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  • Ross Moughtin

How disciples of Jesus handle major disagreements.

Well, how things have changed!  Who would have thought?

Being a Christian all these years, well over half a century, gives a certain perspective. I've seen things come and I've seen them go.  Moreover, what was hugely important then is hardly noticed today.   Such as the spiritual gift of speaking in tongues. This Monday the media picked up an interview of Justin Welby on Premier radio, all very straight-forward and in-house.  Except that when you are the Archbishop of Canterbury nothing stays in-house for long.    As the BBC reported on Monday, Justin said that every Christian was a charismatic in one sense, as they were "filled with the Spirit" according to the New Testament.  Incidentally I note that the BBC writer used lower case, spirit - even their punctuation shows a lack of understanding of the reality of the Holy Spirit in the life of every Christian .   The archbishop went on to say: "In my own prayer life, and as part of my daily discipline I pray in tongues every day - not as an occasional thing but as part of daily prayer."  The BBC article had already explained what praying in tongues actually means, "a divine language, involves sounds with no easily understood meaning."  The Guardian went to town on this.  Andrew Brown predictably mocked this spiritual gift, seeing it as "one of the clearest markers to his evangelical tribe."  Brown explains: "Talking in tongues is a streaming babble of nonsense syllables delivered with a curious calm authority, as if what the speaker were saying made incontrovertible sense, even though it contains no recognisable words." Sixty years ago, when the New English Bible appeared as the first authorised English translation of scripture since 1611, very few people knew what speaking in tongues was all about.  Just a few Pentecostals, who were considered wild and off-the-range.  Certainly not the Oxford academics who aimed to give us the New Testament in ordinary, easy-to-understand English. So faced with the task of translating the apostle Paul's teachings on tongues they translated the Greek word glossolalia as 'ecstatic utterances," as if the speaker found themselves carried away by some powerful spiritual emotion rendering them incoherent.  In fact, the reality is totally the opposite.  As Justin reflects "It's not something to make a great song and dance about.  Given it's usually extremely early in the morning it's not usually an immensely ecstatic moment because I'm sort of "Urrgh - struggling."  In fact, from my own experience praying is tongues is most helpful when I'm "Urrgh - struggling." However, fifty years ago tongues certainly was something to "make a great song and dance" about: it caused huge heartache and divided churches.  I recall having one booklet aptly called "The battle for tongues."     We're talking of the early days of the charismatic renewal.   I was a very young Christian when I first heard about tongues, around 1965.  I was invited to a meeting in Liverpool organised, I assume, by the Christian brethren, then very influential and populous on Merseyside.  I was intrigued. "What's this all about?"  Tongues, I was informed by my Covenanter leader, were extremely dangerous and associated with the occult.  Not an issue for me, I thought - and sensibly stayed home to watch Z-Cars instead.  However, the spiritual gifts - especially tongues - soon became a big issue, especailly when one of John Stott's curates at All Souls, Langham Place, Michael Harper, discovered for himself the huge potential for renewal of the spiritual gifts, showcased by tongues.    I haven't got the space to go into the early days of the charismatic renewal except to say that praying in tongues became a huge issue for many Christans.  Views became polarised between satanic influence and just as dangerous, the view that you were not a proper Christian, if a Christian at all, if God had not given you this spiritual gift.   Churches were split, people left to start their own fellowships in their homes. I recall on arriving at Heswall in 1979, to be curate at the Good Shepherd, being asked rightaway by Ella if I spoke in tongues.  My answer would determine whether she stayed a member.  Being an Anglican I sidestepped the question -  but she stayed to become a loyal supporter.   Looking back it all seems so unnecessary - and so sad.  Yes, praying in tongues is a useful spiritual gift but one amongst many.  It does appear in the New Testament but not that often. Certainly not a defining issue.      Which gives me a perspective on how to see parallels today, those issues dividing committed Christians often in two polarised camps.   In the same interview with Premier Radio, Justin referred to the current controversy over sexuality. While some Christians claim the Church is moving away from the Bible, others claim a greater welcome needs to be given to LGBT people.  "Is there a simple answer?" Justin asks. "If there was a simple answer we would have found it. It is a complex of things and every church - not just the Anglicans - every church is struggling and has always struggled between the balance of what holiness looks like and how we treat those who fall short." He urges that we read the Bible carefully, we pray a lot, and love one another.   "We're not meant to be disunited. The reality is we are called, particularly by Jesus to be one. We are called to be one and there are only three significant problems with disunity, this is what the Bible tells us: disunity ruins our prayer life, disunity destroys our assurance of salvation in Christ, and disunity profoundly hinders our mission." That would have been excellent advice for the 1970's - and would have spared us a lot of heartache then. Let's hope it does the same for today.

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