Charismatic Movement Transcends Sects

Article excerpt

Forty years ago on April 3, 1960, the Rev. Dennis Bennett stepped up to his pulpit in his wealthy, Van Nuys, Calif., Episcopal parish and announced he had recently learned how to speak in tongues.

His 2,600-member congregation was fairly accepting until the end of the second service, when one of his assistant priests tore off his vestments and strode out of the church, exclaiming, "I can no longer work with this man."

Mr. Bennett's subsequent resignation from his church, his appearances on TV, in Newsweek and Time and his transfer to a dying Seattle parish has become part of the lore of the 20th century's fastest-growing religious movement: the "charismatic renewal," after the Greek word charis, meaning "gift."

It pertains to the unusual "gifts of the Holy Spirit," such as the prophetic utterances, divine healing and speaking in tongues associated with the movement.

Today, Pentecostal or charismatic Christians - the two terms are nearly synonymous - number 523 million adherents worldwide, according to the Richmond-based Global Evangelization Movement Research.

An ecumenical charismatic conference slated for June 22-25 in St. Louis is expected to draw about 15,000 Christians from all denominations.

Harvard University theologian Harvey Cox has called it Christianity's "primal religion," growing at a rate of 20 million members a year.

Its music, worship styles and language and emphasis on spiritual experiences have seeped into the larger culture. Uplifted hands during worship services are commonplace in many gatherings that have nothing to do with Pentecostalism.

"You can't tell any more what kind of church you're in," said the Rev. Vinson Synan, dean of Regent University's divinity school and author of several books on Pentecostal/charismatic history. Referring to forests of waving arms during the singing of hymns, he said, "Those Promise Keeper meetings looked like Pentecostal rallies."

Although the Pentecostal movement in Christianity began at the dawn of the 20th century, it did not seep into mainline denominations until the 1960s, spurred by Mr. Bennett's well-publicized involvement. Mr. Synan has recorded how, starting at that point, the renewal exploded among mainline denominations.

Books such as the Rev. David Wilkerson's "The Cross and the Switchblade," which told how Pentecostal practices helped New York drug addicts shed their habit, were instrumental in influencing the Roman Catholic Church, America's largest religious denomination.

The Catholic Church had its first charismatic prayer meeting in February 1967. Thirty-three years later, "In the Catholic Church, most of their lay leaders are charismatic or have come through the movement," Mr. Synan observed. "The archbishop of Canterbury is charismatic. He is a symbol of how the charismatics have risen in the hierarchies of the churches, except the liberal ones.

"The head of the Southern Baptist Foreign Mission Board, Jerry Rankin, is a known charismatic. Most of the [Southern Baptist] missionaries are charismatic or they couldn't make it on the mission field."

During the 1960s and 1970s, the movement's progress through American churches was like an arrow heading straight up. Thanks to spiritual meccas, such as Southern California's Calvary Chapel, which introduced charismatic practices to a whole generation of baby boomer musicians, the movement soon had its own lyrics and songs.

Meanwhile, Mr. Bennett's new parish - St. Luke's Episcopal Church in the Ballard area of Seattle - thrived. …