Thursday, 6 December 2012


In the 24 November, 2012 edition of The Week there is a page devoted to the new Archbishop of
Canterbury, who, it turns out, emerged from Holy Trinity Brompton, home of the alarming Nicky Gumbel and his bafflingly popular Alpha Course.

The article explains that Holy Trinity Brompton is home of 'Charismatic Christianity'. As a person who never trusts charm or charisma I find this worrying. Nicky Gumbel is also often described as 'charismatic', which, for me, is a black mark against him as well. In fact, since I watched a programme called 'The Dark Charisma of Adolf Hitler', I view anyone and anything that is linked to the attribute as frankly dangerous.

The writer of The Week article goes on to point out that Holy Trinity Brompton and its brand of Christianity is unstoppable. His argument to explain this, however, is purely circular: "Because it's the only area of the C of E that isn't in decline." Looking elsewhere in the article, it is difficult to discover any clearer explanation for the popularity of this form of worship. In fact, the description the article gives of what goes on in Charismatic Christian services only adds to my mystification about the phenomenon that is Holy Trinity Brompton:

"Charismatic Christianity teaches that the gift of grace which came down on the Apostles at Pentecost (they were all "filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak" in other languages) can descend again on modern man. So in place of the elaborate vestments, Victorian hymns and formal liturgy of traditional parishes, it emphasises informality, spontaneity and the uninhibited display of emotion. Instead of singing We Plough the Fields and Scatter, the Holy Trinity Brompton congregation stands, eyes closed and hands in the air, swinging to a rock band, singing phrases like "I can see your face, Lord", over and over. They speak in tongues: to the untrained ear this means babbling incoherently; to the "born again" it is the Holy Spirit speaking."

Shudder. I do not want uninhibited displays of emotion. I do not want to swing to a rock band. And as for informality - I think it works well at a barbecue.

But who am I to complain? I very rarely go to church so I don't suppose I can expect those who do go regularly to keep things the way I like them. All I can say though is that when I do go, the thing that moves me is the thought that a group of strangers has made the effort to leave their houses and gather to acknowledge something strange and mysterious at the heart of life. Making their way through the unchanging rituals, quavering out familiar old hymns together, kneeling to pray for the good of the state, the protection of the Queen and the health of various parishioners they have never met, there is no room for display and competitiveness as they endeavour to focus their thoughts, if only briefly, on trying to foster generosity and love within themselves.

The babbling and swinging and hands in the air of Charismatic Christianity strikes me as about something quite different. There is no room for quietness and a momentary loss of self in those rituals, although there is ample opportunity for showing off and standing out from the crowd. In our narcissistic age, I presume this is the source of its increasing appeal.

Well poor old Church of England, I fear for its future - or, really, I suppose, I fear for myself and my relationship - already pretty feeble - with it. For me, it's bad enough that the dreadful empty gesture of 'Peace be with you' has been inserted into every service. Big-noters, unfortunately, are always with us,and they leap on this opportunity to self-promote with gusto. Not content with merely greeting the people in the pews around them, they gallop up and down the aisles, forcing their loving fellowship on everyone in the place.

There they are, see, just up behind you, wringing that poor woman's hand and fixing her with their icy-cold grins. And, oh Lord, they're getting nearer - and their handshakes seem to be becoming more and more vigorous and the look in their glittering eyes, as they fasten onto each new victim, seems to last an extra millisecond every time.

Quick, let's get out of here and do remind me not to come back  - at least not until I'm old enough to emulate my aunt's ancient friend in Hampshire. When it's time for the greeting, she seizes the hand of anyone who attempts to engage her with it. Crushing their fingers within her own surprisingly strong fist, she smiles sweetly, hissing simultaneously, 'Piss off', between clenched teeth.


  1. Roman Catholic charismatic congregations have been around for something over 40 years now. That I can tell, and I don't pay close attention, they aren't growing particularly fast; Tridentine Masses have probably increased at a much greater rate than charismatic ones over any period you wish to count since Vatican II. I wonder whether the charismatic movement in the Anglican world will not be comparably secondary.

    It seems to me that one who did not care to shake hands might pardonably simulate greater piety than he possessed, and remain kneeling in an attitude of rapt prayer. Yes, yes, hypocrisy, but is telling the rest of the congregation to piss off really preferable?

    ("Scatter" to an American ear no longer suggests "sow". Therefore "We Plough the Fields and Scatter" sounds to me like the perfect recessional hymn for a congregation eager to make it out the door.)

    1. Maybe not piss off in all senses, just piss off in trying to involve me in this particular piece of superficial, insincere behaviour, which all to easily becomes the symbolic stand-in for real human interaction and helpfulness. Most people who encounter her doing this seem to persuade themselves that she is actually saying 'Peace' not 'Piss' and they simply misheard it all - she is such an old lady, she couldn't possibly have been swearing (could she?) I wish I thought you were right about the 'Charismatics' becoming secondary but at the moment at least they do seem to be by far the most vigorous group in the Anglican church. I'm not sure whether the Sydney diocese follows quite the same path but they do certainly believe in getting rid of everything inessential to the 'word'. As I understand it, they have scrapped choirs and thrown out beautiful old pews, both things being viewed as too decorative and therefore distracting.

  2. As a young child, I loved going to Sunday school and listening to my elderly teachers (women who had been spinsters since the Great War) read stories from the Bible. Then I graduated to the junior class and suddenly, eveything changed. The Bible stories were replaced by games, quizzes, tum-tiddly-tum-ti-tum modern hymns and a manic, false jollity that I despised even then.

    I quickly lost any respect for the institution and started spending my collection money on sweets.

    In a world that often feels drowned in noise and chaos, the church should be a place of quiet contemplation, not a community day centre. It's the Nicky Gumbells of this world that have put me off going to church.

    If I do enter a church, I make sure that it's on a on quiet weekday afternoon, when there is little danger of bumping into anyone else. Having a 1000-year-old building to myself, listening to the creaking of ancient beams and the rattle of death watch beetles, thinking of the generations who have worshipped there, is a spiritual experience.

    1. Complete, total, utter agreement. I'm not looking for jollity; I'm looking for calm and contemplation.