people were clearly damaged emotionally and psychologically by the teaching and extravagant claims of healing evangelists who had failed to develop a corresponding and compassionate theology of suffering. Others experienced high levels of manipulation at the hands of "prosperity gospel" preachers. Many, in spite of the efforts of the best leaders and the expanding crop of respected scholars within the pentecostal churches I have already mentioned, gravitated to a Biblical literalism that still seems closed to the insights of genuine scholarship. At a less serious level, (but nonetheless heartfelt for a musician!), there has also been the idea in pentecostal/charismatic culture that the Holy Spirit’s inspiration is – in practice – confined to particular genres of poetry and music, thereby excluding from worship some of the finest texts and musical works ever composed.
It surprised me a few years ago to discover that, in Australia at least, it is difficult to find charismatic renewal leaders from the '60's and '70's, apart from a handful of senior Roman Catholic figures and those who are now classical pentecostal and non-denominational pastors.
Where have the others gone?
My anecdotal research indicates that there are some who longer practise any form of Christian faith. That surprised and depressed me. Not a few of these were casualties of the "shepherding" controversy of the late 1970’s, as well as more recent battles over the nature of leadership. Others simply caved in under the psychological, spiritual and emotional pressure always to be living "in victory", consistently on top of things, and never permitted to acknowledge real struggles in one's faith or ministry.
Then there have been the sex scandals – a lot of them, including real sexual abuse. The renewal hasn't fared any better in that respect than has the wider Church. But how sad (and again, how depressing), given the genuine initial desire within the renewal for holiness and complete surrender to the Lord.
There is also the astonishing phenomenon of clergy – mostly from mainstream Anglican and protestant churches – who had been involved in the renewal becoming theological liberals, inhabiting a strange world of conflicting presuppositions held together by a totally subjective view of reality, every impulse of the human heart – and mind – being attributed to the Holy Spirit.
Finally, of course, some of the early leaders and participants gravitated towards the catholic tradition in its Roman, Anglican or Orthodox manifestation, although in Australia there has not been the relatively large movement that has taken place in the USA of charismatic, pentecostal and evangelical leaders – and in some cases entire congregations – making that journey together.
I am genuinely grateful to the Lord for having been part of the charismatic renewal back in its "glory days.” A large part of who I am now is still directly attributable to the renewal. Various manifestations of the Holy Spirit first experienced in that context have remained part of my life and ministry down through the years.
In this respect, I am enormously encouraged by the example of Father Raniero Cantalamessa, the Papal Household Preacher since 1980, whose remit was renewed by Pope Benedict in 2005, and who continues to be a preacher and participant in the Roman Catholic charismatic renewal, signifying acceptance of the movement at the very heart of the Church.
I'm also grateful for those significant Orthodox writers such as Bishop Kallistos Ware – and more recently former Anglican Fr Michael Harper – who, in spite of the cultural differences, discern in the charismatic renewal the kind of awareness and experience of the Holy Spirit that is so emphasised in Eastern theology and prayer.
For surely the wholeness of the Christian Faith includes a lively sense of the Holy Spirit's work of renewing all things, convicting us of sin, helping us to hear God speaking to us in Scripture, revealing the things of Jesus to us as we worship with the whole company of heaven, praying within us in our struggles and in our good times, deepening our communion as members of the body of Christ, pouring upon us his gifts to build up the Christian community, and empowering us to reach out to the world around us.
As Anglican catholics we know our need of the Holy Spirit's wisdom, love and power at this time.
The original version of this article was published in NEW DIRECTIONS, (London) April 2002