The rise and fall of the charismatic renewal movement
A couple of years ago I embarked on a research project to try to chart the history of the charismatic renewal movement in southern African Christianity. It seemed to me that its influence and aftermath had been underplayed in much of the church history I had read, and that if it wern’t recorded, many things that happened would be difficult to understand.
My research has got bogged down, mainly because of the difficulty of making contact with people who had reliable information about it, and then even when I did make contact, people were reluctant to say anything about it. One church historian I asked about it would not say anything, because it was “divisive”.
I was able to get some responses from some Anglicans, but nothing so far from Methodists, Presbyterians, Congregationalists, Lutherans or Roman Catholics (my research is mainly focused on non-Pentecostal denominations). They have either refused to give information, or ignored all attempts to contact them, or I haven’t been able to locate and make contact with the people concerned.
Some of the Catholics I knew who were involved in KwaZulu-Natal were Fr George Purves and Fr Ignatius Heer. There was Bea Gallow who had a prayer group in her home. There was Cliff de Gersigny, who published the newsletter Dove Tale with news of charismatic renewal groups of all denominations, though he later left the Roman Catholic Church and joined a Neopentecostal group. But in his RC days there was a monthly charismatic Mass at the Catholic Church in Kloof that drew people from as far away as Eshowe. There was Wilson Dunn, who had prayer meetings at his farm near Stanger, and several others. If anyone reading this knows how to contact any of them, or knows anything about these or similar activities, I hope they will let me know.
There was also a “Bluff Group” of clergy (of various denominations) who were involved in the charismatic renewal. Two of the Presbyterians who were involved were Charlie Gordon of Durban North and Gus Hunter of the Bluff. Is there anyone who attended any of those meetings, and remembers what went on at them?
I haven’t managed to collect enough material for a book, but there’s enough for an article and a couple of blog posts, so perhaps I should start with those.
Also, hat-tip to Fr David MacGregor, there is a new book, which while not directly related to the charismatic renewal in South Africa, undoubtedly has some bearing on it.
And there is a review of it at VirtueOnline – News – Reformation, Renewal and Revival – Days of Fire and Glory: The Rise and Fall of a Charismatic Community:
‘Days of Fire and Glory: The Rise and Fall of a Charismatic Community’ is the story of God, sex and power, how a huge 20th century religious experiment in the life of one cleric led to the rise and fall of many. The author, Julia Duin, is the award-winning religion editor of the Washington Times and the author of five books. She worked for the Houston Chronicle from 1986-1990.
Her book traces the journey of Graham Pulkingham, an Episcopal priest who led Church of the Redeemer, one of the nation’s fastest growing and most vibrant churches in a Houston slum and left a legacy that lasts to this day. He held thousands spellbound with his Gospel preaching and influenced millions with his daring vision of a compelling, charismatic Christianity made visible by a system of worldwide communities. Yet, Pulkingham hid from his followers a dark double life that he at first resisted, then secretly pursued and finally allowed to twist his personal theology into a gordian knot of accommodation and self-deceit and finally death.
Father Michael Harper, now an Orthodox priest in the UK, wrote a book about this parish and its communities in its glory days (Harper, Michael. 1974. A new way of living. London: Hodder & Stoughton. ISBN: 0-340-19147-3). Those who are interested in the new monasticism should probably read this book, or both these books.
As Fr David MacGregor says, he and others from South Africa visited the Church of the Redeemer in Houston. Books about it were quite widely read in South Africa, and some of the factors that were at play in that situation influenced South Africa too, and they are still relevant today. Here I will mention just one of the factors mentioned in the review
Things began to unravel in the mid 1970s after CBS’s laudatory hour-long special in 1972 drew overflow crowds, overwhelming the church and its households. Pulkingham traveled to England to extend his influence by planting communities there, but left a cadre of authoritarian elders ruling the church in his absence. These elders began implementing the principles of a ruinous “discipleship movement” that was also sweeping contemporary Christianity – and devastating lives. The top elder at Redeemer was caught in adultery and the unrelated Jim Jones Guyana tragedy cast a pall over the notion of communal living. The household communities rapidly split up and even though Pulkingham moved back into 1980 to fix up the place, it was too late.
Today there is much talk of “a missional ecclesiology”, with the indefinite article implying that there could be more than one ecclesiology. And here is a a case in point, where people tried to cobble together different ideas about ecclesiology without really thinking about what they were doing. It is worth remembering that eclectic theology (which includes ecclesiology) is diametrically opposed to holistic, that is, catholic theology. There were Anglican parishes in South Africa that introduced these “elders” too, without apparently thinking about it theologically or ecclesiologically, and I suspect that this was one of the factors in the decline of the charismatic renewal movement here.
I won’t dwell much on the sexual sins, though they undoubtedly played a part, but that is universal, and not confined to this situation. Christian ministry everywhere, and in all circumstances, is hampered by temptations to sexual sins, embezzlement and drunkenness, not to mention the things that are harder to pin down, like pride, anger and arrogance. Those are universal, and not peculiar to any particular movement. All are tempted, some fall. Of those who fall, some repent, and some try to justify their sin, and fall still further. That canhappen anywherel.
The problem with the charismatic renewal movement is not that some of those involved in it fell into these sins, because the same thing happened and happens to many outside it. Part of the problem was perhaps just the opposite — that the charismatic renewal movement to some extent absorbed or inherited theological ideas of instant sanctification that misled people into thinking that they were somehow made immune to sin and temptation by the baptism in the Holy Spirit, and so the way to repentance was made very much more difficult for them. They were led into what in Orthodox theology is called prelest or plani, spiritual delusion. And in the charismatic renewal movement it was perhaps the notion of a spiritual shortcut that led to the downfall of many.
The communal living practised by many members of the Church of the Redeemer in Houston was an inspiration to many, and were similar to the ideas of a “new monasticism” that people still talk about today. This is why those interested in new monasticism should pay attention to the experience of the Church fo the Redeemer, and see what can be learned from it.
As far as my own research into the charismatic renewal movement in South Africa is concerned, I’ve gathered enough to formulate a thesis, or produce a scenario, but it needs more research to be able to confirm it.
The charismatic renewal movement appeared in the non-Pentecostal Christian denominations in southern Africa after about 1950, but its real growth occurred towards the end of the 1960s, and by the 1970s it was one of the most influential movements in southern African Christianity. Central to it was a spiritual experience that was variously termed “being baptised in the Holy Spirit”, “being filled with the Holy Spirit” or “being renewed in the Holy Spirit”, depending on the theological interpretation given to it.
With the experience was coupled the idea that the gifts (charismata in Greek, sometimes Anglicised to “charisms”) of the Holy Spirit were available to all Christians. Those who were baptised in the Spirit were thereby empowered to exercise these spiritual gifts. The problem with Christians, and the weakness of the church, was caused by too many Christians trying to do God’s work in their own strength and not in the power of the Holy Spirit. Since the Holy Spirit was avalable to all, there was no ro0om for passengers in the church, all were members of the crew; or, to use another metaphor, there was no room for spectators, all were players, members of the team.
This, however, led to some negative responses. There were many Christians who actually liked being spectators. They preferred to be passengers. They were suspicious of “enthusiasm”, and regarded the “charismatics” as dangerous fanatics who were rocking the boat. They accused the “charismatics” of arrogance, and regarding themselves as first-class Christians and the rest as second-class Christians. And the charismatics in turn regarded the “passengers” as shirkers who were unwilling to pull their weight. As one charismatic preacher once put it, “the church is like a football match — twenty thousand people who desperately need exercise watching twenty-two people who desperately need rest” (Juan Carlos Ortiz).
The charismatic renewal started independently in many different places, not just in southern Africa, but throughout the world. In some places it was influenced by classical Pentecostals. People who experienced “baptism in the Spirit” would turn to Pentecostals to help them to interpret their experience if there was no one in their own denomination who could help them. In Zululand Anglicans who followed a rule of life developed by a religious order for its lay associates began speaking in tongues, and their fellow Anglicans accused them of being Zionists. Speaking in tonges (glossolia) was quite a common feature of the charismatic movement, but unlike the classical Pentecostals, the charismatics did not regard it as a rigid doctrine: that speaking in tongues was the “initial evidence” of being baptised in the Holy Spirit.
In the non-Pentecostal denominations the charismatic renewal went along with two other movements. Godfrey Ashby, an Old Testament lecturer at Rhodes University, and later Dean of Grahamstown Anglican Cathedral, said that there were three movements that were renewing the life of the Anglican Diocese of Grahamstown in the 1970s — Group Dynamics, Challenge Groups, and the Charismatic Renewal. Where they worked together in synergy it was good, but there were problems when they worked at cross-purposes.
I would say that without understanding these three movements and their interaction, one would be missing several important factors in the history of Christianity in southern Africa. In the Anglican form, for which I have most data, Group Dynamics, also referred to as “sensitivity training” or “T-groups”, or just “Christian Education” swept the Anglican Church in the 1960s (like the charismatic renewal, among Anglicans it started in Zululand, where the two movements were closely linked). It was regarded with suspicion by the government of the day, because it promoted racial mixing, and a government commission of inquiry was set up to investigate it, among other things. It was not confined to Anglicans; Methodists, Roman Catholics, Lutherans, Congregationalists and others also became involved in it.
“Challenge Groups” was a peculiarly Anglican name for something that appeared under other names in other denominations. In 1970 the World Council of Churches (WCC) set up a Programme to Combat Racism (PCR), which, though it had a worldwide remit, had a particular focus on South Africa. The South African member churches of the WCC, somewhat miffed that they had not been consulted about the setting up of the Programme to Combat Racism, scurried to set up their own programmes, which the Anglicans called the Human Relations and Reconciliation Programme (HR&R). This involved setting up groups to challenge instances of racism in the church (hence the name “Challenge Groups”). Other denominations set up similar programmes under different names, such as “Justice and Peace” or “Justice and Reconciliation”.
The charismatic renewal was a worldwide phenomenon, however, and soon the renewal in South Africa was soon influenced by what as happening in other countries. Books were published, like those that described what was happening in the Church of the Redeemer in Houston. South African groups and churches began inviting overseas speakers (the Anglican diocese of Zululand, for example, invited Juan Carlos Ortiz of Argentina). There was no Internet in the 1970s, certainly not in South Africa, but audio cassette tapes circulated widely, and were listened to in prayer groups and by people travelling by car. Video tapes were also used, but to a lesser extent. Audio tapes were much more easily and quickly duplicated.
In 1977 a national charismatic renewal conference was held at Milner Park, Johannesburg. Several thousand people attended, and the national and international speakers became household names. In 1979 the South African Christian Leadership Assembly (SACLA) was held in Pretoria, attended by about 5000 people from all over the country. Though it wasn’t specifically billed as a “charismatic” event, probably a third to half the people who attended had been involved, at least to some extent, in the charismatic renewal movment. It was probably the high point of the charismatic renewal movement in South Africa, the pinnacle of its growth and influence for good. After that, things began to go pear-shaped.
A second charismatic renewal conference was held in 1980. Those who had attended it and the 1977 one reported that they were disappointed. Those who only attended the 1980 one were generally happy with it. The ones who had attended the previous conference or SACLA, or both, were disappointed.
This is where more research is needed. My evidence is anecdotal, impressionistic, enough to form a thesis or suggest a scenario, but not for established conclusions.
People who attended the 1980 conference said that there was less unity. They reported a feeling that there was rivalry among the speakers, that some of the speakers were trying to promote themselves and put the others down.
After the conference, this became more open. The ones who were promoting themselves had “ministries”. One example is “Derek Prince Ministries”, but there were many others. “Ministry” was not what it meant in other Christian circles. It was more like a business or a company. The spirit of ecclesiastical entrepreneurship moved into the charismatic renewal, and the entrepreneurs tried to carve it up into captive markets. In South Africa this led to the formation of several Neopentecostal megachurches (not all of them had been formed in this way, some of them had been formed independently earlier, like the Rhema Bible Church). Sometimes the leaders called themselves, or thought of themselves as apostles, though most preferred the title “Pastor”. But there could be no such thing as twelve apostles. There must be one leader, one person in the driving seat, one Fuehrer.
I heard one of these leaders speak once, and afterwards I asked a question. He had been influenced by the “discipleship teaching” mentioned above, and was promoting that kind of leadership. I said I had reservations about it — wasn’t there a danger that we would be leading people to follow us instead of following Jesus? He quoted St Paul: be followers of me, as I am of Christ.” For him that settled it, but it didn’t for me.
Many of those with “ministries” also developed distinctive and novel teachings, so that they could have a unique “product” that the others didn’t have. These had names — prosperity teaching, faith teaching, disciple ship teaching, restoration teaching and so on. I’ve no doubt that many of those who came up with these “teachings” believed that they had had a unique and distinctive revelation from God, but the effect it seemed to have, all to often, was to make them see themselves as a uniquely God-appointed and anointed leader, and therefore one who deserved more followers than any other.
The rise and growth of “ministries” also coincided with the rise of the “religious right” in the USA, with which some of the “ministries” became associated, and whose views and sentiments begant to percolate into the audio and video tapes still listened to by many in South Africa.
Thereafter, many of the people with “ministries” only attended interdenominational meetings if they themselves had called them, and only called them if they saw an opportunity to steal sheep from other flocks. The charismatic renewal movement had been marked by cooperation between different denominations, but the cooperation was replaced by suspicion and people became more inward looking. Rivalry then appeared between the “charismatics” and “non-charismatics” within each denomination, and so the charismatics became a kind of party or interest group, and played ecclesiastical politics, trying to promote members of their party at the expense of those of other parties. They also came increaingly to be seen by non-charismatics as being linked to the “religious right” in the USA, and probably some of them had been influenced by those views as well. This in turn led to many charismatics who did not share these right-wing political views to dissociate themselves from the charismatic movement, and to say that it was time to “move on”.
This is a hugely oversimplified picture, of course, and it needs a lot more research to make it more accurate, or see if it is anywhere near accurate. Now if only someone would give me a research grant to pursue it!