At a congress of Forward-in-Faith/North America in Fort Worth, Texas, a few years ago, I was to my surprise appointed to a committee charged with drafting a theological statement for the congress.  At the first meeting of the committee I said that I could only be an informal advisor and suggested that the committee simply adopt the Affirmation of Saint Louis.  In the end the committee did what committees do and issued a mostly unobjectionable, very bland, and quite unmemorable statement.

In the course of the drafting sessions, however, I heard several times reference made to the ‘three strands of Anglicanism’.  On inquiry I was told that the three strands were Evangelicalism, Anglo-Catholicism, and Charismaticism.  I pointed out that the charismatic movement had no historical pedigree in Anglicanism:  historically the classical Anglican strands were in their 19th century forms:  1. Evangelical or Low Church, 2. Anglo-Catholic or High Church; and, 3. Liberal (rationalist, Latitudinarian) or Broad Church.  The charismatic movement was a mid- to late 20th century innovation, with no significant Anglican component before the 1960s.  I do not think my historical point made much of an impression.  I took this to be another indication of the effects of 40 years too many in the Canterbury Communion.  Of course the fact that the charismatic or neo-pentecostalist movement has no historical pedigree within Anglicanism does not prove that it is false or bad.  But it should give people pause before treating it as something with a status parallel to that of the historical Evangelical and Anglo-Catholic movements.

From my point of view the Broad Church took over the Episcopal Church and then the other western Churches of the Canterbury Communion beginning in the 1960s, around the same time that the charismatics came along.  The Broad Church victory is what drove Continuing Churchmen out of those older ecclesial bodies, and I think we are happy to leave the Broad Church behind.  A respect for reason and reasonableness, an irenic temper, and a reluctance to multiply dogmas were all strengths of the old liberal wing of Anglicanism, and certainly remain as permanent parts of Anglican theological method and the Anglican ethos.  But no one much in the ACC is going to miss the old ‘Broad and Hazy’ school,

When suave Politeness, temp’ring bigot Zeal,

Corrected I believe to One does feel….  (Ronald Knox)

Perhaps the charismatics are thought to be filling the vacuum left by the disappearing, now thoroughly secularized, old rationalist party.

Classical Anglicanism ruled out the charismatic movement from the outset by rejecting the idea of ongoing miracles or signs and wonders of a supernatural sort.  A typical 17th century Anglican such as Henry Hammond understood miracles as gifts of the Holy Spirit in Biblical times designed to authenticate and strengthen the teaching of Jesus and then to do the same for the apostolic witnesses to Jesus.  Such miracles ended with the closing of the canon of the New Testament, at which point the gospel had sufficient authority and testimony in the New Testament itself.  In particular the idea of ongoing miracles was viewed as a feature of superstitious Roman Catholics.  This belief was not uniquely Anglican.  I believe most Calvinists and Southern Baptists would have said much the same thing.

I am not endorsing, and in fact do not agree, with the idea that God’s supernatural interventions in our world ended with the closing of the New Testament canon.  I know that some members of the ACC, including in a quiet way both the late Archbishops John Cahoon and John-Charles Vockler, believed in ongoing neo-pentecostalist religious experiences such as speaking in tongues, miraculous healings, and visions or promptings direct from God.

My position on the matter has always had two main points:

  1. In a largely dead and faithless ecclesial body neo-pentecostalism is a sign of some spiritual life. As Bishop Mote used to say, charismatics believe strongly and vividly in the reality of God, the power of God, and the love of God.  In a deeply secularized ecclesial body those pillars of charismatic belief were a great deal indeed.  Spiritual life and real faith in such bodies often clustered in charismatic groups;
  2. But the charismatic movement tends to put a premium on personal religious experience and individual religious insights. This individualistic, personal emphasis means that in healthy Churches and parishes the charismatic movement can easily become a source of division and conflict.  Charismatics, who rightly resisted the authority of liberal, faithless clergy, sometimes have trouble settling into normal Church life in healthy Churches.  If I believe my opinions are directly inspired by God, it is hard to accept other authorities.  What can one say to, ‘God told me I am right!’?

In short, the charismatic movement seems to me something that God raised up as an extreme corrective to an extreme problem.  I do not think the corrective is a normal part of healthy, public, Church life.  Miracles are by their nature exceptional and rare.  Normally God behaves normally, and normally his Church’s life is not neo-pentecostal.

That is not at all to say that private neo-pentecostal experiences are illegitimate.  I do not believe that miracles have ceased or that God either cannot or does not bestow the extraordinary gifts and experiences emphasized by charismatics.  What I do say is that such gifts and experiences are essentially private, something the individual believer encounters or not as God pleases.  Beyond that, it is not for me to say.  A claim to such experiences or gifts gives no special authority by itself, but could at most be a private motive for diligence in promoting an idea or practice.  If the claim becomes public, the Church should test it using the normal criteria for teaching and authority in the Church.  Is X or Y agreeable to Scripture?  What is its status in tradition?  Does it have an ecumenical consensus in the great Churches?  Have the known, legitimate, and established authorities in the Church accepted it?  These are the decisive questions.

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