Charisma – rise and fall

worshipSeveral decades ago, the distinguished sociologist Max Weber made some important observations about the nature of charisma. I hope my readers will not mind if I record his ideas in a less than precise way, but the gist of what he noted was as follows. Charisma is a kind of effervescence that attaches itself to an individual in the realm of politics or religion. The charismatic leader will infect the followers with a sense of the beyond, new possibilities and new horizons. This community of followers will have an energy about it, and for a time the energy of this original vision will be sustained. I do not remember what Weber said about the way the charismatic energy was renewed, but the important thing that follows is what Weber calls routinisation. This process involves a collapse of the original energy. This takes place when the founder has died, moved on or simply lost the early vision.

Since Weber’s day, no one has seriously questioned his observations that enthusiasm gives way to routine and flatness. Obviously there are countless other things to be said about charisma in a religious setting but the basic claim of Weber about what happens to charisma has not been challenged. Take any group of Christian set on fire by ‘enthusiasm’ and thirty years down the line the nature of that enthusiasm will been transformed into dull old rules and regulations.

I mention Weber’s observations in connection with the work of Trevor Dearing among villages in Essex that Chris raises in a comment. Without knowing about these original missions I would expect that little remains of the ‘fire’ that spread across these villages in 1970s. If ‘revival’ actually hit a parish church, the next generation of ‘routinising’ Christians will have elbowed out the remaining enthusiasts. Some few might have joined an independent church and tried, probably in vain, to keep alive the original excitement. The churches that they belong to now are subject to the same social forces that Weber described and probably if any of us who strayed into one of them, we would not detect any of their early history. The churches that buck this Weberian trend the longest, are those that are found in towns, i.e. with congregations well above 50. A different dynamic again is found in the largest churches with congregations of 200+.

Chris is right to suggest that there are places that have congregations which are strongly fundamentalist in tone which were once touched by charismatic enthusiasm. But I would maintain that the fundamentalism style is often all that remains to them from the original package. They have a loyalty to ‘inerrancy’ doctrines, not because they are convinced by them, but because the original ‘prophet’ thought in this way. A loyalty to his vision is expressed by a loyalty to his theology. Now that much of the charismatic excitement has vanished, the prophet’s doctrine is all that remains to them. This is in fact a feature of many of our churches. There is a memory of something from the past, which is kept half-alive by the singing of tired ancient chorusses. The preaching may be about enthusiasm but there is normally little sign of it in practice, especially when the congregation numbers around 15 -20.

The reality that Weber pointed to is that vision and charisma are things that quickly fade unless they is renewed from within. Many of the people within the so-called ‘Charismatic-movement’ have realised this, and so we have the new ‘outpourings of the Spirit’ from places like Toronto, Penascola or Brownsville. To use a cooking analogy, these outpourings seem to be the old dishes which have been re-heated. Only a few will get to taste this food that has, with great difficulty, been kept warm. The normal way that this enthusiasm is mediated to ordinary Christians is by attending large gatherings like Spring Harvest, but most find it hard to take the excitement of the large group back into their local gatherings.

As someone who lived through the 70s and who followed the early days of the Charismatic movement with some interest, I was at the time deeply disappointed with the way things turned out. At the very start of the movement before it had been strangled by fundamentalist theology, there was a vision for a different future. Christian charisma, without its theological trappings, is in essence a spirituality. It is also a spirituality that allows Christianity to look with sympathy at other spiritual traditions across the world. As a spirituality of openness to the unseen, it can be compared to shamanic traditions, traditional African religions and the religions of the East which focus on spirituality before dogma. The charismatic contribution to the existence of a Christian tradition of healing is massive. I doubt very much whether the tradition of laying on of hands would exist at all without the charismatic impulse. At the same time this spirituality aspect of charisma receives absolutely nothing from the crude Protestant straightjacket which normally imprisons it in the West.

In this post I have appeared to say two contradictory things. One is to support Weber in his claim that ‘charisma’ invariably becomes routinised over time. The freshness of charismatic excitement cannot be sustained for very long within our Christian institutions. And yet I have hinted at another direction. I have suggested that were charisma to be released from the dogmatic straightjacket that Christians have placed it in, then it could be set free to sustain itself in a new way. It could be seen to be an impulse that exists within all spiritual traditions, including our own, which speaks of freedom, enthusiasm and newness. My own vision for the potential of charisma is at present a work in progress. All I can say at this moment is that my vision for it grows as I read and expose myself to spiritual traditions other than my own. This ‘work in progress’ may form part of my blog posts in future months.

About Stephen Parsons

Stephen is a retired Anglican priest living at present in Northumberland. He has taken a special interest in the issues around health and healing in the Church but also when the Church is a place of harm and abuse. He has published books on both these issues and is at present particularly interested in understanding the psychological aspects of leadership and follower-ship in the Church. He is always interested in making contact with others who are concerned with these issues.

7 thoughts on “Charisma – rise and fall

  1. This is simply a reference to the sense of ‘excitement’ and joy that charismatic Christians believe themselves to have. They would like to be on a spiritual high all the time but in practice they have to find a new source of joy every so often because the old prophet or the old teaching somehow no longer delivers. If I am being cynical there are aspects of the charismatic scene that are like a drug set-up. The more you have, the more you need to take to get the same effect. The numbers of people who travelled to Toronto for a ‘blessing’ was in the millions. What was going on here? I suspect that Toronto was the scene of the greatest ‘highs’ for people who were addicted to that sort of thing. Part of me, as you can see, is very cynical but another part says that charisma does possess links with a genuine Christian spirituality.

  2. Dark Memories

    As a survivor of demonstrative charisma or, what was commonly known as the ‘charismatic movement’ during the 70’s, Stephen’s blog leaves me full of questions.

    My first memory is of hearing a girl in her mid twenties claim that she came off ‘drugs’ (Heroin I think) immediately with no withdrawal. These claims were normal at the time along with limbs growing, deaf hearing, cancer healed.
    Outside the circles that I inhabited there were claims of the dead being raised.
    I know a lot about that environment now and quite frankly it is painful to recall, however, I do so out of a great need to get answers, for my fellow travellers and myself.
    The one thing that no one seems to address in this discussion is this,
    1) Was any of it spiritual? I mean in the common or garden understanding of the word ‘spiritual’?
    2) Was it all emotional hype?
    3) If we accept God as a living reality, were demonic forces at work?
    4) Why did it generate so many personality disorders?
    5) Why have so many people who suffered abuse been ignored?
    6) Does the church care

    I can see Mr Weber’s point about how it all becomes routinised over time just like smoking a joint.

    I experienced many church’s were the fantasy theatre took on a hopeless repetition. Eventually the lack of any ‘miracles’ had to be ‘explained’? This took on the form of recriminations, ‘black spots among us’ ‘you are not totally given over to Christ’ etc, etc.

    Finding some (what approximates to) orthodox teaching on this is extremely difficult, however, I want to concentrate on what happened to the people hooked on this.

    The first thing that I recall is that it led to unbelief. Constantly expecting miracles that did not take place eats into your mind. Far from being a movement to unite people and assist faith it did precisely the opposite.
    The routinised embers of this movement live on in the “Shine Jesus shine” Happy Clappy theatres today.

    The pain and hopelessness begs a question and answer. Let me say that you will find that question, and answer in the eyes of a lady I once saw being pushed out of a charismatic meeting, broken and unhealed.

    Chris Pitts

  3. You’ve seen much worse than I have. Small wonder that you have been wounded by it. I have been in “charismatic” meetings where I got the distinct feeling that people were trying to score glory points. And even some cases where I felt evil was very close. So, yes, it isn’t always genuine. but like the JWs, the people on the ground are genuine. It’s those at the top who know that it isn’t real. But I have also been at other kinds of meeting. One was a renewal group. Bit of a cringe making title, but they didn’t know me, and they made me welcome. The idea was, you should feel free to let it all hang out. If you wanted to lie on the floor, or wave your arms about, or whatever, you just did. It was great. I don’t leap about and moan, or lie on the floor! Others did. I didn’t feel threatened or intimidated. Most had their eyes closed, so they certainly weren’t checking me out. And I felt very free and safe. So it can work.
    How do you make sure that the wrong ‘uns don’t get a hold? Don’t know. The church I see is corrupt and even those who are not themselves misbehaving, do nothing to prevent it. An atmosphere where you cannot question what those in power (clergy) are doing is wrong. It is the institutional sin that permits child sex abuse.
    By the way, Chris. If you’re in an atmosphere where it’s ok to faint dead away, you can. But you can always stop yourself. God never forces you. If people claim they couldn’t help themselves, it’s not God. Sometimes it’s important to people that they fit in by apparently speaking in tongues because everyone else is. And I was present when Bishop Graham Dow, very charismatic, actually put a stop to public speaking in tongues with a VERY sharp, “stop that”! Quite right.

  4. Yes, I see that you know this map. Sometimes I think that the only way forward is a personal mysticism way outside of organized religion.
    The trouble with that is that spiritual pride is always knocking at the door?
    The victims remain in a desolate place

  5. Yes to soaring higher and hight like a eagle today with joy and in plasure of the power in the Holy Spirit with us in thankgiving with exciting life in Christin to not fall down in pride,thanks and bless and pray,keijo sweden

  6. It is exiting. But some people have been led astray because they trusted that the leaders were good and kind. It is not always so.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.