Can there be a meeting of minds between charismatic and liturgical traditions?

Is it possible to be a liturgical charismatic? Surely it's a contradiction in terms: either you're a freewheeling lover of Matt Redman et al, or you do it by the book.

Not according to Graham Hunter. He's the vicar of St John's church in Hoxton, London, and he firmly believes the two strands belong together. In his Grove booklet Discipline and Desire: Embracing Charismatic Liturgical Worship, he says he wants to 'persuade those from a charismatic tradition of worship that is very informal, free-form and non-liturgical that there is real value in the liturgical tradition, and also to persuade those from a more formal and liturgical expression of worship that it is possible to make space to integrate charismatic approaches to worship in our services'.

Michelle Jimenez/UnsplashCan charismatic worship learn from liturgical traditions?

This little book is an important contribution to a big question: how can the gap be bridged between two very different types of Christian, who very often fail to understand each other and are actually rather suspicious of each other? More of that later.

Hunter has a useful chapter on 'understanding terminology', defining exactly what we mean by charismatic and liturgical. In the UK, 'charismatic' is a lot to do with music, particularly music from the likes of Redman, Tim Hughes and the Worship Central collective. These have the form and style of 1990s pop-rock anthems, he says, and are more about feeling than doctrine. They form a cross-denominational repertoire because they're placed on Christian radio and TV stations, so have a 'catholicising' influence.

But how do you define a charismatic church? Not so easy, he says – lots of Anglican churches have taken on aspects of charismatic worship like speaking in tongues and words of knowledge, but might tone down their practice for public worship; they're 'charismatic-lite'.

Hunter has a useful analogy for the two styles of church: he describes the 'trellis and the vine'. 'So too as Christians, if we are to experience freedom and creativity in our gathered worship we must understand the historic forms, practices and functions of our liturgy,' he says. A good chapter deals with how God's presence is encountered in church, through fellowship, worship, attending to God speaking, prayer, and 'in sacrament and with spiritual gifts'. All these are 'enacted in our worship liturgies'; liturgy is 'simply how we describe the service we render one another by enabling a context in which we can encounter God's presence through these various motions'.

And the structure is important. He describes a 'spineless worship service' in a charismatic church that didn't work, and acknowledges the suspicion of set services in the free evangelical tradition. It's a product of Romanticism, he says – entirely convincingly – as only worship that comes from deep within ourselves is spiritually pure. The trouble is, as he cheerfully admits, that this can end up as bad faith: 'I used to worship in a church that had a spontaneous time of singing in tongues that you could set your watch by,' he tells us. And he's absolutely right that charismatic worship relies on pre-determined texts, those of the worship song repertoire. Whether they admit it or not, charistmatic churches have their liturgies.

His own practice is to draw from all sorts of sources, and to 'allow space for the Spirit to inspire our worship'. He advises encouraging the practice of praying or singing in tongues, making space to pray with one another, encouraging space for bringing prophetic words, and using the liturgy to its full dramatic effect. He writes very well about communion – a sad afterthought in several charismatic churches I've attended, when it should be so much more than that.

I found myself rather torn while I was reading this book. Hunter has identified a real issue in the life of the church. Some Christians are nurtured by set texts, familiar prayers and a certain reverent distance between the worshipper and the worshipped. Others, the charismatics, seek a direct emotional connection and feel short-changed if they don't get it. The language is different and so are the expectations of worship. And these differences are at their root theological as well as cultural – do you actually believe that God speaks directly to an individual with a 'word of knowledge'? If not, integrating that sort of thing into a service is not for you.

But they're psychological as well. For some of us, the emotional hothouse of a charismatic service is just a bit spiritually intrusive. Amen to everything Hunter says about making them better by connecting with the liturgical tradition, but they are still what they are.

I don't doubt that each stream can learn from the other, and perhaps needs to do so. But we should be wary of saying – and Hunter is not saying this – that there is an ideal end-point in which every service in every church is a perfect blend. The distinctiveness of different tradtions is what gives them their strength.

'Discipline and Desire: Embracing Charismatic Liturgical Worship' is available from Grove Books, price £3.95.

Follow Mark Woods on Twitter: @RevMarkWoods

Lifestyle