On the steps of the Cathedral I gasped the crisp night air. It was as though I had been trapped in a bunker and the breeze brushing on my skin was the most exquisite sensation after a prolonged stay underground. I wanted a cigarette-no a drink-no some food-no a conversation. I didn’t know what I wanted, but I wanted to get away from the space I had just been in.
A couple of weeks ago the Western Church celebrated the feast of Pentecost, which really concludes the Easter story. Jesus has been raised and ascended to heaven, he then fulfils his promises by sending the third Person of the Trinity, the Holy Spirit and this creates a new people on earth, the people who God had always intended to create.
Archbishop Justin Welby wanted to mark this celebration by encouraging Christians to pray for those who do not yet have faith. This involved a number of events around the country where Christians would gather in worship and prayer. The pinnacle of this week of prayer was a series of big events in the big Cathedrals and Churches of England-London, Canterbury, and York. Senior clergy, Bishops and big-name preachers, and respected church musicians all shared a stage in a fantastic display of unity and shared commitment to the people of England.
So there I was standing in the white and gold wonder of St Paul’s Cathedral surrounded by worshippers who had come to bless God and receive blessing from him. Musicians who had written half the songs I sang in youth-group stood under the vaulted dome, the Bishops in their purple cassocks beaming with joy at this sight of unity and praise. These are men and women who are qualified, experienced, and publicly ordained by the church.
And I stood there, frozen to the spot.
As the smart-come-casually dressed musicians launched into their first song, I felt it.
My hands were clenched and my feet felt heavy.
Nausea rose up in my stomach and I felt my jaw tighten.
Panic. I was panicking.
In this state, nothing is comfortable. All of a sudden I am on high alert, seeing everything yet concentrating on nothing. Panic, anxiety, fear. This unwelcome companion is a thief to joy and smothers all community.
As the evening progressed I was horrified to discover that the range of soundly orthodox, publicly respected and deeply effective Gospel ministers could do nothing to set me at ease.
No, everyone is suspect and all the words on the screen are bad.
What I experienced was probably a panic attack or something similar. It is not the first time I have experienced this in the context of Christian worship. It in fact afflicts me each and every time I attend a gathering for worship where bands sing long choruses, leading the congregation to a climax of spontaneous praise and worship-beyond-words.
Charismatic worship gives me a panic attack. There I said it.
I had hoped that the presence of respectable leaders would allow me to feel comfortable, but no not even Richard Chartres gesticulating in a Surplice could soothe my troubled mind.
Many of the wounds which afflict us will heal with little input from ourselves – just some bedrest or taking it easy on that leg or something. Sometimes however we must take drastic steps – setting the broken arm for weeks on end or sewing up the open sore. I have experienced this kind of irrational panic around Charismatic worship for perhaps five years now.
Thats five years of standing in church sanctuaries surrounded by people with hands outstretched, wondering what is wrong with me because I want to run a mile or smash the speakers. Five years of nausea, resentment, fear, distress, anger burning in my chest.
I am quite certain that in this time I have lashed out at plenty of well-meaning and sincere church leaders and even faithful Christians because something about their spirituality makes me feel personally attacked.
Ridiculous I know but I want to come clean about it here.
So now I am admitting it: I can’t do Charismatic spirituality. It makes me afraid. It makes me sick. It makes me angry. And that has nothing to do with the kind and faithful disciples for whom it is deeply encouraging.
I just wish I knew why I have this reaction. I have a few ideas, but I think I am a long way away from being able to identify who is to blame or what has gone wrong.
I do know this though: It is not a sin to find some things emotionally difficult. I suspect some Charismatic readers will be deeply concerned for the state of my soul – how can he possibly worship? How can he be close to Jesus?
To find some parts of the Spiritual life difficult is not a sin and certainly God does not condemn me for this.
I think I need to learn not to condemn myself either.
As a man who has trained for Christian ministry I sort of assume I can theologically reason myself into acceptance of the Charismatic stuff. I mean, so long as it fits within the breadth of Orthodoxy, what is there to object to? Yet I cannot manufacture this sense of safety.
Today I am choosing to no longer be angry at myself over that.
And you, dear reader, I am asking you to be ok when I walk out of your church sanctuary when all the weird stuff starts happening.
Honestly, its nothing personal.