Social media is a pogrom simulator, and sadly, Christians rarely rise above the temptation to join in. My own set of orthodox Anglicans tend to stir the mob against a few recurring targets: Episcopalians, the Archbishop of Canterbury, and especially, charismatic worshippers. If this latter category is less frequently singled out, it is only because they rarely enter the circles of those who denigrate them. But on the occasion that they do, the reaction is vicious. This is a shame because, unlike the two foregoing groups, the grievances against are entirely calumnies born of prejudice. To the Extremely Online Anglo-Catholic or Reformed Episcopalian, the charismatic does not attend Sunday worship, he infiltrates it. He leads children astray by the strange incantations of glossolalia. He has no care for good liturgy. For the Reformed Anglican, on the other hand, charismatics denigrate the rational authority of the ministry of the Word by wondering aloud whether an image or thought in their head be a message from God. For the academic theologian, charismatics claim with disconcerting regularity that they have seen God work miracles, disrupting the fragile sobriety of modern life.
I am not a charismatic. I do not know the experience of my tongue loosed by spiritual influence, or an image that burns brighter in the mind than any other of my passing thoughts. But over years of ministering to them and worshipping both alongside them and under their authority, I have come to the conviction that theirs is a wholly desirable influence upon liturgical and sacramental worship. Indeed, charismatics have a natural affinity for Catholic worship and so ought to be welcomed and encouraged to participate in their own spiritual language.
I am convinced that the real source of animus toward the charismatic worshipper can be traced to a particular habit of mind, prevalent among modern devotees of the Great Tradition. Today’s traditional, sacramental worshipper exhibits a love for the shape of the rituals and traditions that make up the Church’s liturgical expression. Usually, this is because the Christian who delights especially in tradition is a convert from non-traditional evangelical environs. Having grown up deprived of the beauty of liturgy and sacrament and the history of the Church, the newly minted traditionalist delights to learn the significance of these things, the precise history and theology on display, and learns the finely-tuned philosophical language needed to explain the mysteries of the mass. For these converts, ecstatic worship raises suspicions, because it smacks of what they have left behind: a rootless religion shorn of beauty and history in favor of immanent experience.
But what is really afoot is a difference in emphasis, and a salutary one at that. In worship, charismatics focus their attention on the fruit of the sacramental impartation of grace rather than the shape and significance of the liturgy which accompanies it. If the mind of the traditional worshipper stands on the banks of the river of his tradition to admire its shape, the charismatic mind wades into the river to drink from it.
Put another way: if the sacraments are tools in the hand of God to impart grace, and the liturgy attends their celebration and reception, then it is worth asking what all of this spiritual machinery is meant to produce. The answer, of course, is saints–lives transformed by the sanctifying grace Christ delivers through his Church. It is nothing other than the eagerness to experience this transforming power that animates charismatic worship. The point is that the charismatic worshipper is more interested in the effects of that grace rather than the means by which that grace is delivered. This is not to say that charismatics do not care about the validity of the sacrament or good liturgy; only that, in the act of worship, the charismatic mind anticipates the effects of God’s presence in the soul and body, which often manifests as illumined minds, healed bodies, and most often, a palpable and immanent ecstasy that draws the worshipper farther than his rational nature ordinarily carries him. It is true that an over eagerness for spiritual experience can pose a real danger to the believer, but when properly oriented, charismatics exhibit an uncanny ability to intuit the doctrine of the sacraments. In my experience, it is the “Bible people” of the Reformed and Baptist traditions that tend to be scandalized by the simple act of receiving the body and blood of of Christ in bread and wine. The charismatic, by favorable contrast, is practiced in receiving supernatural graces from without.
Far from contradicting the charismatic spirit, liturgy complements charismatic worship by giving it a guiding hand. The malign and divisive effects of “wildfire” Pentecostalism are well known. But a liturgical structure turns out to be an ideal container for charismatic expression, ensuring that its excesses are curbed and good order is maintained. All of the charismatics who have come to our services have been even more aware of the excesses in their own traditions, and have been quite pleased to allow the liturgy to act as a rudder. I have certainly known exhibitionists to make use of charismatic prayer in order to draw attention to themselves, but not quite so often as I’ve seen excessively theatrical celebrants make use of the mass for the same ends. It’s best not to judge an expression by its excesses. Ordinarily, charismatic worshippers are pleased to have a strong, liturgical hand at the till, so that they can be free to be transported by the movements of the Spirit without worrying that they may end up in strange waters.
Charismatics also set up helpful guardrails against Bible worship. The inspired text of the Bible too often becomes confused for the Word of God who is Christ himself. That Word is not circumscribed in the biblical text. The Biblical text bears inspired and infallible witness to the Word, but it is not itself the Word. It is deeply dangerous to confuse the textual word with the incarnate Word. Charismatics intuit this distinction usually without the need for theological parsing. Charismatics intuit the infinity of the God who is beyond the text that bears witness to him. At the same time, the charismatics I know submit themselves entirely to the Bible, and this is unsurprising, since those who worship in the Spirit will be careful to beware of the other spirits have gone out into the world, and so they welcome the knowledge that helps them distinguish between them.
Like Marian piety before it, it is not hard to see how contemporary charismaticism functions as a form of popular mysticism and a language of piety. The Church has been at its best when it has recognized and blessed the good in these sorts of movements. More than a distinct few moments of revival, contemporary charismaticism has come to function like a language for religious experience–not only glossolalia but words of knowledge, physical healings, and openness to miracles. It has become a stark rebuke to the late modern prejudice that the world is devoid of the supernatural. Against the secular spirit of an atheistic world, charismaticism is God’s shock and awe tactics. Far from diminishing the Church’s forms, sacraments, and Biblical witness, charismatic worship enhances and illuminates them all and we would be the poorer for separating ourselves from it.