Ardor and Order
April 3 marked exactly 50 years since Episcopal priest Dennis Bennett resigned from his post as rector of St. Mark's Church in Van Nuys, California. He knew that his glowing talk about baptism in the Holy Spirit had provoked fear and resentment among some members of his congregation. He didn't know that he was about to become the central character in a new movement—the charismatic renewal of the mainline denominations. Soon, Bennett and his message were the subjects of stories in Newsweek and Time and the objects of international attention.
In April 1960, I was a seventh grader in Sheboygan, Wisconsin, culturally and religiously as distant from Southern California Episcopalians as an American could be. But by 1974, I had a newly minted M.Div. and became pastor of a church near San Diego. There I became friends with Frank Maguire, an Episcopal priest who featured prominently in Dennis Bennett's autobiographical Nine O'Clock in the Morning.
In 1959, Maguire had invited Bennett to meet members of his parish who were experiencing unusual spiritual phenomena. These folk weren't doing anything wild and crazy, Maguire told Bennett. They just glowed "like little light bulbs" and were "so loving and ready to help whenever I asked them." When I met Maguire almost 15 years later, the charismatics I met in his parish still weren't wild or crazy. And they still had the glow and the love Maguire had told Bennett about.
I had been raised in a sectarian atmosphere, trained to distrust Christianity of any stripe but my own. For me, what made the charismatic renewal remarkable was the ecumenical fellowship it created. American Baptists and Roman Catholics in our community were sharing Communion—even serving Communion at each other's churches—until the Catholic bishop put a stop to it. Episcopalians were worshiping with an intensity that undercut all my prejudices against written prayers and prescribed liturgies. Formerly competing religious communities were suddenly open to common ministry and shared worship. This was not the classic liberal ecumenism with its "Doctrine Divides, Service Unites" motto. This ecumenism flowed from recognizing that the Holy Spirit was animating and transforming others.
Some analysts say the mainline charismatic renewal fizzled. It is more accurate to describe it the way Jesus pictured the kingdom of God: like yeast that spreads through bread dough. You can hardly identify it as a movement anymore, but it has changed the way most churches worship. Repetitive choruses and raised hands are now common. Except in pockets of hardcore resistance, the fact that a fellow Christian may praise God in a private prayer language hardly elevates an eyebrow.
Pentecostalism and the charismatic renewal have jointly given believers what historian Chris Armstrong calls Pentecostalism's chief contribution to Christianity: an awareness of "a deep well of living water from which everything else flow[s] … the personal, relational presence of the living God."
That tide of living water is precisely what New Testament scholar Luke Timothy Johnson is worried might be receding. In a recent Commonweal essay, Johnson lamented the clash between the external, public dimension of religion—doctrine, sacraments, church structures (the "exoteric")—and the private search for a personal relationship with God (the "esoteric"). Johnson worries that the exoteric is whipping the esoteric. But what of the tremendous spread of Pentecostal and charismatic Christianity around the globe? Johnson's failure to mention it is puzzling.
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