21/05/2004

Blessing the Church? (by Clifford Hill)

I've actually met Clifford Hill. He spoke at our church some years ago, and I found him interesting. So when someone gave me one of his books, I was eager to read it, to see if his writing style was as good as his teaching.

'Blessing the Church?' s a fascinating account of the charismatic movement in the British churches during the 20th century. The book is an attempt to paint a fair and balanced picture of an issue which has caused deep division within the established church, and to show where something positive (the awareness of God moving in today's society) can sometimes branch out into potentially dangerous waters. It's actually written by four authors - mainly Clifford, but there are chapters by others, who are also known as authorities within the Christian world.

The first chapter gives a potted history of European society in general during the 20th century. It looks at the way we've moved from being a mostly family-based culture to one which is far more individualistic, and the way that hard work now seems to be considered a chore; moreover discipline of any sort seems to be considered old-fashioned. By the end of the 20th century we expected instant communication, microwaveable ready-meals, rapid transport, and any amount of entertainment at the switch of a button.

Probably more changes took place during the technological revolution of the last century than have ever happened in the world before. So it's not surprising, perhaps, that within many churches people have stopped wanting to study the Bible in depth and understand it in context; instead they expect instant answers, individual experiences, services that entertain rather than being challenging.

The book guides us through various moves of the Holy Spirit, including the charismatic renewal of the 1960s that swept aside many denominational boundaries, up to the early 1990s when the so-called 'Toronto Blessing' emerged in a Vineyard church near Toronto airport in Canada. Th author looks, in a balanced way, at what happened in various situations of (apparently) Spirit-led drama within the church - who was involved, how it started, what the result were. Many non-charismatics are critical of these movements, so it was particularly interesting to me to read the thoughts of someone well known as a charismatic believer.

The book has a surprisingly pleasant, easy-to-read style, and I found some of it quite gripping. I expected to read a few pages at a time over a couple of weeks, but I finished it in two days. I didn't find it at all heavy or deeply theological. Instead it focussed on common sense, on clear explanations of Biblical principles, and on the facts of what happened in the churches. Plenty of names and places are mentioned; to me this suggests extensive and thorough research, and that the authors were totally sure about the claims they make in the book, some of them quite negative. If they were not certain, they could potentially have been taken to court for libel if their claims had not been true.

I found it a very revealing book. Much of what it said confirmed what I'd been feeling about some of the strange things emerging from some churches. I was also very interested in the parallels drawn between society as a whole and the microcosm of the church, progressing through the 20th century. I'm not certain if I agree with everything that was said - but that's not a problem. The authors were quite willing to admit they might be wrong; they do not claim to be the final authorities. God is God, and he may sometimes surprise us. But for most of the book I found myself in agreement with the conclusions, even nodding emphatically as I read.

Definitely recommended.

(My slightly longer review of Blessing the Church? is on the Ciao site)

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