Sunday, 11 August 2019

The Fire of the Spirit and its Diversions

It was a circuitous route that got me round to buying Julia Duin’s history of the church of Redeemer, Houston, Days of Fire and Glory. I know someone who had links with the Jesus Fellowship – what most people knew colloquially as the Jesus Army – and who is involved with the mopping-up after the collapse of that group, and in reading up about the JF I was struck by its links with Redeemer. That church was an unremarkable US Episcopal parish, struck from the mid-1960s by a charismatic revival and which until its precipitous fall sat at the centre of the global charismatic movement. The book is sometimes bewildering as its writer insists on mostly using people’s forenames, and in late ‘60s and early-‘70s Texas there seem to have been an awful lot of Bills, Jeffs, and Georges around; there are non sequiturs, and whatever are the opposite of non sequiturs, when a future event is signalled but not followed up, as in ‘there was nothing Jeff felt he had done wrong, or he felt forgiven for it. Not for another 12 years would Jeff realize the depths of his sin’, yet we never hear anything more about this particular Jeff’s sins, which makes you wonder why they were worth mentioning. Possibly Ms Duin felt she had to do justice to the nearly-200 interviews she conducted researching the book, and so included everything she could fit in. But Days is compelling, certainly, if this is a topic that you have any investment in.

At the heart of the story of Redeemer is Revd Graham Pulkingham, who arrived as its parish priest in 1963, ‘a blond-haired 37-year-old clergyman with … fashionable liberal views and a confident air of authority that people either hated or found irresistible’, determined to make a difference to the poor East End of Houston. He made no difference at all, and after about a year he was in despair. He took time out of a holiday to drive to New York to visit an independent pastor called David Wilkerson, whose biography, The Cross and the Switchblade, had described his work among the city’s young drug addicts and the power of ‘baptism in the Holy Spirit’ to transform the lives of even the most degraded souls. Baptism in the Holy Spirit was – is – an ecstatic breakdown accompanied by ‘charismatic’ phenomena such as speaking in tongues, and which Wilkerson had lifted from the experience of the Pentecostal Churches: a sort of second conversion in an established Christian, and a first if you weren’t.

Pulkingham talked to Wilkerson about his sense of desolation and failure, and then admitted something else: his persistent homosexual feelings, despite being thirteen years married and the father of four children. When he had first discussed his vocation to the priesthood, he had talked about just this with Bishop of Texas Clinton Quin, who’d sent him for counselling. They both considered it dealt with, but it wasn’t. Now, after a couple of days shadowing Wilkerson in his work, Pulkingham knelt in front of him and the director of a local mission, and as they laid their hands on him he felt he could hear angelic voices, and ‘the most majestic presence and power he had ever known … the degradation was gone.’ ‘We can go now, the Baptizer is here’, announced Wilkerson, and they left the priest on his own to recover. Once again, his inner problem was dealt with. But, predictably, once again it really wasn’t: it had just been pushed below the surface.

Pulkingham returned to Houston filled with excitement and energy. All at once, where everything had been bare, stale and unprofitable, his ministry caught fire. He began to experience the gift of tongues and healings took place. He attracted a small core group of middle-aged men of a variety of backgrounds who would become the five ‘elders’ of Redeemer, and out of their experience came the church’s key contribution to the world of charismatic Christianity: the intentional community. One by one, the elders began to invite troubled souls, of various sorts, to come and live with their families, and as often as not the charismatic experience led to them escaping their difficulties. It was like the Book of Acts come to life: this was how Christianity was supposed to work. The idea of communal living fitted in neatly with Pulkingham’s liberal-left biases, and gradually the ‘households’ became the major institution of the church. People attracted by Redeemer’s ideals and work sold homes in nicer parts of the city to move nearby and establish their own ‘households’, living an intense communal existence, pooling their resources, ministering to each other, getting by on very little sleep between the prayer, ministry and meetings. By 1971, the church numbered 1400 members of whom a third lived in community, and total weekly attendance was more than half as much again. Christians from all across the Western world, including Cardinal Suenens, came to Houston to see how it was done, and tried to transplant the ideas elsewhere. Strikingly, remember, this was still an Episcopal church, and its worship was liturgical, structured by the calendar, and Eucharistic (though the music was very distinctive).

We don’t need to trace the following years in any detail. Suffice it to say that things went off the boil at Redeemer. Pulkingham left in 1972 to pursue different sorts of Christian community living, first in Coventry, then Scotland, and lastly in Pittsburgh, but Redeemer never managed to let go of him, nor he, it, and he kept popping back to lead, preach, or teach. Gradually the ideal of community was emphasised and charismatic gifts downplayed until they seemed relatively unimportant. However rather than look at itself honestly, the church continually attempted to reheat the same formula from the late 1960s, until it had too few people to make that work. Its leadership took refuge in authoritarianism and the beautiful worship papered over the cracks. It endlessly talked about what had gone wrong but seemed to have no idea what to do: it should have renewed itself as an ordinary Episcopal parish but couldn’t mentally let go of its glorious past. There is chapter after weary chapter of church members delivering prophetic 'words from the Lord' about the future of Redeemer, but nothing happens. Pulkingham’s other experiments in Christian community were never anything more than dysfunctional and unsatisfactory, either. Finally, Duin relates how in 1992 the now retired Pulkingham was suspended from the ministry after admitting seducing a church member on the pretext of ‘healing’ his homosexual inclinations, and then palming him off in a hopeless marriage with a woman in the congregation, among other transgressions. The dénouement was bizarre, sad, and very American: Graham Pulkingham died from a heart attack (not his first) after witnessing a shooting at a grocery store in Burlington, North Carolina, in 1993. Redeemer continued to judder downwards, and eventually closed.

I hadn’t realised how crucial a role Redeemer played in the growth of Christian attempts at communal living framed around the charismatic experience. It was Redeemer which shaped the development of the Jesus Fellowship; the JF’s founder, Noel Stanton, had his Baptism in the Spirit in 1969 after 12 years as lay pastor of little and unremarkable Bugbrooke Baptist Church in Northamptonshire, and four years later founded New Creation, an intentional community in an old Anglican rectory, along the lines Redeemer had suggested (Graham Pulkingham was living in Coventry at this time, so perhaps Stanton met him). We know how all that ended. I also remembered the Church of England’s own scandal from the 1990s, the Nine O’Clock Service fiasco centring on the dramatic figure of disgraced priest and ‘techno-shaman’ Chris Brain; Brain’s network had begun with a Christian rock band, Candescence (strange echoes there of Evanescence, whose religious-themed Goth rock enjoyed success in the mid-2000s), whose members and supporters moved into a house in Nairn Street in Sheffield in 1978: they were linked to the charismatic-evangelical church St Thomas Crookes in the city. Now, these experiments were all different, but the progression towards authoritarianism and abuse was the same, rooted in sexual dysfunction. Pulkingham was a deeply repressed homosexual; Brain seems to have escalated very quickly from sincerity into abusive sexual relationships with women members of the community; Stanton was supposedly celibate, definitely misogynistic, and what he did isn’t yet quite clear. Even in Brain’s case, the communities seem to have started with the best of Christian intentions, but however they began (and we can see that in Redeemer, Houston’s case they started up by accident), the way they developed was shaped by their founders’ hangups. In all three cases marriage and family relationships were denigrated in favour of the life of the community as a whole – which meant, effectively, the demands and sometimes desires of the leadership. Expectations that all community members pool their incomes removed individual independence in financial matters and, as so often, money led the way for other things: psychological, emotional and spiritual independence went with it (Julia Duin refers to one Redeemer household member who had her dog put down because Pulkingham told her it was getting in the way of her spiritual development).

This is all obvious enough, perhaps, but from a Christian viewpoint, what does it say about such experiments in community? Julia Duin’s book is littered with references to others, not just Redeemer’s, which followed the same pattern of institutionalisation, authoritarian abuse, and collapse, even when they weren’t marked by sexual misconduct. Duin herself had spent two years in a setup in Portland, Oregon, called Bethlehem, divided into a number of households. By the end of the book, she still believes that ‘community had provided the natural cradle to nurture the riskier gifts’ and even though her diaries from that time were ‘full of longings for escape’, she ‘stayed, hoping for a change in the core of my being, so I could be a more powerful, Spirit-filled Christian’. Don’t we all. But for her, the change didn’t come. She interprets the collapse of so many attempts at Christian community living as an aspect of spiritual warfare, of the attack by malign spiritual forces on anything Christians try to do to advance the Kingdom. But in fact, shorn of the extra stress that comes from validating personal worth by charismatic experience, some communities get by very happily, from traditional religious orders to, remarkably enough, the Community of Celebration: that emerged from Graham Pulkingham’s efforts in the 1970s, and it still survives in Aliquippa, Pittsburgh and Post Green, Dorset. They are much quieter and less ambitious now, and try to work with the grain of natural human relationships and not against it. They are marked – so far as I can tell – by kindness and not judgement, and they don’t elevate personal experience over the Bible or the tradition of the Church, and so allow much less scope for individual hangups to shape their development. They are perhaps less exciting, but more sane.

And what is the nature of the charismatic experience? Julia Duin is a convinced believer, but she reports honestly and even cynically her encounter with the man behind the 1994 ‘Toronto Blessing’, South African evangelist Rodney Howard-Browne. At a meeting in Orlando, she went up for prayer: ‘I had been around long enough to know that lifting one’s hands can put you off balance enough for someone to smack you on the forehead to make sure you got ‘slain’ [in the Spirit] … I folded my hands near my waist … I felt nothing … the three men asked me to pray [in tongues] louder. What, I thought, am I praying to them? … This was becoming a farce. “Sorry”, I said, and walked away.’

So when Graham Pulkingham, or Noel Stanton got baptised in the Spirit (it doesn’t seem to have happened to Brain in the same way), what happened? What was that sudden outpouring of joy and the sense of presence and power? Did they genuinely receive some special kind of supernatural grace, which they then abused? If it really was the Spirit, how could they abuse it? How could they fall away to such an extent? Duin speaks to David Wilkerson in New York, and asks him how he had managed to steer clear of sexual sin. ‘The only way to stay righteous,’ he says, one imagines with a touch of weariness, ‘is to expose your heart to God every day.’ But this is what all Christians have to do anyway. This is the normal, ongoing battle to be holy, to walk in sanctification, to discover what holiness means, which we all undergo, not just charismatics. The mistake the fallen charismatics seem to have made is that they assumed that peak experience would permanently change them, would remove the need for self-examination, would short-circuit the ordinary business of repentance and effort. Baptism in the Spirit is certainly there in the New Testament; it’s a real experience which the apostolic writers seem to think is important, but if it doesn’t actually change that, what’s the point of it? What does it do?

I think that in the same way that deliverance can be a sort of ‘catastrophic confession’, so Baptism in the Spirit can be a sudden experience of emotional realisation, a correlate of the acceptance of Christian faith but different from it. In some Christian traditions a deep and joyful relationship with God takes ages and ages to grow, and is the result of long training in prayer and living. In charismatic Christianity, it still requires all those, but has a sort of sacramental expression in a sudden event, in exactly the same way that water-baptism needs the individual to lay hold of it for themselves in the years afterwards. It’s the same relationship between the short- and the long-term, and, therefore, in fact nothing very special.

However, in terms of Christian community, it has another effect, ironically considering how far these various charismatic bodies went off the rails. It creates trust. Christians can see one another going through the same experience of vulnerability and emotion, and there is something about that which, I suspect, genuinely does release the energy of the Holy Spirit, especially when people are, perhaps, all too reticent about their inner lives.

I can’t say I haven’t learned anything from thinking about this basically sad story – another, if very minor, fruit of the Spirit, maybe.

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