When the day of Pentecost arrived, they were all together in one place. And suddenly there came from heaven a sound like a mighty rushing wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. And divided tongues as of fire appeared to them and rested on each one of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit gave them utterance. (Acts 2:1-4)
In an earlier Ad Clerum on “Being Filled with the Spirit," I described how I became a very grateful beneficiary of the Charismatic Renewal Movement of the 1960s/1970s. Its beginning in the Episcopal Church is usually dated as Sunday, April 3, 1960, when Dennis Bennett (1917–1991) Rector of St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, a 2600-member congregation in Van Nuys, California, recounted his own personal Pentecost experience to his parish. He did so again on the next two Sundays, including Easter (April 17), and during that service, many of his congregation shared his experience, the ensuing controversy causing him to resign. The resulting media coverage spread awareness of the emerging charismatic movement and Dennis Bennett began a nationwide teaching ministry. (See his book Nine O’clock in the morning.) Terry Fullam, who later became Rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Darien, Connecticut, attended one of Bennett’s meetings and had a personal experience of the Holy Spirit – this subsequently shaped his own worldwide teaching ministry. (On a local note, I have just read that it is claimed that the Catholic Charismatic Renewal began in 1967 at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh!)
After my ordination in 1978, I was called back to serve on the staff of St. Paul’s Church and after two years became the associate rector while Terry conducted his increasingly global teaching ministry. I was curious about the likely trajectory for the church, so, during a family trip to England, I visited Bishop Stephen Verney, who had served as a canon at Coventry Cathedral before being made a bishop. Before his retirement, he had written a book called Fire in Coventry, which told of the amazing spiritual renewal that took place in the diocese of Coventry as part of the rebuilding of Coventry Cathedral, which had been destroyed by fire in WWII. It was a powerful time when many people came to faith in Jesus Christ.
I asked Bishop Verney what signs of renewal were still visible in the diocese decades later. After a few moments of silence, he answered.
“What happens when an apple falls from a tree? What remains?”
At first, I thought he was going a little senile or Zen-like, but I thought I would humor him and answered, “It hits the ground.” Then he asked what happened after that. “The apple rots,” I said.
“Then what?” he asked.
“Another apple tree – if you’re lucky!” I replied.
He kept asking, “Then what?” To my mind, it was rather annoying.
Finally, I said, “I suppose you will get an orchard if you wait long enough!”
Bishop Verney smiled at me and said, “There are hundreds of orchards all over the diocese today!”
Finally, I got the point. The work of the Holy Spirit had a very special impact at a very special time in Coventry, but it didn’t stop there. It continues to grow as thousands of people follow this pattern of dying to self and rising to glory. Dying to self – rising to glory!
It also occurred to me that if we did ever find that original apple, we would more than likely paint it gold and build a museum for it. It would then become the focus of adoration and pilgrimage instead of being the source of life for so many.
This simple object lesson has also helped me understand why so many of those original “Renewal Churches” are no longer making headlines. The Church of the Redeemer in Houston, Texas, which, under the leadership of Graham and Betty Pulkingham, became a center for liturgically-based worship revival, has now been permanently closed. St. Paul’s Church in Darien has shrunk to only a handful of parishioners, after a lengthy and bruising legal battle with the Episcopal Diocese of Connecticut. But the legacy of these two churches continues to flourish. There are orchards full of fervent believers all over the world – I know because I have met many of them!
Perhaps this is a helpful way to think about spiritual renewal. If those first disciples had decided to stay in that upper room and reminisce about their amazing three years of discipleship walking alongside Jesus, we would have never been the wiser. The Church would have never been born. Instead, they went out as witnesses and there are now more than 2.5 billion people who consider themselves Christians – almost one-third of the Earth’s 7.9 million inhabitants. While the number of Christians appears to be on the decline in much of Europe, most of the growth continues in Africa and Asia.
It is that same Holy Spirit that Jesus promised would give his disciples the “power to be his witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” (Acts 1:8)
It is that same Holy Spirit that gives us the power to be His witnesses in our own homes, in our communities, in the various Pittsburgh neighborhoods, and throughout Western Pennsylvania. And in Wheaton, Illinois; Nashville, Tennessee; and Fort Collins, Colorado – to the ends of the earth!
The Charismatic Renewal is not over – it is simply no longer operating in a handful of places among a few chosen people. It has, to use the language of today, “gone viral.” And that is just what was promised:
“And in the last days it shall be,” God declares, “that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams; even on my male servants and female servants in those days I will pour out my Spirit, and they shall prophesy.” (Acts 2:17,18)