Martyn Percy on Methodism and Charismatic Christianity

by Kim on October 28, 2007

Martyn Percy is the Principal of Ripon College, Cuddesdon, Oxford, a frequent contributor to British radio and broadsheets, and a theologically literate sociologist of religion of international repute. I have just finished reading his latest book Clergy: The Origin of Species (2006). Debunking “a kind of ‘creationism’ at work in ecclesiology, in which the ordering and functioning of the church is held to be above ordinary critical scrutiny” (p. 1), and deploying the Darwinian categories of natural selection and adaptation to explore the cultural history and contemporary social location of ministry, including the crisis of clerical identity, Percy has written a serious yet scintillating book, full of narrative and anecdotes, that is a must-read for ministers, and indeed for all those looking for an intelligent and informed treatment of the church and its leadership.

Connoisseurs of Connexions will be particularly challenged by Percy’s nine-page case study of Methodism, which, beginning as a radical intra-church movement combining missionary zeal with passionate social concern, has become “mired within the process of bureaucratization and routinization” (p. 128). “If any evidence of this were needed,” Percy continues, “one need only turn to the Millennium edition of The Constitution, Practice and Discipline of the Methodist Church. As Angela Shier-Jones notes:

‘Pythagoras’ theorem cane be stated in 24 words. The Lord’s Prayer in traditional English form has only 70 words… the Ten Commandments can be listed using 179 words… [but] The Constitution, Practice and Discipline of the Methodist Church requires no less than 225,966 words - to tell us what?’”

Observing that “Methodism has experienced a relatively recent collapse in its theological confidence” (p. 130) - a crisis he relates, in part, to the “mixed fortune” of contemporary hymnody and the decline of “the Methodist monopoly of ’singing theology’” (p. 130) - Percy suggests that, returning to its roots, it may be as “a movement rather than a church” that “the spirit of Methodism” (p. 131) might best be conveyed in the future.

However Percy reserves his sharpest scalpel for an anatomy of Charismatic Christianity, which he describes as an enthusiastic but fissiparous movement indigenous to “times of social upheaval” and parasitic on “distinctive social and cultural genres” (p. 138), and if full of soul yet empty in the head. “This observation is important,” writes Percy, whose analysis deserves to be quoted in full:

“Why is it that there can be so much schism in Charismatic Christianity? Answer: there is no doctrine of the church, and no theological template for tolerating plurality. (All that can be said to exist is a notion of gathered homogeneity, which emphasises size.) Why is evangelism so poor, numerical growth usually coming from ‘converting’ people who are already Christians? Answer: Charismatic Christianity has no soteriology of its own. Why does Charismatic Christianity apparently succeed so quickly where others have apparently failed for so long before? Answer: there is no real Christology, creeds, sacramental or Trinitarian theology and praxis to burden believers with. Adherents are offered an immediate form of spiritual experience - a kind of bathetic sentience through which one encounters quasi-numinous phenomena. Faith is nurtured not through knowledge, but through a community of feeling in which one learns to appreciate power, charisma and non-order - yet often within an authoritative structure” (p. 140).

Percy adds that while not all Charismatics are fundamentalists, most will be “fundamentalistic” - i.e. pre-critical, anti-intellectual, intolerant of hermeneutical diversity; in fact, “it is never the Bible that rules, but always the interpreter. Consequently, some charismatic churches can look quite totalitarian” (p. 144). He perceives that “Charismatic Christianity is often fashion-led, consumerist religion; full of fads, a populist, culturally relative and relevant phenomenon” (p. 145). And, finally, he predicts that “the party is largely over”, for “whilst people are still crowding in through the front door, plenty have left through the back door too”, afflicted with severe “cognitive dissonance” (p. 145).

That is just a (bitter?) taster. If this book were a sermon, Percy would no doubt be greeted at the door by worshippers saying, “Very interesting sermon, Vicar, you’ve given us a lot to think about” - by which, of course, they often mean, “Boy, did that sermon piss me off!”

Clergy: The Origin of Species costs £15.99, which for less than 200 pages might seem over-priced. But as one wag has put it, if you think education is expensive, try ignorance.

{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

1

Dave Faulkner 10.28.07 at 4:59 pm

Richard,

Fascinating to read, especially as I’ve shortlisted this book for reading during a sabbatical next connexional year, during which I hope to spend some time examining the doctrine and practice of ordained ministry. And while I wouldn’t disagree with all of his analysis of charismatic Christianity, some of the perceived doctrinal emptiness comes by virtue of it often having been a movement that has piggy-backed existing Christian traditions. Methodist charismatics quote Wesley; URC charismatics quote Calvin, etc. Other independent charismatic movements have formulated a certain theological style, not least New Frontiers (even if I personally disagree with it). So I think Percy’s point is valid but over-stated.

In any case, doesn’t he have a history of barbed comments against charismatics? I recall during the height of the ‘Toronto Blessing’ he was interviewed on BBC TV and claimed that John Wimber needed the Toronto movement as a fillip to his (apparently dying) Vineyard movement. But of course it wasn’t long before Wimber opposed the Toronto Airport church and threw them out of Vineyard!

2

John Cooper 10.28.07 at 6:47 pm

A thought provoking post but one that is worth writing. Unfortunatly it means you’ve stolen thunder from whatI was about to write about, though mine was context without having heard of the book.

There is a brilliant theory about how Denominations go from sects, to movements to denominatons and it is all about a growing quest for respectability.

This quest for respectability leads all to leave the reasons they grew out of something and become (in many respects) what they were. Therefore the ongoing musical heritage within Methodism presents both a stumbling block and a starting point.

The sung aspect of Methodism was popular due to a utilisation of popular music methods to tell a story which reasonated with the population it reflected. Can the same be said of hymns being written today? If so then where are they being published and if not why not!

Anyway, just a starter for ten…

Regards

John

3

Kim 10.28.07 at 7:31 pm

Hi Dave,

You’re right that Percy has form over Charismatic Christianity, and despite claims that he does not mean to be “patronising”, it clearly gets on his nerves.

Interestingly, your point about Charistmatic Christianity piggy-backing established traditions is precisely Percy’s: there are indeed charismatic wings in all the UK’s mainline denominations. But Percy effectively demolishes the notion that this trans-confessionalism makes charismatics ecumenical, anymore than Martyn Lloyd-Jones’ infamous call to evangelicals to come out of their churches and form a new denomination made “the Doctor” an advocate of church unity - just the opposite.

The examples of Methodism and Charismatic Christianty I chose show Percy in the mode of critique (though he is clearly very fond of Wesleyans, whose problems sadden him), which admittedly is the principal mode of the book because it is a polemic agaist “creationist” ecclesiologies and theologies of ministry. But Percy is not just a nay-sayer and debunker. Through all his criticism (most of it, in my view, justified) shines a priest who loves Christ’s church and holds the vocation of ministry in the highest regard - which is why he does not want to see it hijacked by either the historically stuck, the sanctimonious, or the managerial - and he has many constructive things to say.

Near the end of the book Percy tells a story about a Romanian Christian who, during the Second World War, “found himself imprisoned at Belsen, and deprived of all he needed to sustain his faith: no crucifix, bible, icons, devotional books, corporate worship or knotted prayer beads. So he prayed in secret - that he might respond to the call of love. He found himself spending time in the camp with the sick, the starving, the diseased, the dying and the betrayers - all those who were shunned by others. One day, as the camp drew close to liberation, an atheist - a priest, in fact, who had his faith shattered by the experience of war - came to see the Romanian and said, ‘I see how you live here. Tell me about the God you worship.’ And the Romanian replied: ‘He is like me.’”

“Few Christians,” Percy concludes, “could ever reply: ‘he is like me.’ Yet it is the motto of the minister - a phrase to live by and aspire too.”

It’s a story I wish I’d read two weeks ago when I preached a sermon at Richard’s Sketty Methodist Church entitled “What does God look like?” For my conclusion was: “To the onlooker, God looks like us. The question is: Is it a true likeness?”

4

ee 10.29.07 at 10:10 am

I think that those criticisms of Charismatic Christianity are easy to make, and perfectly valid. But I would certainly say that God has breathed some fresh life into the church through it, and furthered people’s faith through it. I’ve spoken to a lot of people whose discipleship has obviously been helped either through involvement in a charismatic church, or at events such as Spring Harvest or Soul Survivor (big charismatic gatherings for non-UK readers). It’s right to critique authoritarian structures, egomaniac leaders and the brainlessness of some charismatic Christianity, but its contribution should be recognised too.

5

Joel 10.29.07 at 8:28 pm

Kim, you’ve given me a lot to think about. ;-)

An imbalance between “victory in Jesus” and “a principle within”?

6

dh 10.29.07 at 9:05 pm

I believe that “Pentacostal Christianity” gets a “bad rap”. I believe we all need a little excitement of what God has done for us. I also believe the Body of Christ needs to encompass ALL of the “gifts of the Spirit” that the Apostle Paul mentions. For me ALL are appropriate for today.

7

K 11.02.07 at 1:21 am

I haven’t read the books being discussed but I do know Martyn personally and have spent many hours talking to him about the charismatic movement and hearing him speak. I think you misread him if you think he is anti the charismatic movement - he has a great deal of sympathy in that area. You should hear him on evangelicals!

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