Tuesday 31 July 2018

Charismatics, Conferences and Characters

Crossing the Line - part 21

At the same time as being the youth worker in Haddenham I was also employed by a group working for national change in the Church of England.  Anglican Renewal Ministries (ARM) was set up to encourage Charismatic Renewal in the Church of England.

Charismatics often have a rather a mixed press in the UK.  They are often dismissed as happy-clappy, superficial or dumbed-down Christians, but beneath the joyful expression of most charismatic churches there is a profound longing for deep and life-changing encounters with God.  At the heart of the Charismatic movement is a rediscovery of the third person of the Trinity – the Holy Spirit.

Christians have always believed in one God who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  The Fatherhood of God is recognised in prayer every time we pray the Lord’s Prayer – Our Father who art in heaven.  The Son is, of course, Jesus Christ the Son of God.  But the Holy Spirit had been relegated over many centuries to something vague and mysterious, unknown and unknowable.  The Prayer Book didn’t help, referring to the Holy Spirit as the Holy Ghost.  As a child this had always sounded rather spooky to me!  Often referred to as ‘it’rather than he or she, the Holy Spirit was little understood and rarely mentioned except in blessings or collects, when listed with the Father and the Son.

Yet the Holy Spirit is an integral and powerful part of the New Testament.  The Virgin Mary conceived Jesus by the power of the Holy Spirit.  Jesus left his disciples at the ascension with the words, “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you.”  The Book of Acts which follows the Gospels, is full of stories of the Holy Spirit empowering Christians with signs and wonders, as well as teaching and guiding the early Church.  For them The Holy Spirit was the Spirit of Jesus, sent by the Father to be with them when Jesus could no longer walk alongside them on the road, yet just as real.

By the 20th Century however, one inspirational preacher, AW Tozer remarked that “If the Holy Spirit was withdrawn from the church today, 95% of what we do would go on and no one would know the difference.  If the Holy Spirit had been withdrawn from the New Testament church, 95% of what they did would stop and everybody would know the difference”. 

Anglo-Catholics limited the Holy Spirit’s work to the sacraments.  Liberal theologians dismissed Bible stories of miracles and healings as merely inspirational stories.  Conservative Evangelicals believed in the truth of the Bible miracles, but argued that the gifts of the Holy Spirit were no longer needed after the Bible reached its final form.  This prompted one preacher from the Charismatic movement to say “That’s like having a car and saying that we don’t need petrol because we’ve found the owners handbook!”

In a nutshell, the Charismatic movement was one of those times in history when people were rediscovering the person of the Holy Spirit together with the love and power which he/she brings to the Church.  This was often controversial as it appeared to be rather threatening to some traditional Anglican values, like playing everything safe and not getting too excited!

By the 1970s, the Charismatic movement in the UK was established and growing, inspired by accounts of amazing things happening in other parts of the world.  Finding and promoting an Anglican way of being Charismatic was at the heart of ARM. 

My job was mostly office work.  Responding to letters and phone enquiries; sending off orders for the courses we published and recordings of conference talks; publicising books and organising conferences.  It was good experience, learning the nuts and bolts of administration but part of my work with ARM was going to the conferences and parish weekends we organised. This sometimes involved leading prayer and worship, looking after the guest speakers and even preaching occasionally. 

The Hayes Conference Centre in Swanwick began to feel like my second home that year.  Some of the conferences were small with local preachers; some were large and had speakers from all over the world.  During the year, I met and talked with most of the Charismatic leaders of the 80’s, both from the UK and the USA and I heard enough sermons to last a lifetime!  I also assisted with the prayer ministry for people at the end of meetings.

I learned a great deal, from the nuts and bolts of admin to the sometimes delicate task of managing church celebrities.  Most of all, I learned that people who speak at conferences and write books are just people, even if some have an ego the size of a house!  In all walks of life there is a tendency to put people on pedestals.  Someone might be a great preacher, a celebrity or a successful politician – but beneath it all they are people just like you and me.  They have their good days and their off-days, their strengths and weaknesses.  On stage they may be larger than life, but they all have their grumpy days and sometimes even suffer depression, despite everything appearing fine on the surface.

Lawrence, the leader of ARM and my boss, was a case in point.  He was a big Yorkshireman with a big heart but also a big temper.  On some days the slightest thing could send him into a rage and when we were out on the road I was often the person who was sent in to calm him down.  It wasn’t quite like Daniel in the lions’ den, but more like the young boy David being sent to soothe King Saul’s temper by playing the harp! (1 Samuel 16)

A deanery weekend we held in Devon is a good example.  We arrived on the Friday afternoon ready for the first event which was a Youth Night.  We had booked an up and coming musician and preacher as the main attraction, but as 7:30pm approached we began to realise that he wasn’t going to show up.  After some frantic phone calls, it emerged that he had the dates mixed up and thought it was the following weekend.  As the only member of the team under the age of 50, I was asked to stand in for him, singing and preaching to the gathering of 80-100 young people who had arrived.  I had about 5 minutes to work out what to do! It would be fair to say that they got a raw deal that night, but were very gracious about it. 

The young preacher/musician then arrived somewhat shamefaced on the Saturday for the rest of the weekend meetings, but left before the final service on the Sunday evening.  Lawrence was furious, and I got a phone call over tea from a rather bewildered vicar who had witnessed the full force of his rage.  He had left him alone in a room to calm down before getting on the phone to me.  I went straight over and was greeted by a very relieved clergyman who ushered me into the sitting room where Lawrence was sat, seething.  After about an hour, normality was restored and Lawrence preached a wonderful sermon at the service that evening.

I saw the numerous heated arguments that Christian celebrities can have with each other, especially when they aren’t getting their own way. I don’t say this to demean them, but rather to show that we are all human.  Those of us who who read books by great preachers can assume that they are so much more Christ-like than we ever could be.  In truth, they are just as fallible, just as human, just as capable of getting things right or wrong.  Learning this was a very good lesson.  It taught me to always look inside the people I meet, to see their needs and concerns rather than just the persona they project.

Of all the people I heard preach that year, the one who impressed me most will be almost unheard of today.  It was a man called David Smith who was the manager of a food warehouse as well as being a local preacher.  He was wonderfully down to earth and real.  

People used to ask him why he didn’t get ordained.  His reply was short and sweet.  “I don’t need a dog collar” he would say, “Just like when I’m at work, I don’t need to wear a badge which says manager.”  When people looked a bit puzzled, he would explain that everyone knows he is the manager at the warehouse by the way he conducts himself, adding, “If I need a badge saying manager, I shouldn’t be the manager!” 

While I think there is a separate conversation to have here about the nature of God’s calling, what David taught me was priceless – that we should never assume that trust and authority simply come from a uniform, badge or dog collar.   Jesus said “By their fruits you will know them”, not by the shininess of their dog collar, vestments, or guitar!

Towards the end of my time with ARM I was sent to the United States to be a ghost writer for a Youth Pastor in an Anglican church in Nashville, Tennessee.  He had been recognised for his ministry among young people, and I was sent to collate his teaching material and turn it into courses for teenagers in the UK. 

I had some great experiences there…

Soon after I arrived I surprized my hosts by wanting to go for a walk around their neighbourhood.  Despite their incredulity I pressed on until I was stopped by a police squad car, suspicious of this lone figure waking the streets.   After a tense moment, I spoke and the tension evaporated.  “Aha! You’re English!” one of the officers said, before patiently explaining to me that people don’t walk in Nashville, they drive.

Then it was my turn to be shocked when I was taken out to a meal in a very respectable restaurant. Before being taken to our table we were asked to check all guns into the cloakroom as naturally as being asked whether we had a coat or umbrella.  Seeing all the firearms stacked in numbered lockers behind the counter made me look at my fellow diners in a whole new way.

After a couple of weeks I had everything I needed.  I came back to the UK, spent a couple of months writing it up and we published Crash Christianity and Discipleship Training.  It was a good note on which to leave.

Many of us who were involved in Charismatic Renewal expected it to take the CofE by storm and revolutionise the entire Church.  Looking back, it didn’t, but it did have a significant impact. In the Church of England today there are many experienced priests of all traditions who count the charismatic movement as influential in discovering their vocation.  In recent years I was surprised to find that almost all the clergy in a sleepy deanery chapter in rural Dorset cited Charismatic Renewal as a major factor in hearing God’s call.

It also led to the creation of a number of networks which are still highly active today.  New Wine is the biggest Anglican one, but there are also others.  Many members of the early House Churches were disaffected Anglicans from churches where they felt that Charismatic Renewal had been rejected.  As these grew, this led to the success of groups like New Frontiers.

No single reforming movement in the Church can ever claim to be the answer to all the church’s needs.  Life is much more complex than that.  We each have a piece of the jigsaw and we are all needed to make the picture complete.  Not everyone is made to be a raving charismatic, just as not everyone is made to be some other part of the church’s story.  Working for ARM for that year was an opportunity to encourage others to cross the line from a safe predictable faith into the unknown.  Many were blessed by that and the Church of England would be the poorer without it.

Today, ARM is known as ‘ReSource’ and is still active in encouraging churches and individuals.

But my time there was coming to an end and soon I was ready to move on to my next adventure – with a motorbike and a London A-Z.

Sunday 15 July 2018

By the village pond

Crossing the Line - part 20

Haddenham is a village in Buckinghamshire with a quintessentially English village green.

The ancient parish church with its lych-gate, the duck pond with its distinctive white Aylesbury Ducks and the cottages which line the green, make it an idyllic scene.

By the 1980’s the population had grown well beyond just a farming community, attracting commuters with new housing and direct trains into London Marylebone.  The parish church was thriving with a large congregation, a gentle kind of charismatic renewal and a lively youth ministry.

The quaint, Victorian village school was now the church hall and next to it, on the village green, was the Old School House.

As the end of my time at University approached, I started to find myself worrying about what I was going to do next.  My housemates were all kick-starting their careers, while I was trying to find something useful to do for a couple of years before starting theological college.

I wasn’t short of ideas but my dreams kept getting dashed by reality.

I wanted to spend some time overseas.  I had met someone who had spent time delivering aid with the UN in Ethiopia.  That sounded like a life changing experience, so I started investigating how I could do this.  Unfortunately, the civil war in the region was getting worse and the UN was starting to pull staff and volunteers out, so that came to nothing.

Driving HGV lorries across Europe was something I also liked the idea of but found that it was impossible.  Haulage companies didn’t take under 25’s because of the high cost of insurance.

Perhaps I could be an air courier?  Flying all over the world delivering letters and parcels seemed exciting so I wrote to several companies, only to be told that at the age of 22, I was too old!

It wasn’t long before all of my friends seemed to have something sorted, except me.  I started to have words with God.  “OK – if my ideas won’t work, what do you want me to do?”

About a week before my final exams the phone rang. 

It was Lawrence Hoyle – a Church of England priest who ran a group called Anglican Renewal Ministries (ARM).  Lawrence had founded the ministry to promote Charismatic Renewal in the Church of England and we had first met when ARM came to lead a weekend conference in my dad’s church in Bolton.  I had helped to lead the worship for the weekend with others from the youth group.  At the end he invited me to spend a summer working at Lamplugh House, a small conference centre which he and his wife Margaret had set up in the beautifully named village of Thwing in East Yorkshire.

I spent a happy summer there, helping out around the house, designing publicity, and leading worship for the groups who came.

Now he was on the phone with a new job offer.  Anglican Renewal Ministries was moving its offices to Haddenham in Buckinghamshire.  Lawrence was looking for an assistant to support him in their office work, conference ministry and parish weekends.  He also said that the local church in Haddenham was looking for a part-time Youth Worker in return for providing accommodation in The Old School House on the idyllic village green by the duck pond.

Initially, I was hesitant.  I had wanted to travel and see the world or else, I wanted a down to earth secular job before theological college like my father had done.  Now I was being offered a church job, just 15 miles down the road! 

As I reflected though, I began to realise that I was being more than a bit churlish.  After asking God to show me what he did want me to do, I was being offered a job which would take me around the country helping to organise Charismatic Christian conferences while living in a beautiful village!  What on earth was I moaning about?

I accepted the job and got ready to move to Haddenham in the summer.

As the time approached however, I began to realise that it would have been a good idea to get more information first.  Everything with Anglican Renewal Ministries was fine, but the church youth work was turning out to be a real hornets’ nest.

First, I was told that the old Youth Worker had lost his faith before he left.  Then I was told that he had also left his wife and children.  Then a few days before I was due to move in, I was told that I couldn’t, because his wife and teenage children were still living in the Youth Worker’s house – the house I had been promised.  

When I asked a few more questions, I discovered that the church was in the process of evicting them so that I could move in, and that the two teenagers were leading members of the CYFA group I was there to lead.  Things were going from bad to worse.

Instead of moving into the Old School House, I found myself being put up by Lawrence and Margaret in their spare room with a pull-out bed above the office.

And it didn’t stop there.  As if the CYFA group didn’t have enough reasons to hate me already, I then discovered that the old Youth Worker had been accused of having an affair with a member of the church before he left – someone who I had to work with in another area of church life.  Whether this was true of not, I never really knew, but the suspicion was enough to evoke all kinds of feelings of anger and betrayal in the CYFA group.

While there were several aspects to the youth work, the most significant was the CYFA group for teenagers.  They were a good group of young people, but the experience of losing their old Youth Worker – and for two of them, seeing their parents split up and their dad move away – had left deep pain which could easily develop into scars.  Adolescence can be volatile at the best of times, but adding in the hurt and anger took this to a whole new level.

Within a few weeks of starting I was on the receiving end of both tantrums and tears, which were quite understandable.  I began to see that these teenagers needed someone caring and dependable, but also consistent and firm.  What was needed was a cushioned brick!  Someting they could kick out against, but which would offer love and care to them, whatever they said or did.

It was hard work and as I look back, I am so grateful for one family in the village who offered me care and support in the midst of the early chaos.  Pat and Ron had two kids in the youth ministry.  Their son was in CYFA and their daughter in the younger Pathfinders group.  Pat worked part-time as the vicar’s secretary and I think she saw how I had been ambushed. They regularly had me round for coffee, meals and place to crash.  Without them, life would have been so much harder.

As time went on the old youth workers family found alternative accommodation nearby and I moved into the Old School House.  It was empty and I didn’t have any furniture, so I was dependant on people in the church donating bits of furniture they didn’t need.  The CYFA group helped me move things around and make a home and we started meeting there.  They even helped me in my home-brewing! We did things together and gradually the wounds began to heal.  Smiles and laughter began to replace the frowns and suspicion.

One of the best things we did was a Custard Election to raise money towards a CYFA activity holiday in Devon.  For those who don’t know, a Custard Election is the most corrupt form of democracy ever.  We had four candidates and after church for several weeks, we sold votes for each candidate. People could buy as many votes as they wanted and after an agreed time, the candidate with the most votes would be unceremoniously drenched in custard.

The candidates were John the vicar, a CYFA member who was also a Sunday School Teacher, a retired priest, and me!  Every Sunday we would announce the running total and then encourage people to buy more votes for the person they would most like to see covered in custard.  It was a big financial success.

In a final twist, someone handed us a blank cheque in the final seconds of the election, with the instruction to level up all the votes.  We were all going to get covered in the wet, yellow, sticky stuff!

The following Sunday, the CYFA group arrived at The Old School House very early.  We had gallons of custard to make!  On the old cooker in the kitchen we mixed, stirred, and poured custard into bucket after bucket.   Then after the morning service, the whole congregation gathered on the village green for the spectacle.  It was wonderful mayhem and despite the mess, the cold, and the stickiness, it brought us all together.

There were other good moments there too.  St Mary’s Haddenham was the first church where I rode my motorbike up the central aisle of the church during a family service one Sunday (to illustrate a point in my sermon, of course!)

 It was also where I learned that when preaching, it is better to quit while you are ahead.

I was preaching on the church as the Body of Christ and we had an old overhead projector with a big screen.  I got all the children to join me at the front around this OHP and asked them what I needed to draw a body.  I then drew their answers on the OHP, gradually forming a body on the screen.  It all started well – two legs, arms, a head, eyes, ears, etc – but just when it was complete enough for me to say thank you and move on, I asked one too many questions; “Is there anything else we need?”

There was a young boy who was stood right next to me, and his mouth was right next to the radio-mic clipped to my shirt.  As he opened his mouth, the mic amplified his voice many times over, and his words boomed and echoed around the church; “A willy!”  There was a moment of awkward silence followed by raucous laughter around the church.  This gave me a moment to think, and I quickly drew a belt on the figure on the OHP, saying the only thing which came into my head, “He’s wearing trousers!”  I got away with that one.

As the year came to a close, I reflected on what I had learned.

The first thing was starkly obvious – don’t do that again!  Don’t underestimate the problems which may lie under the surface of an idyllic, picturesque village or a successful church.  Always look carefully and ask lots of questions before saying yes.  It would be lovely to think that all posts in church ministry are honestly and accurately described by parishes, archdeacons and bishops.  Unfortunately, that is very rare in my experience.

When advertising to fill a vacancy, churches are just as prone to give into the temptation to ‘spin’ their story as politicians making a speech, or estate agents describing a bijou property.  Accentuate the positives and play down the problems – worse still, don’t mention them at all.

This is particularly true when looking for a new vicar.  I have nothing against open recruitment but by its very nature it is competitive.  Each parish tries to write a more attractive profile than competing parishes, and applicants try to present themselves as better than the other candidates. It is much better to have an open and honest appraisal of both the parish and the clergy than to shadow-box around facades. Having found out what lies beneath, God may still be calling a particular person to a particular parish, but at least everyone commits with open eyes.

The second lesson is not to give up on people who are hurting and angry.  Patient, persistent love can change situations, even lives.  It won’t always work, but that is ultimately up to them.  The CYFA group in Haddenham put aside their anger and found a new joy.  Not everyone will be so open, but Jesus brought together a group of diverse men and women with lots of reasons to be dysfunctional and angry with each other. Through his patient love, all except one found a better way of living.

Haddenham’s final lesson for me was much more recent – just a couple of years ago in fact.  I was visiting the headquarters of CMS (the Church Mission Society) in Oxford to find out more about their work.  During the day I was introduced to a woman who suddenly went into a kind of quiet shock before saying, “You’re Benny Hazlehurst?!”  She then went on to tell me about one Sunday morning when I had gathered the children round me in the service at Haddenham.  I was playing my guitar and leading a song, and that was the moment when, as a young child in that group, she decided that she wanted to be a youth worker.  Now, having been a youth worker for many years, she recalled that moment and it brought me such a blessing.  I had no idea that I had inspired someone in Haddenham towards ministry until that moment, many years later.

The lesson?  Never underestimate what God can do through you, even in the difficult times, and even when you may never know.