Identity Crisis? Faith Shift(s) and Amorphous Affiliations; Part 4: ‘(Post) Evangelical Anglican Wimberite’?

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This is the fourth and final post in a series wherein I attempt to explore the nature of my evolving Christian faith. In part one I sketched a vague backdrop of my own experience of (re)embracing Christianity, and by proxy Western Evangelicalism, as an adult convert. In part two I expanded upon some of my formative encounters with the Pentecostal-charismatic movement, and reflected upon how they began to shape my journey as a new believer. This post also dealt with the significant influence of pastor Bill Johnson and Bethel Church, Redding, upon my inherited outlook and understanding of a distinctively pentecostal-charismatic spirituality. Following Johnson’s endorsement of Donald Trump at the apex of the recent US election, I finally arrived at a place where, after much soul searching and reasoned reflection, I felt that I could no longer self-identify with North American Evangelicalism.[1] Rather than continue to glibly accept the label ‘Evangelical’ as a descriptor of my faith, I decided instead that “simply ‘Christian’ will have to do”.[2] In my most recent post, I grappled with the reality that I am therefore now some kind of ‘post-evangelical’, and very briefly discussed the relationship between ‘Evangelicalism’ and ‘fundamentalism(s)’In closing, I considered to what extent I had unwittingly absorbed ‘fundamentalist literalism’ within my emerging understanding and experience(s) of the Christian Faith; Having reflected upon this at length, I have decided that the time to jettison this particularly unhealthy influence is now long overdue.

As an unintended consequence of engaging in some critical reflection upon my own faith tradition, I shall now delve into a book by the Anglican theologian Martyn Percy called Words, Wonders, and Power: Understanding Contemporary Christian Fundamentalism and Revivalism, before sketching my currently ‘amorphous’ affiliation to both the Vineyard movement and Anglicanism (broadly conceived). I stumbled across Percy’s (albeit, somewhat dated) book in one of my recent charity shop raids, and simply could not resist its ephemeral allure. Given that he focuses almost exclusively on John Wimber (founder of the Vineyard Church movement) throughout his study, it seemed uncannily relevant to my present circumstances. Alongside Percy’s work, I have also selected a number of other resources which provide useful insights for ongoing reflection upon my deepening relationship with the Anglican Tradition whilst being part of the Vineyard movement.[3] 

John Wimber: A ‘Sophisticated Fundamentalist’?[4]

Writing in 1996, Percy described Wimber as a ‘pre-eminent contemporary fundamentalist in the revivalist tradition’.[5] Having set out his own (highly nuanced) fivefold understanding of the characteristic marks of ‘fundamentalism’, Percy identifies four key reasons why Wimber was a useful and important figure to study at the time. Firstly, ‘his appeal is international and crosses denominations’, which of course means that Wimber has been particularly influential upon the UK Anglican church.[6] Secondly, ‘Wimber fits well with [Percy’s] fundamentalist criteria’, particularly as regards ‘the doctrine of scriptural inerrancy’.[7] As such, [Wimber’s] fundamentalism makes ‘such a fascinating case study’ because he expected ‘his followers [to be] actually experiencing and promoting ‘signs’ of God’s presence’.[8] Thirdly, Percy describes ‘Wimber’s fundamentalism [as] a tendency’ consisting of a desire for ‘the spiritual renewal of the Church’ by way of ‘propogating a whole host of phenomena’ such as ‘spiritual gifts’, ‘signs and wonders’, ‘healing’, ‘prophecy’, ‘deliverance’, and ‘speaking in tongues’.[9] Finally, Percy notes that:

Wimber’s ‘particular theological methods, with their tactile emphasis, form the basis of his social organisation in all its distinctiveness, as well as characterising his opposition to other belief systems. [10]

Thus:

Analysing his work will highlight how this form of fundamentalism offers a complete interpretive framework for participants in which their understanding of God, the self and the world is formed through the words that are used and the experiences and behaviour that are valued.[11]

Whilst Percy’s critique focusses primarily upon Wimber’s written and recorded works, he has visited Wimber’s conferences in order to ‘experience first-hand how Wimber and his followers operated in their preferred context’.[12] At the very least, this ought to mitigate against those who might be tempted to dismiss Percy’s criticisms as being solely ‘academic’ or detached from lived realities. As one might expect from a thinker of Percy’s calibre, his subsequent observations are acutely insightful.

Power Play?

One of the most troubling, sobering, and yet strangely reassuring aspects of Percy’s thesis is his analysis of power as a ‘principle of coherence’ for his interpretation of John Wimber’s theology and praxis. [13] As he puts it, Wimber’s ‘insistence that the power of God is by nature a visible, tangible phenomenon’ means that Wimber ‘locates power in God’s activity’, which necessarily excludes ‘other avenues in which God’s power might be manifest’.[14] This is particularly (and notably) the case with respect to the lack of any sense of a revelation of God in ‘failure, sickness, or powerlessness’.[15]

Power, in the sense that Percy describes it, ostensibly results in individuals and even entire congregations, denominations, and movements becoming subject to a crass, authoritarian hegemony which lays claim to a divine mandate for exercising emotional, intellectual, spiritual, and functional oppression. Such a hypothetical worst-case scenario is surely more anti-Christ than Christlike? Or do Jesus’ words about the nature of Christian leadership (read: servanthood) not apply to pentecostal-charismatic leaders like Wimber et al? (E.g. Matt 20:24-28, Mark 10:41-45, Luke 22:24-30, 1 Pe 1:1-5). 

Indeed, Percy notes the significant issues and power dynamics that arise when influential leaders claim to speak for God:

…in Wimber’s churches ‘words of knowledge’, reputedly supernatural in origin, are used to persuade, convict, and transform individuals in order that they might respond to God (Power Evangelism, 47). Although there is some biblical precedent…the problem with Wimber and his followers’ use of words of knowledge is that they frequently do not permit a free response, or constitute an invitation. They can be tools for persuasion, alteration, and coercion.[16]

Percy goes on: 

So the speech of God for Wimber, here in words of knowledge, is a notion of the power of God that competes with the freedom God has given in creation, ultimately quashing it…this view of power has an implication for church communities, though it is masked in authority structures. Some of Wimber’s followers… believe in what they call the recovery of the ‘Ananias and Sapphira scenario’ amongst their churches (Acts 5:1-11). Followers who resist or lie to leaders are…lying to God, and are therefore immediately liable to the power of God in the form of judgement… Thus, the room to respond to a word of knowledge is severely restricted…[17]

I find Percy’s observations strangely reassuring since they have confirmed my own latent concerns with evangelical and pentecostal-charismatic power language and dynamics. I am disturbingly reminded of my own experiences of church and para-church settings wherein presentations of Christianity seem to be replete with words like ‘power’, ‘revival’, ‘victory’, ‘breakthrough’, and relentless triumphalism twinned with fundamentalist certitude and saccharine sweet positivism. All of these sinister platitudes are typically expressed in both song and sermon alike, wherein the latter is proclaimed by untouchable ‘anointed’ leaders bereft of accountability. I get profoundly uncomfortable when I ponder the reality of these situations routinely playing themselves out on any given Sunday. 

Unfortunately I have seen, imbibed, and thoughtlessly regurgitated the kind of prosperity driven power language that Percy describes all too often. Reading his initial critique of Wimber is thus unsettling, to say the least. Therefore, to the extent that any evangelical/pentecostal-charismatic spirituality becomes conflated with an imbalance of power within the Church, my instincts are to resist and reject such practices as being wholly inconsistent with Jesus’ Gospel. For the Vineyard and those sympathetic to/influenced by the movement, any legacy of John Wimber’s theology and praxis that equates to a power play must be jettisoned just as quickly as similarly toxic elements of Evangelicalism, or indeed Fundamentalism(s).

None of this is to say that every aspect of the baby that is Vineyard theology needs to be thrown out with the evangelical bathwater of course. Discernment must be balanced with faith; at least as far as I am concerned. Nor is it merely the evangelical/pentecostal-charismatic movement(s) that need to beware of the misuse of power within their ranks; all denominations and expressions of Christianity are arguably flawed and ridden with sinners like you and I. Power must be kept in check and brought to the foot of Jesus’ cross, even (especially!) in more well established traditions and institutions like the Church of England. Friends, the grass is never greener, and I’m sure that I’m already preaching to the choir on that front. 

Anglicanism?

Amidst all of this lengthy, verbose, meandering diatribe (of sorts) against aspects of Western Evangelicalism, and the pentecostal-charismatic movement(s) in particular, one could be forgiven for asking the question (as a friend of mine did recently): So what? Why has this faith-shift of yours led you to embrace the Anglican tradition?

Good question. The answer is undoubtedly more complex than I can realistically articulate. However, since that is the very purpose of this blog series, I shall attempt to do so anyway (however ham-fistedly). Firstly, as various commentators have noted, Anglicanism is a ‘broad’ model of church indeed. Within the Church of England alone, numerous contrasting theological emphases somehow manage to coexist despite the inherent tensions such diversity necessarily brings. As Stephen Hunt puts it: 

There exists under the same umbrella theological liberals, conservative Evangelicals, Charismatics, the New Age fringe, not to mention a few agnostics and a handful of committed atheists.[18]

Indeed, I would suggest that the usual (somewhat arbitrary) approach of dividing the Church of England up into three streams, such as Conservative Evangelical, Anglo-Catholic (Liberal & Conservative!), and Pentecostal-charismatic, does not do justice to the lived realities that Anglicans encounter on a weekly basis within their own parishes and dioceses. 

Nevertheless it is clear that even from a cursory view of the tradition that British Anglicanism is, daresay it, refreshingly complex. It is for this reason amongst many that I have felt uncharacteristically drawn towards the Canterbury trail; there is room for a post-evangelical, pentecostal-charismatic thinker like me to feel oddly at home alongside a wide range of misfits. Within the confines of the English steeples, theological astuteness is not necessarily frowned upon as detrimental to one’s faith. Unity really need not equate to uniformity.

Re: Baptism?

As I have written about previously, my first formative encounter with Anglican liturgy was at the church service I attended back in the summer of 2015, wherein some friends of ours had their baby baptised (or christened for hardened credo-baptist folk!). Since then, I have come to realise that there are in fact solid, biblical reasons for embracing infant baptism as a Christian. For starters, Jesus rebuked the disciples for attempting to hinder little children from coming to him despite their youth (Matt 19:13-15). Whilst I have neither the time nor the space to address this more thoroughly here, suffice to say that I have moved from my prior theological convictions in this particular area. Consequently, the floodgates have opened for me to begin being immersed in the richness and depths of the Anglican tradition. After all, if I can accept their model of baptism, why not other aspects of Anglicanism? 

Liturgical Robes

As peculiar as the simile may read, I have found that a more consistent exposure to the liturgy at our local Anglican church has been akin to the comforting sensation of snuggling up inside a warm winter garment on a freezing February afternoon; indeed, for me it has felt remarkably reminiscent of a woolen blanket or even some kind of thick, pleated robe. It is almost as though liturgy has insulated me from the worst effects of my disorienting faith-shift, as if the tradition itself reached through the annals of history to envelop me in a protective cocoon and keep me from falling away.

I have discovered that there is something powerful (yet not coercive!) about reciting words which are saturated by the scriptures, and which have been passed on by our ancestors in the reformed faith as a gainful deposit for future generations to orient themselves God-ward. Reading aloud the ancient ecumenical creeds, confessing our common trinitarian faith, engaging in corporate repentance, intercessory prayer which isn’t simply a free for all of hapless babbling (punctuated by dubious tongues speech and/or overly frequent repetitions of the word ‘Just’, ‘Father’, and ‘would you’), and having moments of silence to reflect and humble ourselves before God are all elements of any given Sunday at our local church that resonate deeply within my soul. 

When I consider the hyped, multimedia saturated, rock concert aesthetic of many contemporary Evangelical churches I have attended, the distinct lack of all of the liturgical features I have just described seems glaringly apparent. Some might counter by comparing ancient liturgy to a dead form of obsolete ritual. Yet having been on both sides of the aisle, I would now beg to differ.

The centrality of the Eucharist

This factor is definitely the most stark contrast I can think of between independent evangelical/pentecostal-charismatic churches, and the Anglican tradition insofar as I have experienced it thus far. Every time I go forward with my family for communion at our local church, I rediscover the significance of sharing the Eucharist with my church family. The bread and the wine are not mere accoutrements of an outdated and sterile religious system, they are in fact the very body and blood of our crucified Lord and saviour.

Jesus promised to manifest himself to the disciples via the spirit, and this is surely something that pentecostal-charismatic types such as myself yearn for during sung worship; a genuine encounter with the spirit of the risen Lord. Yet in communion, we can not only encounter the Lord’s real presence (communing with God, and others), we can in fact partake of Jesus’ body and drink his blood, which scripture claims has the power to cleanse us from all sin and even grant us eternal life (1 Jn 1:7, c. f. John 6:53-59).[19] 

I have found myself profoundly affected by the simple rhythms of partaking in the Eucharist on a regular basis in an Anglican setting. Whilst I do not think that God’s presence is in any way restricted or even bound to the communion wafers and wine such that either a) God must manifest Godself this way, or b) God cannot manifest Godself elsewhere (particularly during sung worship, for instance), I have had what I might describe as ‘powerful’ (though not coercive) experiences during the Eucharist.

Sometimes, collapsing to my knees at the Lord’s table is all I can muster after a challenging week! Thanks be to God for grace and mercy!

A Via Media?

Some final thoughts include my relatively long-standing affinity with the notion of the great via media within the Anglican tradition; the middle road between two opposing extremes. I use this term as much in the philosophical sense of moderation as I might in the way some Anglicans have used it to define the tradition in the following terms: 

The term via media when used in reference to the Anglican tradition generally refers to the idea that Anglicanism represents a middle way between Protestantism and Roman Catholicism.[20]

For me, the via media means (amongst other things) that I am no longer faced with binary questions such as: Am I a Vineyard person, or an Anglican one? Pentecostal-charismatic, or sacramental/Anglo-catholic? Conservative evangelical, or liberal progressive? Credo-baptist or reformed such that I embrace infant baptism? Such dualistic thinking is quite simply untenable for me now. The simplest answer to such questions for me would thus be: Well, yes.

I might therefore suggest that it is entirely plausible for one to reconcile aspects of the Vineyard movement with historic Anglicanism, particularly where responsiveness to the Spirit is concerned. Quite how one might go about doing this on an individual basis, or even a corporate and/or institutional one remains to be seen. However, as Hunt suggests:

The structures of the Anglican church are sufficiently pliable to allow for considerable adaptation of Wimber’s ministry. The church provides ministry for both Charismatic Evangelicals and the pastorally minded.[21]

Doubtless, my own journey shall continue unabated. Perhaps I shall be able to merge my pentecostal-charismatic spirituality with the Anglican tradition in a relatively straightforward manner. Time will tell.

In Sum

So, what to make of all this? It would appear that I am indeed some kind of odd, hybrid creature; a post-evangelical Anglican Wimberite who is attempting to learn how to do academic theology at Master’s level whilst raising a family and earning a living. I might frame my present state of mind as follows:

I am therefore in pursuit of a revived, renewed, and reformed pentecostal-charismatic spirituality, twinned with an irresistible tug towards ancient tradition, which seeks a reasoned via media between the innumerable false dichotomies of our current 21st century context as regards faith, religion, and spirituality. In so doing, I submit that to be truly Christ-like is to be willing to eschew power and one’s own self interests in an act of reckless, worshipful, wanton abandon toward God and in so doing learn what it means to love the other; particularly the ‘least of these’ (Matt 25:31-46).

Without further ado…

M

End Notes:

1. By proxy, this has also involved a concerted effort to consciously distance myself from Bill Johnson’s/Bethel’s particular brand of charismatic theology, which has necessitated a deliberate, self-imposed moratorium on my prior tendency towards voracious media consumption (particularly Christian pop-rock songs and recorded sermons by Bethel). Additionally, to cite Johnson does not lay the blame for my own emerging faith shift away from Evangelicalism solely at his feet; many other white male pastors (E.g. Wayne Grudem, although he later recanted) endorsed Donald Trump, and this particular issue was (for me at least) very much a case of the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back, as it were. It would be unfair (and inaccurate) to refer only to Bill Johnson and the Trump phenomenon as the catalyst(s) for my own disillusionment with Western Evangelicalism.

2. See the conclusion to part two.

3. Full disclosure: For any readers who may be unaware, I am currently part of a new Vineyard Church plant in Cambridge, and have engaged with some of Wimber’s written works at length. I have a great deal of natural affinity for the Vineyard movement’s approach and emphases. Consequently, I do not approach this topic lightly, or as a dispassionate, detached observer. On the contrary, I am involved, and to a large extent personally invested in many aspects of Wimber’s ‘tendency‘ towards an experiential faith, Church renewal, and so forth. Nevertheless, in light of my previous post about ‘fundamentalisms’ and controlling people (see conclusion to part 3), the central thrust of Percy’s analysis is one I take very seriously: the use, misuse, and potential abuse of power.

4. Percy, Martyn, Words, Wonders, and Power: Understanding Contemporary Christian Fundamentalism and Revivalism, London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1996, 13.

5. Ibid, 14.

6. Ibid.

7. Ibid.

8. Ibid.

9. Ibid.

10. Ibid, 15.

11. Ibid.

12. Ibid.

13. Ibid, 16.

14. Ibid.

15. Ibid.

16. Percy, Words, 23.

17. Ibid, 24.

18. Hunt, Stephen, “The Anglican Wimberites”, PNEUMA: The Journal of the Society for Pentecostal Studies, Vol. 17, No. 1, Spring 1995, 114.

19. This is, in many ways a disastrously naive interpretation of Johannine theology as regards the body and blood of Jesus. Nevertheless, it sprung to mind as I wrote so I felt led to include it (make of that what you will).

20. See <http://www.anglicancommunion.org/identity/doctrine.aspx&gt;

21. Hunt, Anglican, 116.

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