Beware promotions for the Garden of Eden

The Rev Stephen Cherry, Vicar of Loughborough, takes up the cudgels against the `Toronto Blessing' defended last week by Dr Patrick Dixon. Faith and Reason v
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The Independent Online
I have just read a very glitzy magazine. On its cover an enormous wave is breaking from its deep turquoise colours into sun-splashed crystals of white. Is this a travel brochure, I wonder? The slogan "and the wave rolls on" appears on many of the pages.

But other headlines suggest that what we have here is an offshoot of Farmer's Weekly. There are lots of pictures of golden ears of wheat and the happy slogan "It's Harvestime!" Surely a mistake. This is the winter edition. But then again all the talk about "Times of Refreshing" suggests that this is a promotion by a health club. No, it can't be that, because here is a feature on "Restoration". The magazine is, in fact, a product of "Covenant Ministries International". Alongside the key words "Toronto" and "blessing", all the words and pictures which I have mentioned fall (no pun intended) into place.

The covenant ministers are, by their own diagnosis, on fire with the Spirit. Much of their work involves administering the Toronto blessing, which consists not so much of the traditional charismatic excitement of speaking in tongues as of laughter, tingling and temporary paralysis which leads to collapse.

Such experiences do not come without controversy, of course, and in some ways that is exactly the point. For this blessing and its ministry are much concerned with power and, while some of the language is reasonably pastoral, much of it is worryingly apocalyptic.

I can see a place for charismatic experience, indeed for laughing, tingling and vibrating in today's world. You don't have to be Sigmund Freud to recognise that we live in anxiety-ridden times. And that it is but one small step from that to an appreciation of the need some will have for their religion to be cathartic. But I find the glossiness of the brochure, the pushiness of the prose, the urgency of the appeal and the confidence about the supernatural quality of it all a bit scary.

It is not just that I am jealous of a happy, growing church. Because if I do envy the happy young faces in the magazine it is with no deeper an envy than I have for the bronzed, relaxed people who smile at me from the many holiday advertisements I cannot afford to contemplate.

And my worry is not that people have ecstatic experiences: they happen all the time and all over the place. My worry is caused by the precise combination of style and content which is represented in this magazine. For when ecstatic experience is packaged in this marketing style it reveals that there may be more to this than wholesome, if somewhat primitive, Protestantism.

At one level it reveals what we all suspect, that what comes from Toronto is not so much supernatural as ultra-natural. A human phenomenon in which some can find God but where angels would fear to tread. My only hope is that the fools who rush in do not get sucked out of their depth by the undercurrents which the great wave (of Canadian rather than Mexican variety) generates.

Those undercurrents are as strong as they are real. I look again through the photographs to see whether one of the "dynamic preachers" is a woman, and I find not. This religion is clearly not only ordinary enough to be natural but also sufficiently traditional to assume male leadership. It is a primitive and raw form of religion. It represents the centralisation of many newer house church congregations under a leadership which is by its own description powerful and dynamic. That leadership is of course free from many of the shackles which inhibit their brothers and sisters in the established churches. Shackles such as pastoral responsibility to a diverse parish or congregation. Shackles such as accountability to the governing body of the church or the ecclesiastical courts or even the bishop.

But just how confident should we feel about such an unaccountable middle- aged male leadership presiding over mushrooming churches of young people? Remember that these men are not modest in their claims to supernatural knowledge and human authority. Remember, too, that the people in the congregations are being urged to inhabit a worry-free zone of laughter and relaxation where criticism is anathema and obedience all.

And remember that this, unlike the boring old churches with their balance of baptisms and funerals, their irritating eccentrics and their stabilising pensioners, is peer-group religion. Feel-good factors are high. Commitment is strong. There is buzz. There is excitement. There may well be God, but there is also real human vulnerability. There is navety. There is innocence.

These churches seem to be promoting themselves as the contemporary equivalent of the Garden of Eden, and when churches do that it is incumbent on all of us to be on the look-out for a snake. Just in case.