Having grown up in and pastored in the Pentecostal/Charismatic tradition, people often ask if I am still a charismatic, now that I’m an Anglican. Fortunately, to be Anglican does not require one to cease being charismatic, and I feel I’ve continued in that.
But being Anglican has changed my understanding of what it means to be charismatic. I tend to tell folks that I believe that most of the charismatic experience and renewal over the past century has been a move of the Holy Spirit, and has had a miraculously good effect. And yet at the same time, I tend to not agree with much of the theology and practice of the charismatic movement. When I share that, though, the reaction is often “Wait a minute. Can you do that? Can you be a charismatic who doesn’t wholly subscribe to charismatic practice or theology?”
I think so. Let me explain.
Our experiences of God is one thing, and our reflection on it is another. And further, after we reflect on a move of God, we try to put into practice that which we’ve experienced. In other words, we first experience God. Then we reflect on that experience (theology), and try to capture that experience and pass it on to future generations (practice or reform).
My sense is that the Pentecostal and charismatic renewals were and are a miracle of God. The Holy Spirit breathed new life into the Christian Church, starting with poor, marginalized folks at the end of the 19th and early 20th century (Asuza Street), flowing into the founding of the Assemblies of God and Church of God as classic Pentecostal denominations. Flowing around in and within that Pentecostal movement, the renewal eventually swept into the mainline churches (for example, Terry Fullam and the “Miracle at Darien”) and the Roman Catholic Church. People were speaking in tongues, singing praise, and their faith in Jesus Christ was coming alive. Many people began to read Scripture with new eyes. A new fervor for spiritual gifts was awakened. Not just the charismatic gifts, but all gifts were flourishing in many places. People once again began to believe that each Christian was a minister to his or her community. Each Christian could be empowered and gifted to serve. In terms of the Episcopal Church, the charismatic renewal movement was pretty much the only thing that was converting people and drawing them to Christ. In fact today, most orthodox Anglicans over the age of forty trace their conversion or renewal back to that movement.
My own parents were converted through a charismatic healing service in which my Dad had a vision of Jesus. I believe that was real, and was from God. I thank God everyday for it.
And this new renewal was a grassroots movement. The poor were filled with the Holy Spirit and led most of the earlier movement. Multi-ethnic communities rose up. People in impoverished nations were drawn to Christ. The church hierarchies didn’t know what to do with this. On the one hand, millions of people were being converted or experiencing renewal. On the other hand, it hadn’t been their plan or idea. It was messy. It was populist. It was unplanned. Of course quite a few church leaders wanted to stop this train before it wrecked.
Of course people who were experiencing this great movement began immediately to try to understand it in Scripture and in theology. It makes sense to me that since so many of them were speaking in tongues, they assumed that speaking in tongues must be the sign of this filling of the Spirit. Or that an ecstatic experience of the Spirit must be some kind of second baptism. Or that church hierarchies must always be prohibitive of the Spirit’s move, etc. These things all makes sense in terms of people trying to understand their experience. But in terms of a Christian reflection that takes into account the whole of the Gospel and the whole of Church history, they fall a bit short.
As is true in most of human history, charismatics and those who resisted them were both right and wrong. Those who resisted it were on to something real they were seeing: A rejection of authority of any kind. A desire for power. A manipulative leadership who pretended not to be leading. The charismatic movement has indeed had some massive train wrecks. Obsession with miracles and gifts, the prosperity gospel, and the longing for personal power (especially for “cult of personality” type leaders) has caused much harm. And yet at the same time wonderful good things were happening. The charismatics and the “non-charismatics” were both right. God was at work in this movement, but he wasn’t inspiring a mutiny or a rebellion. On the other hand, he wasn’t inspiring a new bureaucracy or simply encouraging seminary courses called “spirit studies.” Instead, he was breathing new life into the Church. We all misunderstood that, I think. And yet that’s okay. What’s left for us today is to discern how that reform can be both charismatic and institutional. Both are important.
Paul himself said that “not all speak with tongues.” He also said to “forbid not to speak with tongues” and that he himself spoke in tongues. Paul wrote that “everything must be done decently and in order” and he appointed elders in every city. And yet he taught that each Christian, at baptism, was giving the Holy Spirit and was anointed. And yet he also encouraged experiential encounters with God. According to Paul, we receive the Holy Spirit in baptism, but then we are to pray to be continually filled. Paul seems to have believed that charismatic gifts were for some people, and those people would serve the whole Church through them. He seems to have believed that church order and governance were not a contradiction to spiritual gifts or to grassroots movements. He seems to have seen all these things together, rather than in opposition.
So for me, now as an Anglican, I feel that the charismatic gifts are operating. But they need to operate within order and structure of the church. The Holy Spirit is present in both spontaneous expressions and in written prayers. He works through bishops and he works through street evangelists. He gives some the gift of tongues and others the gift of administration. Charismatics are an important part of the church, but together with other groups, they must be influential and at the same time open to learn from others with other experiences and gifts. This ‘holistic’ charismatic is the type I am striving to become.
For example, when I was growing up in the Pentecostal/charismatic tradition, we often had people stand up in church and give a word of knowledge, a prophecy, or a message of tongues (which was then interpreted). For me, these kinds of gifts are still part of the Church today. However, the way they are expressed does not have to be the same all the time. We put the Holy Spirit in a small box if we think he can only use these gifts suddenly and in the middle of a worship service.
Why can’t the Holy Spirit give a word of knowledge on a Wednesday?
In my parish, I encouraged folks with these gifts to pray for words of knowledge or messages for the church throughout the week. I asked them to meet with me and share their sense of God’s leading. I asked them to trust that the Holy Spirit would guide us together to discern who this prophecy or word of knowledge was for, if it should be shared, and when. I felt that most of the folks in our parish wouldn’t have received a sudden, seemingly intrusive message. I felt that it would distract us from our worship in that moment. But on a number of occasions, I was able to share these discernments with our vestry, our church, or individuals. I felt that this was a holistic, biblical way to express this gift in our context.
If I’m being frank, most of the people I’ve met in Anglicanism who are charismatics don’t seem to initially accept this approach. Sometimes they have been trained by charismatic leaders to sort of infiltrate churches (not in a sinister way) to try to get everyone in that parish to act, talk, and think just like they do. Try to get folks to raise their hands more, to cry, to speak in tongues, to listen for messages from God all the time, and to follow the same spiritual leaders they follow. Sometimes people don’t accept you as Spirit filled unless you agree with their theology or strategies, or you talk their jargon. I’ve seen a lot of frustrated non-charismatics, and a whole lot of disappointed charismatics.
The other side of the coin is people who think that all charismatics are dangerous fanatics. They may become cynical about Spiritual gifts, and afraid of anything out of the ordinary. They may be uncomfortable around someone who is expressive. They may want to squash anything that doesn’t fit our sense of order. For those folks, I feel that it is important to hear that they don’t have to agree with the theology of charismatics, or even with the typical charismatic strategies, to appreciate the charismatic perspective and presence. After non-charismatics realize that they can learn from charismatics without having to agree on everything, they often become more open. In fact, they often realize that they too are charismatic, but just didn’t know it.
Instead of pressuring one another into agreement on speculations about Spiritual gifts and charismatic expressions, we should all bring our experiences and gifts to the church, and o