Thursday, May 01, 2008

Fermentations of an old wino

These are my initial reflections on the New Wine Leadership Conference "Releasing the Kingdom". Brief summary: some prejudices confirmed, but also more confirmed that I have a charismatic side emerging.

OK - back when I had my 'baptism of fire' moment it became clear to me that I had some spiritual work to do on my expectations of the miraculous and various other charismatic elements in my nature. In particular, whilst I have slowly become intellectually persuaded both of the reality of miraculous healing, and the importance of that in Christian ministry, I was more aware that I still have a lot of secular assumptions in my habits of thought. So I went to the conference hoping for a breakthrough - or breakdown! - of those habits, so that I could start to act with a little more authority and faith in that regard.

Well that didn't happen, for various reasons, but I still think it will at some point. The biggest handicap was that the venue wasn't really a safe place for me to explore these things, but more specific things can be said.

Firstly, I thought there was a good amount of solid teaching embedded in the talks, and I've taken quite a few thoughts and inspirations away. I thought that John Coles was quite impressive, except for when he was making cracks about Rowan/ liberals/ homosexuality which were a distraction, and I attended one seminar with Anne Maclaurin which was excellent and very timely for me (lots of things at the conference were timely...), but the main teaching input was provided by Bill Johnson - and I had a few problems with him.

Partly the issue was about a culture clash. Bill is from California and it shows - in his first talk I found it quite difficult to get beyond an impression of appalling arrogance (yes I know it takes one....) but in the later sessions that was less of an issue. What was more of an issue was an underlying disparagement of the intellect. This seemed to be a major element of New Wine as a whole: firstly a division between 'head and heart' was assumed (in itself distinctly UNscriptural!), secondly the 'heart', ie emotion, was elevated and intellect was consistently denigrated. I think that this was the main reason that I struggled to fit in at the conference. I need to love God with my mind as well.

The second great difficulty, related to that, was the "worship". When it began I was quite encouraged, and even felt myself tottering on the edge of that breakthrough, as we began by singing 'Blessed by your name', which I find tremendously meaningful. Unfortunately the worship band milked the song beyond what it was worth, and it was followed up by distinctly less valuable songs, which were also milked way beyond what they were worth (I noted that every song had to have a final third of repetitions with diminished force - the liturgical instinct cannot die!!). More than that - there was nothing other than the singing. No reading of Scripture, no explicit liturgy, not even a shared Lord's Prayer: on the whole I found the worship to be something of a starvation diet when I had been expecting a feast (indeed I think a feast would have tipped me over the edge). To my mind, the most essential elements of worship are the public reading of Scripture set in the context of standard prayers that can be learnt by heart - those are the bones which can then be supported and enhanced by the addition of the musical items; without the bones you just have a big floppy mess. (This is to say nothing of the sacramental element of course). This isn't to say that you don't want emotion in worship - clearly you do - but that emotion needs to be integrated with everything else as a coherent whole. I kept thinking of the 9.30 service here on Mersea before I left - much better!

There was one rather curious coincidence - of course it wasn't a coincidence, it was God's sense of humour on display - but I left the first evening's talk early, at about 9pm, because I found it less than worthwhile. Back in the hotel room I flicked on the TV and there was a fascinating program asking whether religion was a form of madness (called "Am I Normal?" details here). It was strange to have gone from an environment where I was surrounded by 2000 people speaking and singing in tongues, barking and cackling etc, to watch a fairly dry documentary exploring precisely those phenomena. It confirmed in me that there are some dangers involved in the New Wine way of doing things and that whilst I am convinced that living in the Kingdom necessarily entails healing, the way in which that healing takes place doesn't have to be shaped by the New Wine style. There was a part of me that thought New Wine had itself been captured by a particular culture - that of US baby boomers, with the uniform of blue jeans and comfortable shirt, and the cultural form of a Rolling Stones concert. New Wine, for a certain sort of believer, must be way cool.

The best element of the conference was the chance to talk to colleagues from Mersea about it all, and to get some hints and tips about how I can take it forward, which is really about two things - taking it forward on a personal level, and taking it forward as a ministry on Mersea. The latter will probably involve something that could be described as 'Charismatic Catholic' - which is where I suspect I will end up churchmanship-wise - but the former is still a bit blurry to me. One especially helpful thing was a comment saying that the shift is best described, not as a 'baptism of the spirit', for that has already happened for each Christian - but as a 'release of the spirit'. That makes an awful lot of sense, and will probably form my sermon on Pentecost Sunday!

So: a very worthwhile experience, timely in many ways, which moved me forward in my journey and confirmed me in the general direction that I'm travelling in - but also something that confirmed for me that New Wine isn't the right vessel to carry my spirituality forward. It's not a "comfortable coat" - which was, I believe, an authentic 'word of prophecy' spoken to me at the conference. Worship that is charismatic and fully liturgical and sacramental - that sounds like something being stitched by a heavenly tailor for me.

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