Several 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.