LETTER FROM AUSTRALIA

Where Have the Charismatics Gone?

Any history of the Church in our time must come to terms with the charismatic renewal that began to touch the non-Pentecostal churches in the late 1960s. Of course, the renewal had its antecedents. In Australia they included the large healing services conducted by Canon Jim Glennon in St Andrew's Cathedral, Sydney, and the ministry of Father John Hope, Rector of Christ Church St Laurence from 1926 to 1964, who combined a deep sense of the supernatural working of the Holy Spirit with his leadership of the Catholic movement in New South Wales and beyond.

During the social upheavals of the 1960s many baby boomers – but not all – left the churches. A good number of those who stayed became part of the renewal movement which drew people together from across the Christian spectrum. For some it was initially quite daunting to find everyone from Roman Catholics to Baptists and classical Pentecostals sharing in prayer meetings, study groups, retreats and conferences.

Random Ecumenism

Ecumenical prayer meetings at the University of Sydney, for example, saw Evangelicals and Pentecostals learning about the life of prayer from Roman Catholic Professor Alex Reichel and the Cistercian monk, Father Gerald Hawkins, while Catholics, both Roman and Anglican, gained much from the insights of Evangelical and Pentecostal leaders.

Groups like the Assemblies of God had begun a new phase of growth, and new independent Pentecostal churches sprang up in the cities. At the same time, large prayer meetings and then covenant communities developed in the Roman Catholic Church. Structured renewal fellowships emerged in most of the denominations, as well as in the Anglican Church.

At its best, the charismatic renewal of the 60s and 70s emphasized:

* Jesus Christ as Lord

* Scripture as the Word of God

* The supernatural work of the Holy Spirit

* The Christian life as primarily communal or corporate

* The sacraments as real encounters with Christ

* The ministry of every Christian

* A holistic view of our life and witness in the world.

Papal Accolade

Recently, the Pope 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, the Holy Father said: ‘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 the Charismatics to be aware of the pitfalls to be avoided, notably ‘the risk of remaining, unwittingly, in a merely emotional experience of the divine’ and ‘ … an exaggerated quest for the "extraordinary" and a private withdrawal that avoids apostolic commitment.’

Those who have been participants in the renewal will recognize the relevance of the Holy Father's remarks.

Personal feelings

What began as a movement focusing on Jesus Christ as Lord, so often ended up with the people of Jesus focusing on themselves and their spiritual experiences. This is reflected in the music of the renewal. In the early days, it was often pointed out that whereas so much hymnody, Protestant and Catholic alike, had been utterly individualistic, with the most used words being ‘I’, ‘me’, ‘my’ and ‘mine’, the Scripture songs and worship choruses of the renewal took the attention off ‘I’, ‘me’, ‘my’ and ‘mine’ and concentrated on God and his glory in the face of Jesus Christ.

However, in the Pentecostal churches since the mid-1980s there has been a demonstrable drift away from Scripture set to music and a corresponding reversion to songs that concentrate on ‘how I am feeling’!

This reflected the demise of the most ecumenical phase of the renewal. Everything seemed to hold together while participants were content to use the same language as the classical Pentecostals to describe the charismatic experiences they had been granted. But Catholics and reformed Evangelicals became dissatisfied with ‘baptism in the Spirit’ terminology and ‘second blessing’ theology. They also came to see that an ‘is’ in the Acts of the Apostles is not necessarily an ‘ought’ for the whole Christian community of all time.

While not wanting to deny that what had happened in their lives was a work of the Holy Spirit, many saw the need to use other kinds of language, more consistent with sound biblical exegesis, to describe their experiences. This meant, of course, a subtle parting of the ways. The classical Pentecostals and the new independent Churches developed along lines of their own, often becoming more fundamentalist the less they were encumbered through fellowship with ‘Church’ Charismatics.

Good Vibrations

Without doubt, the charismatic renewal had an effect for good on Australian Churches quite disproportionate to its numerical strength. Roman Catholic leaders believe that many recommendations of Vatican II that easily became part of Church life were greatly facilitated by the renewal. Most Anglican parishes and traditions – including those that were openly hostile to or dismissive of the renewal in the 1960s and 70s – have been influenced by its music, its experience of spontaneous prayer, and its emphasis on the ministry of all the baptized, while not deprecating older traditions. Then there is the fact that across the whole Christian spectrum the exercise of healing ministries is now so normal as not to excite comment.

But there have been negatives. Good people have been damaged by extravagant claims of healing evangelists. A high level of manipulation has been experienced at the hands of some ‘prosperity gospel’ preachers. Sometimes there has been the implication that the Holy Spirit can only use particular kinds of music! And, in spite of the best efforts of leaders, it has often been difficult to move people away from the kind of fundamentalism (or literalism) that can be psychologically damaging.

It is difficult to find charismatic renewal leaders from the '60's and '70's. In fact, apart from some senior Roman Catholic figures and the classical Pentecostals, the vast majority of leaders and other participants are no longer involved.

Where are they now?

Where are they? My anecdotal research indicates that quite a few – perhaps as many as fifty per cent – eventually became disillusioned and no longer practise any form of Christian faith. A few have become 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. The rest, not surprisingly, have tended to gravitate towards the Catholic tradition in its Anglican, Roman or Orthodox manifestation (although in Australia there has not been the large movement that one has observed in the USA of Charismatic, Pentecostal and Evangelical leaders – and in some cases whole congregations – making that journey together).

The wholeness of the Christian Faith, includes a lively sense of the Holy Spirit's work among us, convicting us of sin, helping us to hear God speaking to us in Scripture, revealing the things of Jesus to us, and empowering us for our ministry in the Church and our witness to the world. As Forward in Faith Anglicans we know our need of his love and power at this time.

 

David Chislett is Rector of All Saints', Wickham Terrace, Brisbane and Vice Chairman of FiF Australia

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