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.