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The charismatic movement – a short history

March 2004 | by Jonathan Bayes

1. Renewal

by Jonathan Bayes

Date: Sunday 2 April 1960. Place: an Anglican Church in California. The congregation is gathered for the morning service. Suddenly
they are greeted with a surprise announcement.

S

ome of them are rather taken aback. Their rector, Dennis Bennett, informs them that he has been baptised with the Holy Spirit. He tells them that he has spoken in tongues. From that moment we may date the beginning of ‘the charismatic movement’.

Up until then, speaking in tongues and related phenomena had had very limited circulation in the Christian world. Manifestations of supposed ‘gifts of the Spirit’ had been pretty well restricted to the classic Pentecostal denominations.

These included the Assemblies of God, the Elim Church, and the Apostolic Church. The former two traced their origins to events in Azusa Street, Los Angeles, in 1906, while the Apostolic Church was an outgrowth of the 1904 Welsh Revival.

These movements were never large, and were often regarded by the non-Pentecostal denominations as quaint but harmless minority groups.

Controversy

However, in the 1950s Demos Shakarian founded the Full Gospel Business Men’s Fellowship International. Its avowed aim was to introduce the Pentecostal experience to other Christian denominations. This dream began to be fulfilled on that Sunday morning in 1960.

Dennis Bennett’s announcement led immediately to controversy. The local press took up the story. It spread on to the national media across America. As a result Bennett had to resign from his church in California.

He moved to Seattle, and became vicar of an Anglican parish there. His intention now was to develop a self-consciously charismatic Anglican congregation. He had considerable success, and his new parish became one of America’s leading charismatic centres.

From Seattle the charismatic movement spread, first of all across the United States and then worldwide. It hit the United Kingdom a couple of years later.

Fountain Trust

The pioneer in Britain was also an Anglican. Michael Harper was at that time one of John Stott’s curates at All Souls’ Church, Langham Place, in London. It was on a church weekend in 1962 that he received what he described as his ‘baptism in the Spirit’.

Two years later, in 1964, Harper left All Souls’ to set up the Fountain Trust. This became the catalyst for forging interdenominational links between people involved in what was then known as ‘the renewal’.

Those involved alongside Harper in the early days included a Church of Scotland minister, Tom Smail, who succeeded Harper as Director of the Fountain Trust in 1972.

The major feature of ‘the renewal’ was that it was taking place within the non-Pentecostal denominations. Those involved rarely even imagined leaving their denomination. They retained their commitment to their particular denominational emphases. The charismatic element was just an add-on.

Barthian

Tom Smail is an interesting figure. He was never a true Evangelical. As recently as March 2001 he is on record as saying: ‘I really come out of the Barthian stable … For me, that is home’.

By ‘the Barthian stable’ Smail means the mid-twentieth-century movement which followed the teaching of Swiss theologian Karl Barth.

The value of Barth’s work was that he vigorously opposed the liberal theology which had dominated the non-Evangelical denominations at the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth.

Sadly, however, Barth did not arrive at a thoroughgoing Evangelical understanding of Scripture and its inerrancy. At the risk of over-simplification, Barth’s teaching may be summarised like this: the Bible is not itself the Word of God, but a vehicle for bringing the Word of God to us; it may become the Word of God if God should choose to use it to reveal himself.

This approach meant that questions about the historical accuracy of the Bible were seen as irrelevant. Barthianism has always been at odds with Evangelicalism.

The significance of this is that Tom Smail’s involvement means that, right from the start, the charismatic movement in the UK was not exclusively Evangelical.

When that fact is born in mind, the charismatic movement’s increasing distance from biblical Christianity ceases to be surprising.

Catholic charismatics

It was not long before charismatic influences penetrated the Roman Catholic Church, and Catholic charismatics were embraced by other charismatics as bona fide brethren on the basis of a shared ‘spiritual’ experience. In the process the seriousness of fundamental doctrinal error was played down.

The Roman Catholic renewal movement may be said to have begun in January 1967, when a group of students at Duquesne University experienced some paranormal phenomena while attending mass.

Duquesne is a Catholic University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The charismatic movement then spread rapidly within the Catholic Church. Its chief advocate was the Belgian Archbishop, Cardinal Leon Joseph Suenens.

New feature

Throughout the 1960s the charismatic renewal in Britain remained largely an individual thing. Individual Christians, including many individual pastors, experienced what they took to be the baptism in the Spirit, but they remained within their denominational churches, while identifying also with the informal interdenominational charismatic network.

However, by the early 1970s a new feature began to emerge. Whole churches started ‘going charismatic’. This seems to have come about because individual charismatics had become dissatisfied with a merely informal networking.

They started to proselytise for the charismatic cause within their own churches and denominations. If the individuals were ministers, they were in a unique position to foster charismatic change.

Their churches often grew quite large, as they became magnets for disaffected charismatics from their area, and the ministers became the well-known charismatic leaders.

Fresh air?

Churches and pastors in this category included Guildford Baptist Church, where David Pawson was the minister, and Woking Baptist Church, pastored by Harold Owen.

From the Church of England there were St Michael’s in York, where David Watson was vicar, and Holy Trinity in Hounslow, where the vicar, John Barter, had been joined by Michael Harper.

There was even one Anglican Theological College, St John’s at Nottingham, which became openly charismatic under the guidance of its Principal, Michael Green.

The people involved in those early days felt that the renewal had brought a breath of fresh air. In a sense they were right.

After decades of dead formalism in denominational churches, the charismatic movement seemed to bring great spiritual freedom. The terrible influences of soulless liberal theology were overcome by a new vibrancy.

Although the renewal missed the point — by elevating the experience of the Holy Spirit at the expense of a renewed commitment to the life-giving gospel of Christ — it was nevertheless right to desire an end to the lifeless worship which years of heresy had inflicted on the churches.

Renewal in song

A major feature of the ‘spirituality’ of those who were taking part in the renewal was an expressed devotion to Jesus. This came through clearly in the songs of the movement, which tended to be repetitive and rather sentimental.

In 1971, the song book Renewal in song was published in the USA. A little later the UK saw the publication of two song books espousing the renewal, Sound of living waters, and Fresh sounds. The following two songs, from the American song book, will illustrate this emphasis.

Lovely name, Jesus;
Lovely name, Jesus;
Lovely name — none other can compare.
Lovely name, Jesus;
Lovely name, Jesus;
Lovely name — none other can compare.

His name is as ointment poured forth,
    Jesus, Jesus, Jesus, Jesus;
His name is as ointment poured forth,
His name is as ointment poured forth.

Here is one from Fresh sounds:

Sweet Jesus, sweet Jesus, what a wonder you are,
You are brighter than the morning star;
You are fairer, much fairer than the lily that grows by the wayside,
Precious, more precious than gold.
You are the rose of Sharon, the fairest of the fair,
You are all my heart could e’er desire.
Sweet Jesus, sweet Jesus, what a wonder you are,
You are precious, more precious than gold.

The concern at that stage was evidently very much the loveliness of Jesus to the individual Christian. But this is only a part of the biblical portrait of Jesus. Moreover, Jesus is far more than a mystical experience.

In the mid-1970s a change began to come across the charismatic scene, and this we shall consider next month.

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Historical