words: Charismatic

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The Independent Online

CHRIS BRAIN, the Anglican priest suspended for getting above himself and harassing members of his congregation, has been described by one of his followers as "charismatic and brilliant". The Daily Telegraph called him "a long-haired charismatic", while Andrew Brown in the Independent explained that he was one of a group exploring "charismatic Christianity". There is much confusion here.

The Greek charisma meant a gift. St Paul in one of his pastoral letters to St Timothy asks him to remember "the gift (charisma) of God which is in you by the putting on of my hands". It wasn't a personal quality. Those who had such a gift were agents for transmitting divine grace. It is true that St Paul uses up a lot of ink telling Timothy and the rest of them to behave themselves, but the Catholic view, as I understand it, is that the sacraments are valid however wicked the private life of the priest who administers them. Genuine spiritual healers, who claim to cure people by touch, are usually quite ordinary people. A charismatic is merely someone who belongs to the charismatic movement, which tries to repeat the disciples' experience at Pentecost when the Holy Ghost blew in and gave them the gift of tongues.

I don't know when charisma became fully secularised - it was already being used in the 1870s to mean a "talent" for something but by about the 1940s anyone with more-than-average personal charm could be called charismatic, even politicians, particularly if they had power to improve people's lives. The thing had changed entirely. Instead of being a gift conferred by God on a person, it was a gift conferred by a person on other people. Praise for the "charismatic and brilliant" Mr Brain suggests that he was thought of in that way - and that his followers may have forgotten St Paul.

Nicholas Bagnall