The American Interest
Religion & Other Curiosities
Photo by Flickr user Paul Hudson
Published on December 18, 2013
New Energy In The Old World Pentecostalism Invades Lambeth Palace

Is charismatic Christianity coming to Europe? Up until now, it didn’t seem likely. But events in the UK perhaps suggest otherwise.

On December 7, 2013, The Tablet published a story by Christopher Lamb, “On the Road to London”.  It is a remarkable story, describing in some detail how four members of the Community of Chemin Neuf will take up residence in Lambeth Palace, after also taking control of Christ the King in Cockfosters, a prominent Roman Catholic parish in north London. Lambeth Palace has been the official London residence of the Archbishop of Canterbury since the 13th century. Chemin Neuf (“New Way”) was founded forty years ago in Lyon, France, at a charismatic Catholic prayer group, by Laurent Fabre, a Jesuit priest. One might say that this is a classical man-bites-dog story: It is difficult to imagine two more different Christian traditions than Pentecostalism (also known as charismatic Christianity) and the Church of England. The former is emotionally unrestrained and passionately evangelistic, the latter sedate, mellow and suspicious of any form of “enthusiasm”. Pentecostalism has established itself in England for some time, mainly carried there by immigrants from Africa and the Caribbean, though there have been some inroads into the indigenous white population. The penetration of charismatic exuberance into the very heart of Anglicanism might be a metaphor for a potentially significant development.

Chemin Neuf has been officially recognized by the Catholic Church as “a public association of the faithful” and its institute training men for the priesthood has been directly legitimated by the Vatican. Though clearly Catholic, its character has been ecumenical from the beginning. Members of the Community, which now operates in over twenty countries, are Catholic, Protestant, Anglican, even Eastern Orthodox. It is not a monastic order, but its members (now around 300 in number) live together in residential communities—celibate priests and nuns, married couples, single lay individuals. If some of their member priests are in charge of a Catholic parish, they will of course administer it in accordance with usual rules. But the internal worship in the residences is more colorful. There is daily mass and offices throughout the day, use of the spiritual exercises of Ignatius of Loyola (the founder of the Jesuit order), but also the typical charismatic/Pentecostal forms of worship—spontaneous singing and loud prayers, arms raised high, and glossolalia (“speaking in tongues”). The outreach into the wider community is through direct evangelism (public preaching), but also retreats for families, couples, divorcees and people in need of healing (though not, to my knowledge, including miraculous healing). Very interesting is the use of the so-called Alpha Course, typically a ten-week course about the essentials of the Christian faith, including an important section, with a charismatic bent, about the Holy Spirit. That one has Anglican origins, having been started in 1977 by the Reverend Charles Marnham at Holy Trinity Brompton in London, which continues to be its headquarters. Alpha tries to be broadly ecumenical (it avoids the sharper differences between denominations), and it is now used by local churches (including Catholic ones) from across the Christian spectrum. Alpha is deemed to be very successful in getting the attention of people with no religious affiliation.

Justin Welby, the recently installed Archbishop of Canterbury, came across Chemin Neuf from the time before he became a priest, while he worked in France for the oil company Elf Aquitaine. He was impressed by the ecumenism of the Community and kept in contact with it ever since. When the group moves into Lambeth Palace, it will consist of Father Michael Le Piouff, the new priest of Christ the King parish, an Anglican married couple, and an individual training for the Lutheran ministry. In the United Kingdom as a whole, about half of Community members are Catholic, the other half members of other Christian denominations.

I did not know about Chemin Neuf until I read the story in The Tablet. But I remembered a vaguely similar group, the Taize Community, which I encountered many years ago. This one too was originally French-speaking and, though its beginnings were Protestant rather than Catholic, its mission was emphatically ecumenical. Unlike Chemin Neuf, Taize is indeed a monastic order and, as far as I know, not visibly charismatic. It was founded in 1940 by Roger Schutz, a Swiss Reformed pastor, whose church was located very close to the border between German-occupied France and Switzerland. During World War II Schutz and his associates smuggled hundreds of Jews and other refugees from Nazism across the border to safety. After the war a regular order was founded by the little group, attracting both Protestant and Catholic members. It now works in about thirty countries, including the United States. Although there is a monastery-like center in France, the Taize brothers (there is an affiliated order of sisters) live in rented apartments, preferably in poor areas of cities, supporting themselves by ordinary jobs. They conduct daily worship services, using the haunting music of Joseph Gelineau (a kind of modernized plainsong). They do not directly evangelize. Instead they practice what they call “Christian presence” (presence chretienne)—the term is actually of Catholic origin and characterized the practice of monks living in northern Africa. They made no efforts to convert their Muslim neighbors, practiced their monastic offices, and made their Christian witness by simply being there. Some of them became martyrs at the hand of Muslims fighting the French colonial government. In recent years Taize has become the destination of pilgrimages by large numbers of young people, who describe this as a very moving religious experience. Taize is a village in Burgundy, close to two of the most important monastic centers of medieval Europe, Cluny and Citeaux. It is an incredibly beautiful landscape. I visited there briefly as a young man, stopping while driving from Paris to the south of France. In Marseille I had a long conversation with two Taize brothers, who lived in a slum mostly inhabited by Algerian immigrants, where they devotedly practiced “Christian presence”. From there I drove on to visit a wealthy colleague, who owned a luxurious seaside villa near Monte Carlo. The contrast was breathtaking.

Back to Lambeth Palace and its invasion by spirit-filled charismatics: I have written about Pentecostalism on this blog before. Since I do not presume that readers of this post will have read all the ones that I wrote before, let me just reiterate: Pentecostalism is probably the fastest growing religious movement in history. From humble American beginnings early in the twentieth century the movement truly exploded after World War II, now numbering at least 600 million adherents worldwide. Pentecostals are a significant presence in the United States, but most of the growth has been in the Global South—in Africa, Latin America and parts of Asia. Originally a movement within Evangelical Protestantism, Pentecostalism has spilled over into virtually all Christian denominations. This has been aptly called “Pentecostalization”. Don’t be confused by different categories of Pentecostals/charismatics worked out by scholars. The core phenomenon is the same everywhere:faith centered on the so-called “gifts of the Spirit”—a cathartic conversion experience, miraculous healing, ecstatic worship (featuring “speaking in tongues”), bonding together in strong communities. [A tip to readers not familiar with this world: If you ask for evidence of the charismatic spillover into denominations not using the term “Pentecostal”, look for churches that describe themselves as being “in renewal”. That’s where it’s happening! I may as well give you a bonus tip (ask for one and get two): If you see a church self-identified as “welcoming”, this means that people of all sexual orientations are invited.] The phenomenon must be seen in the context of a huge demographic shift: There now are more Christians in the Global South than in the “home territories” of Europe and North America. And most of this “New Christendom” (a term coined by the historian Philip Jenkins) tends toward charismatic forms of the faith. With some exceptions, Europe has been mostly untouched by the “renewalist” tsunami. One of the most important questions in the study of contemporary religion is this: Will Europe too experience significant “Pentecostalization”? As of this moment, the empirical evidence suggests a negative answer. But one cannot be sure. It is at least conceivable that the little drama in Lambeth Palace is more than a straw in the wind.

  • Jim__L

    Apparently the C of E is taking a page from Churchillian Americans — they can be counted upon to do the right thing, after all other options have been exhausted.

    • TommyTwo

      Tempus destruendi et tempus aedificandi.

      • Wayne Lusvardi

        Translated: a time to tear down, and a time to build

  • rheddles2

    Charles Wesley.

    • comatus

      Excellently noted. Enthusiasm is not always pretty to watch, but it has always been how Christianity re-forms itself (and meets its “competition”).

  • free_agent

    I was wondering why I found this so odd. I then remembered a chapter title in Vance Packard’s “The Status Seekers”: “Religion: the long road from Pentecostalism to Episcopalianism”. The idea was that Pentecostalism was the lowest-class religion in the US, and Episcopalianism was the highest-class religion in the US. It wasn’t so long before I was born that Pentecostals were derided as “holy rollers”.

  • Wayne Lusvardi

    The prospect of pentecostal infiltration of the Church of England raises some interesting questions. Pentecostal churches are very non-hierarchical and anti-bureaucratic. Many have women ministers. The modern day founder of Pentecostalism was a Black minister in a small church in Los Angeles. Anybody heard of Amy Simple Mcpherson? Pentecostalists have no discernible skin color barriers. How would the often staid, ultra-liberal hierarchy of the Church of England, which espouses equality of race and gender in the abstract deal with the real life Pentecostal personification of equality of women and so-called minorities? Mind you, Pentecostalists don’t give a hoot about “equality” in the same sense that, say, liberal church clerics do. I doubt the church hierarchy could co-opt Pentecostalists into the Social Gospel the church often embraces.

    This leaves me, like Berger, thinking of what would happen if many those straw men and women Pentecostalists migrated from the Southern Hemisphere into dormant Christian churches in Europe (not just religious Muslim immigrants to Europe). “A straw in the wind?” Don’t light a match with all those straw Pentecostal people around. It might cause a wildfire.

    Imagine if the city of Rotterdam in the Netherlands had been invaded by 25% to 50% Charismatic Christians from Africa or South America instead of the 25% of Turkish Muslims that are gradually becoming a numerical majority in that city? This is what sociologist Max Weber originally wrote his trilogy of books about Chinese, Indian, and Protestant Christian religion about. To Weber, the Oriental and Buddhist “personality” lacked the traits necessary for Capitalism. The Puritans, the Methodists, and the Baptists did. Anyone interested should read sociologist Sara R. Farris’s skeleton key to Max Weber’s theories titled “Max Weber’s Theory of Personality: Individuation, Politics and Orientalism in the Sociology of Religion” (2013).

    Berger is on to something incipiently big here. It deserves watching.

    • comatus

      Amy SEMPLE McPherson, please. Lily-white, in fact a Canadian. Perhaps not the best example of everything religious enthusiasm has to offer.

      • teapartydoc

        Yes. And her Four Square Church was more like a cult of personality.

      • Wayne Lusvardi

        Ah, the wonders of spell check that over writes Semple as Simple. Thanks for catching this.

  • http://aebrain.blogspot.com Zoe_Brain

    http://freethinker.co.uk/2013/12/19/kenyan-pentecostal-preachers-burn-hiv-medication-tell-sufferers-that-only-prayer-will-cure-them/

    “HIV-infected Kenyans are being told that by a group of Pentecostal preachers that their anti-retroviral medication is useless, and that only the power of prayer will deliver them from the virus.

    Worse, affected people are being asked to pay for their “healing” ceremonies.

    According to this report,the ceremonies begin with a “miracle blessing” of the HIV-infected person. Afterwards, the pastor burns the person’s anti-retroviral medications and declares them “cured”. Then the church charges the person a fee and sends them on their way.”

    Coming soon to a Church near you.

  • Honordads

    “And in the last days it shall be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh…”

  • ljgude

    I think the ‘inspiration of the Holy Spirit’ – to borrow a line from the Anglo Catholic liturgy lies at the core of religious experience. But I think that experience of the Holy Ghost varies widely and is by no means limited to the conventional enthusiasms such as practiced by Evangelicals. In a purely Christian context the singing of the hymn Amazing Grace always makes me realize that the emotional core of my religious experience is remarkably like that of John Newton – the author of those words who it turns out was Evangelical in his own time and would probably so considered today. But I tend to prefer privacy for most of my spiritual exercises, although I do participate in a Taize based service once a week as well as two Masses. But I also do a lot of ‘body prayer’ in the form of Tai Chi and other meditational exercises. I personally find I need quiet and solitude for this kind of practice. Still if I lived in London I would make contact with Chemin Neuf to see if there was common ground. I am excited by ecumenical movements where people of different faith traditions work together in a non judgmental way. A friend of mine, Barbara Flaherty, founded the Fourth Order of Francis and Clare out of a similar post denominational ecumenical vision. I think that organizations that cut across the established divisions and categories of thought are the way we search out the future shape and scope of the institutions that we need to develop to cope with the future. Just as the London of the early industrial revolution had no idea how to cope with the large numbers of people driven off the land and into the city. There were no civic institutions like public libraries, or technical schools, and precious little in the way of responsible municipal government services. Such a group as Chemin Neuf breaks the boundaries of traditional orders and allows people with previously separate callings to God to work for common goals.

  • http://khanya.wordpress.com Steve Hayes

    The charismatic renewal invaded the Church of England in the 1960s, if not the 1950s, and this isd fairly well documented. It also appeared in other parts of the Anglican communion, reached a peak in the 1970s, and declined somewhat in the 1980s, but never disappeared, and is now enjoying something of a second revival among Anglicans in Southern Africa.