‘You’ll find the prayer room down the corridor on the right’, said the welcoming assistant cheerfully. ‘The Lord is there’, she added in a more serious tone.
‘Yes of course he is!’ grinned my wife, thinking it was a joke. The Lord is everywhere, of course, so He is also in the prayer room! And we went off in that direction.
It looked like any other prayer room in any other Charismatic conference – dark, quiet, peaceful and meditative – with just one difference. All the chairs were oriented towards one corner. In that corner stood a table with a small silver box on it. The box was ornately crafted, and covered on top with a velvet cloth. Whenever someone entered or left the room, they knelt reverently towards the box.
The box was a tabernacle, containing a portion of consecrated bread and wine. For Christians whose faith is sacramental, a tabernacle is a special way of encountering the intensified presence of Jesus. It provides a reference point for worship and adoration of our Saviour.
The Familiar-Unfamiliar Combination
The collision of worlds on my first visit to a Charismatic Catholic celebration was both moving and surreal. I never expected to see people freely raising their hands in worship one minute, and crossing themselves (‘in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit’) next minute, as a bishop in full dress appeared on stage. I was the only one there who found it an odd combination, apparently – my 400 co-worshippers carried on as if it were the most natural thing in the world. But for me, the contradictory feeling of childhood-familiarity and unfamiliarity stayed the whole weekend.
The Celebrate! conference was founded about 25 years ago by the visionary Charles Whitehead. This was the first one I had gone to. I was touched by the explicit welcome they gave to non-Catholics like myself at the beginning of the weekend. I also learnt that some of the speakers were Anglicans and Evangelicals.
This year marked the 50th anniversary of Charismatic Renewal in the Catholic Church, and a bigger celebration was going on in Rome at the same time as ours. From our humble location in East Anglia, the big screen showed us live footage of the Vatican during mealtimes. We witnessed 30,000 people from all over the world, worshipping with all their might to songs such as Here I am to Worship and Shout to the Lord, with Pope Francis joining in. The sight of it moved me to tears.
Journeying Towards the Sacraments
As a Charismatic Evangelical since childhood, I confess I didn’t come to an appreciation of the sacraments willingly. I was dragged kicking and screaming, first by the power of theological argument, and later by the impact of personal experience. I have the kind of mind that loves pure, penetrating rationality. The sacraments seem offensive, a stumbling block to this way of thinking. Doesn’t it come dangerously close to idolatry? Why should Jesus be present in the bread in a special way? Why should it make any difference to my spiritual growth whether I eat it or not?
I also felt a contradiction between Charismatic and sacramental ways of encountering the supernatural. The one seemed free, uncontrolled, spontaneous and open; the other seemed mechanistic, formulaic, and closed. In most Charismatic churches, the Spirit blows where he wills; nobody can force him to show up. But in Sacramental churches, the presence of God is at the command of the priest, contained within a ceremony and repeatable at any time.
It has taken me until now to realise that God is big enough to embrace both ways of encountering his presence. More importantly, Sacramental and Charismatic churches have something in common that many other types of church do not. Both agree that the presence of God is tangibly there in a worshipping community, apart from his ‘intellectual’ presence in the preaching of the Word.
It is sad that these two beautiful ways of meeting Jesus have been separated due to the divisions in the Church. It is even sadder that both sides have a tendency to look down on each other as inferior or improper. But it fills my heart with joy to have learned that this is not the case everywhere, and that there are Christian communities which enjoy the richness of what both have to offer.
I am also glad to see a renewed interest in the sacraments among Protestant Charismatics such as Andrew Wilson, who is planning to write a book next year called Eucharismatic. In this book he hopes to show that “you can have the best of both worlds, the old and the new, the liturgical and the experiential, the depth and the bounce, the eucharistic and the charismatic.”
In the meantime, I plan to go back to Celebrate! next year (God willing). Anyone want to join me?