I’m writing this on 29 June – the 36th anniversary of my ordination as a deacon. Yesterday was the 35th anniversary of my ordination as a priest. It is, I suppose, a good time to reflect, so here goes.
I began my ordained life as an evangelical, charismatic, Anglican Christian. More recently I have taken to describing myself as a “post-evangelical, recovering charismatic” Anglican Christian. Perhaps I should unpack some of those words…
An evangelical Christian is one who tends to hold the Christian faith with a particular set of emphases (BEBBINGTON, 1989):
- Conversionism – the belief that lives need to be changed in response to the gospel. In some circles, you hear the expression “born again”, as if there were two types of Christian – those who are “born again” and those who aren’t. That’s something I struggle with because it implies that there is a hierarchy, that some Christians (the “born again” ones) are better than others. I do still believe that human beings need to change and that the gospel is an invitation to do so, but I fear that identifying oneself as a “born again Christian” is largely a way in which some try to make themselves feel superior to others.
- Activism – particularly the desire to see others come to faith through evangelism. Evangelical Christians are keen to share their faith through personal witness and public proclamation. Again, I’m all in favour of this, but there is always the danger that for every person converted through a conversation with an evangelical Christian, there are others who would run a mile rather than be subjected to that experience. A recent book criticizes evangelicals for ‘always banging on about Jesus’ (BROWN & WOODHEAD, 2016).
Biblicism – a particular devotion to the Bible and holding it in high esteem. Again, I continue to have a high view of, and love for, the Bible, and hope that anyone who has heard me preach will appreciate this. The Church of England’s Articles of Religion, which you will find in your Book of Common Prayer, talk about the ‘sufficiency’ of scripture:
HOLY Scripture containeth all things necessary to salvation: so that whatsoever is not read therein, nor may be proved thereby, is not to be required of any man, that it should be believed as an article of the Faith, or be thought requisite or necessary to salvation.
This was written against the view that Christians ought to believe everything the Church taught, whether or not it was “agreeable to God’s word”. Sadly – it seems to me – those who call themselves Evangelicals (particularly in the US context, but also in this country) often have a view of scripture that is fundamentalist. That is, it requires assent to the doctrine of biblical inerrancy or infallibility – the idea that the Bible (as originally given) is without error or fault, as if it were dictated from on high by God and merely written down by human beings – and I believe that that does not do justice to the Bible as a work that comes to us from particular times and places, and equally reflects views and values that belong to those times and places. It is my view that, in order to do justice to what the Bible says, and the God to which it bears witness, it is necessary to ‘translate’ it – not just the language, but the ideas, values, and principles – into our culture.
Crucicentrism – (‘cross-centredness‘) a focus on the atoning work of Christ on the cross. Again, Christians of different traditions (particularly those of a more catholic persuasion) will emphasise the Cross of Christ as being at the heart of our faith, but evangelical preaching will more often stress the death of Christ on the cross – the Atonement – rather than other aspects of Christian faith. For evangelicals, a key biblical text is 1 Corinthians 2.2, where St Paul says:
For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified.
It interests me that the stained-glass windows at St Matthew’s do not contain a single image of Christ crucified – something that you would find in many other churches. There are Christ’s parables and healing miracles, but no crucifixion. We are presented with Jesus as a teacher and healer, not as the Saviour, dying for our sins. The main east window (made by Trena Cox in 1939) depicts the Ascension, and we can see in that the wounds of the crucifixion, but the Cross itself is not portrayed.
So, are you still with me? I have said a little bit about evangelicalism, which is part of my heritage, and about what I value from that tradition, and what troubles me. It’s time to move on to the ‘charismatic’ part of my label.
Most traditional churchgoers have heard of places that you might call “happy clappy”. Instead of an organist and robed choir, there’s a band with guitars and a group of singers. Perhaps even a drum kit. The clergy may not be wearing clerical robes. They might not even have a dog collar on! The worship is ‘lively’ and informal and there may be prayer for healings and miracles. People may raise their hands in worship or start ‘speaking in tongues’, and there may be prophetic words offered.
It would be wrong to reduce the charismatic movement to that caricature, but it’s a starting point! And it was my starting point: the church where I came to faith as an undergraduate in 1979 – St Aldates in Oxford – was an Anglican Church with an evangelical tradition which was experiencing charismatic renewal under the leadership of Revd Canon Michael Green. What was happening in Oxford was paralleled by the experience of St Michael-le-Belfry in York, led by David Watson (who I think was better known than Michael). These days, Holy Trinity, Brompton (HTB) – home of the Alpha Course – is the charismatic movement’s flagship within the Church of England. The present Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, was a member of the congregation at HTB and was sponsored for ordination by the then vicar, Sandy Millar. (As a side note, Nicky Gumbel who is – humanly speaking – the power behind Alpha, trained with me at Wycliffe Hall in Oxford. If he is currently writing a piece reflecting on his journey from ordination, I bet I won’t even get a mention!)
In 2003, as part of an MA in Ecumenical Theology, I submitted a dissertation (JEWELL, 2003) looking at how charismatic renewal has affected evangelicalism within the Church of England, particularly in the ways in which ‘renewed’ evangelicals related to charismatics within other traditions, including the Roman Catholic Church, which also experienced charismatic renewal. As you can tell, it’s a riveting read and I highly recommend it to you!
I won’t cover all that ground in this article (already a long way past my usual word count) but I will attempt a summary. You may have come across churches that describe themselves as ‘Pentecostal’. For example, King’s Church, Warrington, which meets in the Pyramid Arts Centre, is part of Elim Pentecostal Church. The distinctive feature of Pentecostalism is an emphasis on the Holy Spirit, active today in the life of the Church: just as the disciples were filled with the Spirit on the day of Pentecost (Acts 1.5, 2.4), so believers today must be filled with the Spirit. Just as the New Testament Church used spiritual gifts – like speaking in tongues, prophecy, and healing – so must the Church today. Classical Pentecostalism teaches that baptism in the Holy Spirit is a required subsequent experience for the born-again believer – a second stage of initiation after coming to faith and being baptised in water. Those who have been baptised in the Spirit will evidence this by speaking in tongues or prophesying. As well as being rooted in the experience which we find in the book of Acts, Pentecostalism traces its history back to revival movements in the United States at the start of the twentieth century when speaking in tongues, prophecy and other spiritual gifts, were re-discovered. Pentecostal groups today may describe themselves as ‘Apostolic’ or ‘Full Gospel’. (Some Pentecostal Christians might look at members of traditional denominations like the disciples that Paul came across in Ephesus. Paul asked them “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you became believers?” They replied, “No. We have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit. Acts 19.1-3)
To cut a long story short, the Charismatic Movement is what happens when Pentecostal beliefs and practices end up in mainstream denominations – like the Roman Catholic or Anglican Churches. This began to happen in the UK in the 1960s. One important example is provided by the church of All Souls, Langham Place, in London. All Souls has long been an evangelical powerhouse in the Church of England. It is close to the BBC’s Broadcasting House and has often featured in BBC programming. In the 1960s, when Michael Harper was Curate at All Souls, he experienced ‘baptism in the Spirit’. His more conservative Rector, John Stott, wasn’t convinced, however, and when Harper left All Souls he set up the Fountain Trust, an ecumenical agency aimed at supporting those within traditional denominations who wanted to explore these new avenues. Harper’s own spiritual journey later took another surprising turn when he left the Church of England in 1995 and became a priest of the Greek Orthodox Church. (One of his issues was the ordination of women which the Church of England began to do in 1994. When I was working on my dissertation, I wrote to Michael Harper and he kindly replied. I was able to use a quote from that correspondence in my dissertation.) The Fountain Trust received some criticism from conservative Evangelicals for its ecumenical outlook. They saw it as putting subjective experience ahead of concrete biblical truths. Harper’s defection to the Orthodox tradition will have confirmed them in their views.
Some within traditional denominations who had experienced charismatic phenomena did eventually leave their historic churches and form new groups (including what were called ‘House Churches’), but some stayed. My own ministry as a Curate was influenced by Anglican Renewal Ministries (ARM, founded in 1982) which sought to encourage charismatic practice within the Church of England. I remember attending an ARM conference at which George Carey, then Bishop of Bath and Wells, was a key speaker. In 1991, Carey became Archbishop of Canterbury, which seemed to suggest that the Charismatic wing of the Church had taken hold. (Of course, he was followed by Rowan Williams, a man from a very different tradition. Then Welby succeeded Williams, and the charismatics were back!)
Time doesn’t allow me to do anything other than mention some other key influences on the charismatic renewal that I experienced, but they include John Wimber and the Vineyard movement, the so-called Toronto Blessing, and Spring Harvest.
Charismatic Christians are different from Pentecostals in that they don’t usually hold such a clear belief in ‘baptism in the Spirit’ as a second step of Christian initiation. They are more likely to see being ‘filled with the Spirit’ as something that can be experienced on any number of occasions as part of their walk with God. Charismatics may pray in tongues, but they don’t see speaking in tongues as essential evidence of having been baptised in the Spirit.
I earlier described myself as a “post-evangelical, recovering charismatic”, so let’s look at that now. In 1995, a vicar called Dave Tomlinson published a book called The Post-Evangelical (TOMLINSON, 1995). It describes a journey, that I suspect many of us have been on, of someone who has come to faith in an evangelical context – after all, it is the evangelicals in the Church who are most committed actively to challenge people to accept the Christian faith – but who come to find that they cannot support all the trappings of evangelical culture, particularly a fundamentalist approach to scripture, and conservative views on social and ethical issues. This is not a matter of abandoning a biblical worldview: it is about coming to a realisation that we all interpret scripture through a cultural lens, but some evangelicals don’t seem to know that. You may have discussed some deep issue with an Evangelical Christian, and they say, “Well the Bible says….” They give you chapter and verse and imagine that that ends the conversation. In my view, being able to quote the Bible intelligently is never the end of the conversation. It is always the start. We need to ask how to take values and principles from a very different culture and apply them in our own. In the book, Tomlinson denies that he is an ex-evangelical. That suggests a rejection of all that evangelicalism encompasses. He doesn’t want to do that. He wants to take with him aspects of that heritage, and not throw the baby out with the bathwater. The word ‘evangelical’ simply means ‘to do with the Good News (or gospel)’. Surely, all Christians should be evangelical in this sense!
Using the word ‘post’ also suggests a connection with postmodernism (a subject too vast for even this long piece!). As a handy approximation, you might say that the Modern World begins in 1492 when Christopher Columbus ‘sailed the ocean blue’ and discovered America. He had left behind the old world and discovered the new. Mediaeval Europe, in which the Pope told you what to believe and the King made you behave, was replaced by a world in which discovery trumped tradition, individuals were free from obedience to hierarchy, and we began to believe in science and technology rather than superstition… The Modern World ‘ended’ in 1992, the 500th anniversary of Columbus’s arrival in America. There were celebrations of the event, of course, but there were also protests and anti-celebrations. It turned out there was more than one way of telling the story of Columbus. Rather than the dawn of a new age for (white) Europeans, it was a time of oppressive and violent abuse of indigenous people. Columbus hadn’t discovered America at all: the Native Americans were there already, and it was their land he took. This sense that there is more than one way to tell a story – the idea of competing narratives – is at the heart of postmodernism, which is suspicious of any single, big story (the metanarrative) which tries to explain everything from one point of view (usually that of the powerful).
Evangelicalism is rooted in a ‘modern’ world view. But many of us have grown up in and are deeply steeped in post-modernism and the assumptions of Evangelicalism no longer stand unchallenged.
And that is my position. I am a thoroughly post-modern Millie and whilst I value my evangelical heritage, I also recognise that evangelicalism is a culture like anything else.
So what do I mean when I describe myself as a ‘recovering charismatic’? This is a tongue-in-cheek play on the idea of a ‘recovering alcoholic’. Someone who has given up drinking alcohol may not see themselves as ‘no longer an alcoholic’. They are still an alcoholic, but they no longer drink alcohol. I have described above what the Charismatic Movement looks like and said that I came to faith in a charismatic context. I had an evangelical conversion, and this was followed, some weeks later, by being prayed with to receive the filling of the Spirit. It seems to me that, at its best, charismatic renewal breathes life into churches. Some have compared it with what the 1960s did to Western culture, when:
“The traditional, the institutional, the bureaucratic were rejected for the sake of individual self-expression and idealised community. (BEBBINGTON, p. 232)”
Whether you think that is a good thing or a bad thing is up to you. Today, much of the 1960s counterculture has become mainstream. (As, for example, Paul McCartney headlining Glastonbury, with Glastonbury coverage all over the BBC.) Much of what the Charismatic Renewal sought to do within traditional denominations is now taken for granted. I personally value informal and creative contemporary worship, which you will find in many churches. I don’t get as much out of more traditional formal services, but I understand that, for others, that would be their spiritual home.
What I struggled with – and why I describe myself as ‘recovering’ – was my experience of stuff that was, to be frank, stark raving bonkers. I won’t give examples here for reasons of confidentiality and privacy. But some of the stuff that I witnessed and was subjected to I would today describe as ‘spiritual abuse’. The problem is that if God speaks to you – as God seems to do to some Charismatic and Pentecostal Christians – you can put yourself above contradiction. (I remember hearing Cliff Richard talking about women who would approach him saying, “The Lord has told me that I am going to marry you”. He used to reply, “Well, he hasn’t said anything to me about it!”). It can be tough being the vicar in a church where people are used to telling you what God is saying today. To disagree with them is to disagree with God. How can you argue with God? In some circles, the more bizarre the idea that pops into someone’s head, the more likely it is to have come from God. ‘If it made sense, it would just be my own idea. But because it makes no sense, that proves that it has come from God.’
You may have heard the case of American Charismatic preacher Jesse Duplantis. In 2018, Duplantis (who has a personal net worth of $20 – 30 million) says that the Lord told him he needed a new jet plane for his ministry. He already had three jets, but the Lord told him he needed another, at a cost (to his followers) of $54 million. I’ve not come across anyone in that league, but it illustrates the danger when someone can claim to have heard directly from God and is in a position of power.
When I was writing my dissertation in 2003, I went back to Oxford to interview Michael Green who had been my mentor as a young Christian and was important in my being accepted to train for ordination. I asked him his mature view on the Charismatic Movement in which he had played such a pivotal role. He said that it was 95% dross, and 5% that was pure gold. I understand the point. I’m not sure if my experience backs up the ratio.
So, here I am, a Post-Evangelical recovering Charismatic. I haven’t said much about the ‘Anglican’ or ‘Christian’ parts of my label, and given how long I have already spent on this article, I won’t say much about them now. I am a Christian. That is to say, I confess with my lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in my heart that God raised him from the dead. That means I’m saved, according to Romans 10.9, 10. And, for all my frustration with the Church of England, I do believe that the Anglican position is sound, so I’m not planning to go anywhere else.
And there we have it. A 30+ year journey put into words. Quite a lot of words, admittedly, but they still do no more than scratch the surface. What about the next 30 years? Where will the Church of England be in 30 years’ time? I think it might be appropriate just to say, “Don’t get me started!”
BEBBINGTON, D. (1989). Evangelicalism in Modern Britain: a History from the 1730s to the 1980s. London: Routledge.
BROWN, A., & WOODHEAD, L. (2016). That Was The Church That Was: How the Church of England Lost the English People. London: Bloomsbury.
HARPER, M. (1974). None Can Guess. London: Hodder & Stoughton.
JEWELL, A. D. (2003). How Has Charismatic Renewal Changed the Ecumenical Landscape for Evangelical Anglicans? Liverpool: University of Liverpool.
TOMLINSON, D. (1995). The Post-Evangelical. LONDON: Triangle (SPCK).