A long time ago, I read “Uncle Tom’s Cabin”, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s seminal novel about slavery and forgiveness. I was not alone – over a million copies were sold in Britain, it had the reputation for laying the groundwork for the American Civil War and was the second best-selling book of that century, after the Bible. The hero, a Negro slave, Uncle Tom, was a Methodist and one of the more perniciously pious white females in the story refers to them -that is – the members of the slave church as “shouting Methodists. Horrible”. I haven’t come across many ‘shouting Methodists’ in recent times but have been following with some interest various events wherein Uncle Tom might have found congenial company. Not because he was a slave and black, but because he belonged to an anonymous, poverty-stricken, powerless community which hope swept up and out from temporal misery.
Others have written about ‘the Cwmbran Outpouring‘ – perhaps its flames have now been fanned into a full-blown revival along the lines of the great Welsh Revival of 1904-5, an early leader being another Methodist, Joseph Jenkins.
Cwmbran is a new, not particularly affluent town in Wales – a search turns up advertisements for a shopping centre and not much else.
Victory Church is part of the Elim pentecostal denomination – as if that really matters – and its congregation meets in a building on an industrial estate. Around the country there are a thousand more churches just like it, some successful, others struggling to make the rental payments and pay the pastor more than minimum wage. For the last month or more, this apparent backwater seems to be hosting happenings that look like a rerun of a hundred years ago, painted in fresh, bright colours. Many visitors have simply said: ‘this is the most authentic move of God of our generation’. One of the pastoral staff famously remarked the other evening ‘we don’t know what is going on’. This suggests two things. First, we are, it would seem, capable of recognising a genuine ‘move of God’. Second, having been caught up in it, we have no idea where it is going, where it will lead us or the outcomes of our climbing on board.
All of this, of course, offends those who like their religion nicely cut, dried and presented in a palatable and digestibly rational form. Some are fond of liturgy and organisation and get squeamish when any emotion surfaces, shuddering and turning round nervously, looking for the exit signs. Some are cynical, having seen too many white-suited
American preachers putting on slick presentations to thousands then climbing into their private Gulfstream jets with the proceeds. Others go and stand at the back, almost expecting to see manipulation, looking for what they believe to be ‘rectitude’ – I’m trying hard not to use buzzwords here – where nomenclature, pronouncements and utterances are calibrated against a scale which truly only exists in the mind of the observer, for participant they surely are not. At the first sulphurous whiff of dominionism or replacement theology, they stand back and smugly fold their arms. These calibrations are often denominationally configured and such is the variance of interpretation, are almost inevitably subjective, hence flawed. Then there are the third type – those who have no background, no religious affiliation, no yardsticks, measuring instruments or preconceptions, who walk in off the street and are confronted what one blogger who writes much better than I do called a wild goose, which allegedly was the name given to the Holy Spirit by the founder of the Iona Community. In any event, nomenclature tends to become less important if, as has been widely reported, ‘signs and wonders’ are happening at the nightly meetings. Karl Barth once famously wrote about the ‘otherness’ of God. I remember having to write an essay about it when I was at theological college. I came to the same conclusion then as I do now. That which we perceive as God is not like us, in the sense that the way things are done in ‘places’ other than our own isn’t predictable or necessarily subject to the immutability of what we call reason. Supposing that God ‘thinks’ like we do is analogous to a belief that our dog is anthropocentrically similar to ourselves. C S Lewis’ Aslan is no more human than the wild goose, time has a different meaning and irrational events crowd in one after the other as some kind of hidden portal to heaven is mysteriously opened and glory pours down like liquid gold. Why? I have absolutely no idea. Is it real? Probably, or possibly not – it rather depends on one’s definition of reality. How much do I know about crowd psychology to possibly form an opinion? Does it work? Yes, in the sense that participants touch the ineffable in ways that they didn’t before and more importantly, are touched by it, possibly permanently, like Jacob. Will it fade? Almost certainly, but until it does and the waterfalls of presence, power and grace that seem to be being released in an anonymous little Welsh town are continuing. I find myself thinking that it is this ‘otherness’ which all believers reach towards and cry out for from places in the depths of their being that even they can’t see or comprehend. They may look for it in a Benedictine abbey, at a meditation retreat, or in the familiar words which their preferred dish on the liturgical smorgasbord apportions them. The thirsty traveller who searches for water, often content with finding little, one day turns a corner and is engulfed by a tsunami in which he has little option but simply to bathe.
What about me? Do I want to go and see, professional Zacchaeus as I am? Yes, and no. I have seen things I cannot explain before, felt the weight of the Presence, been almost deafened by holy laughter and tried to step back from bodies untidily littering the aisles. Put another way, the ferocity of heaven’s joy and the sovereignty of God’s disconnecting temporarily the physical body – whichever you like. I’m fascinated and, perhaps, justifiably so. If not here, where? If not now, when?