Not many people know that the charismatic renewal movement which swept through the mainline Protestant and the Roman Catholic churches from the 1970s had an Orthodox component as well. Calling this component a “movement” in the Orthodox Church would be overblown; it was more of a blip than a movement, since it never gathered enough momentum or numbers to actually move. Because of this an historical account of Orthodox people involved in the charismatic movement was impossible to find. That is, until now.
Fr. Timothy Cremeens has written a book which admirably fills this historical lacuna, entitled Marginalized Voices: A History of the Charismatic Movement in the Orthodox Church in North America 1972-1993. The title accurately delineates the content of the book—an in-depth account and analysis of North American Orthodox experience of charismatic renewal during the two decades when it swept through the rest of the Christian world. Fr. Timothy is well-qualified to write this book. He not only has first-hand experience of the renewal, but brings his considerable scholarly skills to bear on the task (Fr. Timothy is also Dr. Timothy; he has a Ph.D. in philosophy from Regent University). The book contains the fruit of hours of interviews with some of the principle players in the renewal movement. It was well that Fr. Timothy took on this task when he did, since many of these principle players have now reposed.
The book is a happy combination—it is thin enough to read in a few sittings, and thick enough to effectively cover the material; scholarly enough to do justice to the assigned task, and popular enough to be immensely readable. It is also wonderfully inexpensive, with a paperback edition available for just over $20. Anyone interested in the topic of Orthodox involvement in charismatic renewal needs to read this book, not only because it is pretty much the only book on the market covering the topic, but also because of its inherent excellence. Yep: two thumbs up.
The book narrates the historical antecedents of charismatic renewal from its pre-history in American Pentecostalism and even its pre-pre-history in Pietism and Methodism. It then quickly examines the charismatic movement itself in its Protestant form (the movement’s original home), and in its Roman Catholic form before getting down to work and focussing upon a number of figures in the Orthodox world who embraced the renewal. Some figures are somewhat well known, such as Fr. Eusebius Stephanou; others less well known, such as Frs. Athanasius Emmert and Boris Zabrodsky. As a Canadian I was delighted to find people and parishes I actually knew, such as the late Fr. Orest Olekshy, in whose parish in Saskatoon I first heard the Divine Liturgy in English when I was yet an Anglican. These stories are told in depth, with recourse to official documents, contemporary literature (such as magazines published by those involved in the renewal), and many personal interviews and communications. The book ends with a thoughtful analysis of why charismatic renewal was “a non-movement among the Orthodox”.
The book is somewhat unusual in that it constitutes neither an apologia for the renewal nor a denunciation of it. Far from whitewashing or minimizing the problematic elements within the movement, the book even quotes from such denunciatory appraisals as Fr. Seraphim Rose’s Orthodoxy and the Religion of the Future. It also seeks to be fair in its appraisal of the good that the movement accomplished in the lives of those touched by it. Those promoting a two-dimensional view of the phenomenon of charismatic renewal—either positive or negative—will not like this book. Which is all the more reason why they should give it a careful reading.
As someone who was intimately involved in the charismatic renewal and who ascribes his conversion to Christ to involvement in the Jesus Movement of the 1970s, I would like to offer my own tentative two cents, which consists mostly of warning against opposite extremes. One extreme view was the one common among charismatics of the 1970s, which asserted that the charismatic renewal was the final end-time outpouring of the Spirit upon all the churches (note the ecumenical presupposition of ecclesiastical parity) which would increase until all the churches were charismatic, culminating in the Second Coming of Christ. In the predictive words of The Second Chapter of Acts, a charismatic singing group of that time, “The Word of God says that we are to wait for the former and the latter rain [Joel 2:23], that in the last days God is going to pour out His Spirit. There is coming an outpouring of His Spirit and an ingathering that will make the ‘Jesus Movement’ of the early ‘70s pale by comparison. We can see that beginning to happen already. It’s gonna rain!” That is one view, the party-line from within the charismatic renewal itself.
The view at the other extreme writes off the renewal as simply and entirely a demonic lie and a counterfeit, another ruse of Satan to confuse people in the last days. It denies that the Holy Spirit works and sanctifies outside of Orthodoxy, so that anyone claiming a saving knowledge of Christ or an experience of the Holy Spirit is simply deluded and self-deceived. Fr. Seraphim Rose is characteristic of this view. Ironically his view is as dependent upon a specific eschatological time-table as the first view. The charismatics regard the renewal as a sign of the end-times, just as Fr. Seraphim does, with the sole difference that the charismatics regard the renewal as Christ’s final outpouring whereas Fr. Rose regards it as part of the Antichrist’s “religion of the future”. Both views, mirror images of the other, presuppose we are in the end times and that the Second Coming is near.
My own view is more agnostic. I cannot say (or deny) that the Second Coming is imminent, and I remain suspicious of any theology that claims to know that it is and depends upon that imminence as part of its foundation. I admit that it looks to me as if the End is indeed at hand, but since St. Gregory the Great also thought the End was at hand (in his Homily 3, from Forty Gospel Homilies), we should sit lightly on such claims and assertions. The historical landscape is littered with people predicting the End and doing things based on that assumption which later turned out to be unfortunate.
I suspect that it may be a bit premature to dogmatize about the lasting fruit of the charismatic renewal. Certainly the charismatic prediction that all the churches would become charismatically renewed powerhouses has been proven wrong, since most mainline Protestant churches continue their slide into theological liberalism and evangelical Protestant churches seem to concentrate on religious entertainment. The Roman Catholic church also has not been transformed as predicted. The only apparent lasting legacy of the renewal movement is the use of what is called “contemporary Christian music” in churches rather than the old hymns—all in all, not much of a legacy. It is still possible, I suppose, that “it’s gonna rain”, but the skies seem pretty cloudless to me.
I also suggest that the view which asserts that no salvation, grace, or work of the Spirit is possible outside the boundaries of canonical Orthodoxy is too limited a view to account for what actually occurs outside the boundaries of canonical Orthodoxy. Fr. Rose, for all his many virtues, had little direct experience of charismatics in the way that Fr. Timothy did and the people featured in his book. And there is nothing like direct experience for complicating the picture and requiring nuance. Or, come to that, for inspiring humble agnosticism.
The last word should belong to Fr. Timothy. In the final chapter of his book he writes, “The Orthodox Church in North America has yet to address the overall issue of the ongoing charismatic life in the Church [i.e. spiritual renewal in general, not the Charismatic Movement]. No thorough, serious, or authoritative study has been undertaken to give guidance to or provide spiritual formation for Orthodox laity who have been endowed with certain charisms that do not easily fit within the framework of the ordained Orthodox priesthood or the monastic life.” It is good to examine the brief passing history of the Charismatic Renewal. It would be even better to examine how Orthodox laity may be renewed today. Life has been given to all through the sacramental Mysteries. The question is: How can the laity become what they are?