Pilgrimage in Renewal
by John-Charles Vockler
Brother John-Charles wrote in 1990 as an Anglican Bishop and the founder of
The Franciscan Order of The Divine Compassion.
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Until recently I would never have dreamed that I would sit down and write a testimony for a publication like this one, nor that it would have as its principal thrust my concern with and my blessings from the charismatic renewal.
I am an Anglican Bishop who was a member of the Society of Saint Francis and is now a member of the Franciscan Order of The Divine Compassion. Very early in life I was attracted both to Holy Orders and to the character and the witness of Saint Francis.
This attraction to St Francis greatly increased during my study in Theological College. I asked my bishop whether I might be allowed to go almost at once to test my vocation in a Franciscan religious community. He rightly pointed out that I had undertaken to be ordained in the Diocese of Newcastle and to serve in that diocese for five years. He added that if I were faithful in persevering in that vocation then he would be willing to release me in due course to test this other vocation to the Religious life.
However, as the years went by, other things presented themselves which seemed right and proper to do. In every case, when I sought advice, I was urged to go forward with those things. They included overseas studies and eventually a call to the episcopate in the Diocese of Adelaide. There I was Assistant Bishop before being translated to Polynesia to the Diocesan Bishop.
I grew up in a Christian family. I was unable to accept the narrowly evangelical teaching which then characterized the Diocese of Sydney, that is, unable to accept it in its strict and partisan form. Nevertheless, I owe a great debt of gratitude to the teaching which I received in the Diocese of Sydney and in evangelical circles.
The narrower aspects of evangelicalism were tempered in my case by the parish in which I grew up, St John’s at Dee Why, and by the liberal attitudes of my Sunday School teachers. They had been influenced by the findings of the last century of biblical criticism and research.
Whilst a student at Moore Theological College, I was brought into touch through Christ Church St Lawrence with a third stream of influence and theological insight in Anglicanism, Anglo-Catholicism.
I am grateful to all of these. Each school of thought enriched my life and to this day leaves its mark on me. I have never doubted God, though there have been times of coldness, barrenness, and infidelity to God’s demands upon me.
I was very fortunate to find in a second hand book shop in Sydney a French book entitled (in English) The True Disciple: The Priest According to the Gospel. This book written by Father Chevrier, a 19th Century Capuchin Tertiary, had a profound influence on my life. From it I learned, among other things, a prayer which governed Father Chevrier’s life: ‘Lord, I am at your disposal’.
That prayer became, and still remains, a part of my life. It is, as I know, a dangerous prayer to pray. God has a habit of taking it at its face value.
Always there recurred the call to Franciscanism. So eventually I resigned my See of Polynesia and left to join the Society of Saint Francis. There I was enriched, very happy, and conscious of the continuing guidance and blessing of Almighty God. More recently God called me to found The Franciscan Order of the Divine Compassion.
My first contact with the charismatic renewal was in Paris. I was staying with a young French nobleman whom I had met first at the Abbey of Our Lady at Bec Hellouin. On this later visit to Paris I had accepted his invitation to stay with him. He mentioned that he had been booked in for a weekend conference before he knew of my coming. He invited me to join him there.
The conference was a meeting of several hundreds of Roman Catholic charismatics from in and around Paris. That weekend was, I think, one of the most moving experiences of my whole life. The joy! The warmth! The wonder of it all!
I spoke to an old priest, over seventy, whom I was somewhat astonished to find there. He said to me, ‘Father, three years ago hardly any of these young people prayed. Now, look at them! If this is what the Holy Spirit is doing for them then I want to be part of it.’
He went on to say that in the beginning he had not fully understood it but that now he too was a part of that great joy.
I can shut my eyes now and I can hear and see the people, the smiles, the love. I can hear the wonderful sound of that group of people singing in tongues. I have never heard anything so moving, so beautiful, in all my life. It sounded like a gentle flock of birds taking off and it moved me deeply. It touched my heart.
Later, when I was appointed Assistant Bishop of Southwalk, I shared in an Anglican charismatic experience, or rather, an ecumenical one in an Anglican setting. A number of Anglo-Catholic parishes had been deeply influenced by the renewal. I was invited to share in a day long meeting in one of them.
People from different denominations and from different traditions within Anglicanism had come. I remember with joy the charismatic Stations of the Cross. I could not ever imagine such a thing myself. You may think, ‘What an unlikely vehicle for praising God!’ Yet it was a wonderful and profoundly moving experience filled with deep worship of our blessed Lord in his Passion, and marked with tremendous joy.
The Eucharist, with its time for prophecy and free prayer, was again a moving experience. Until then, that was novel for me. Looking back, I see how great an influence it had on my own thinking and my own changing patterns of worship. It all seemed so right and proper.
Later on, when people were invited to receive the laying on of hands, I went forward to do so. When they asked me what gift I wished to have, I replied rather cunningly as I then thought, ‘Whatever the Holy Spirit wishes to give me.’ As people laid hands upon me and prayed I was suffused with a great warmth and joy, filled with the spirit of love and an abiding peace.
I had other brief encounters with the charismatic renewal in the Diocese of Southwalk and always found them occasions of joy and love and peace. I found there was a blessing in it all which I was slowly receiving.
I knew that I was unwilling to surrender, unwilling to give a part of me. I felt, as so many bishops still do, that this was a great movement of renewal. Yes, there was something good here, but I was also saying, ‘Good Lord, don’t let it touch me!’
Renewal in Australia
On my return to Australia, to the Friary of the Society of Saint Francis in Brisbane, I was presented very soon after my arrival with a question. Could the brothers be allowed to go to the national Roman Catholic charismatic conference in Brisbane.
I was willing that some should go, and determined to go myself in order to keep an eye on them! We mustn’t have these young men getting up to strange tricks. I wanted to know what was going on. I wanted to protect the community from any spirit of division.
Of course, I myself was deeply touched by the whole thing. The kind of charismatic experience being spoken about at this conference, deeply rooted in sacramental piety and churchly in character, was one which I found immensely attractive.
Before this conference, I had been worried by the naive fundamentalism which seems to me to afflict so many charismatics and the undue emphasis on external signs such as speaking in tongues. This emphasis, I felt, was a phenomenon which occurred when charismatic renewal was divorced from a normal churchly and sacramental life. Needless to say there was none of that at this conference.
The workshops on prayer were characterised by wonderful testimonies. Old ways of prayer had come alive for people under the influence and power of the Holy Spirit. I was struck at once by the way in which the development of the charismatic life paralleled at so many points the classical spiritual tradition about development in the life of prayer.
The shared prayer, the public meetings, and indeed the whole conference up to the last great mass, were characterised by joy – a joy made sad by the sacramental disunity which separated us at the altar.
At one of those meetings someone prophesied that the Spirit was moving powerfully among us to heal. That prophecy was followed by one from Father Michael Scanlan from America. He said it had been given to him by the Spirit that the healing was particularly for those who were afflicted with arthritic and rheumatic pain.
While we went on singing those who had these pains were simply to claim the healing. I did so and felt a remarkable surge of power. From that moment to this the pains that had afflicted me for almost twenty years have never recurred. Now that was a pretty impressive sign given to me!
A few weeks later I was staying with the Community of St Clare. A young priest who used charismatic gifts and was a friend of that community, was speaking to me. I asked him to lay hands on me because of an affliction in my ears. That too was healed. Other physical disorders remained with me. I do not see any evidence in Christian history to suggest that physical healing will always be given, nor do I believe that healing is only of the body.
I did know that still deep within me there were parts of my life which were unsurrendered, which I was keeping to myself. I also knew that some of the things which still afflicted me were related to that unwillingness to surrender.
At a national charismatic conference in Adelaide in 1976 in which many Roman Catholics shared, I made that surrender. I was healed in yet another part of my body and received a baptism of love of a most wonderful and intense kind.
For all this I give thanks to almighty God and I praise him for all he has given me. Like many others, I came to speak and indeed to pray in tongues for the first time when alone. It began in a place where many people would least expect, while I was staying with an enclosed contemplative community of nuns.
Effects of renewal
This experience has been pre-eminently one of love and of great joy, of a calm assurance, and of a revivifying of all that I have always believed and all that I have been given. It has meant for me a new ordering of my life, a new place for holy scripture, a new sense of priorities, a deeper peace, and I believe it has made me more readily available to people, particularly those from whom I differ.
For me, this total experience grows out of my baptism, that is my baptism in water in the name of the Holy Trinity. That is the source and origin of all the gifts of the Holy Spirit and of all that has touched my life. I prefer not to speak of baptism in or by the Spirit, but rather of a being filled up with, or of having a new flow of, grace. Words, as the mystics have found in every age, are hopeless for speaking of the deepest mysteries of life.
I have no doubt that the Holy Spirit of God is at work in his church, restoring its foundations, bringing new life, new hope, new power. Anyone would be very foolish to judge this renewal simply by those who have experienced it but misunderstood it, misused it, or over-emphasised its secondary external phenomena. My deepest reservation is the frequent association of charismatics with right-wing politics.
It would be sad for these reasons to stand aside from it all. We could then miss out on the promise which God offers to his church and his world through the renewal which the Holy Spirit alone can give.
My commitments and public life do not leave me many opportunities for sharing specifically in charismatic gatherings. But whenever I can, I am richly blessed. Since these earlier beginnings I have received further healings, especially through the ministry of Mary Rogers. I am conscious of how enriched my whole life and ministry have become.
I urge all who read this, and have their doubts, to look again at the passages in the New Testament which refer to the work and the gifts of the Holy Spirit. Such a study can, I believe, only lead those who engage in it to see how far we have drifted from the power and the vitality of the primitive church. That power and vitality came from the gifts and the presence of the Holy Spirit recognized, sought after, and deeply desired.
May God bless all who read this and quicken in your hearts that deepened desire for the indwelling power of God the Holy Spirit. May he bless you in your life and your work and ministry.
May he use us all, whatever our theological and spiritual character, to restore to his Body the unity which is his will and his desire, for which he died, and for which he longs with an ardour beyond our comprehension.
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