I am not generally given to swathes of nostalgia. Nor do I think that the glory only exists somewhere back in the “good old days.” But this little bit of remembering was just good value and reminded me of the amazing grace of God in taking a young, sometimes arrogant young theological student and turning his world upside down, again.
At the request of a friend of mine who is writing a Masters thesis in theology asked me about the early days of Holy Spirit renewal in Sydney, especially related to a local Anglican church where Nola and I had worked in youth ministry – that’s how old it is. It was 1971 in Clovelly, a beach suburb of eastern Sydney. I had fun remembering and here’s the story.
ST. LUKE’S, CLOVELLY –
The early days of charismatic renewal in a local Anglican Church
I was an independent student at Moore Theological College in Newtown, Sydney from 1971 to 1973. I had come from two years of Bible College study and wanted to take advantage of the fact that Moore College prepared students for an external Bachelor of Divinity degree from London University. Even though I was not like most of the other students, a candidate for the Anglican ministry, I was given the opportunity of working in a local Anglican church as a youth worker to gain experience and to earn small amount of money. I was eventually assigned to St. Luke’s Closely where Rev. Allan Alcock was the Rector. My responsibilities there were to provide leadership for two youth groups: Junior High School age and Senior High School and University age young people.
With absolutely no idea of what was about to happen I gave myself tot the task and appreciated the dedication and spiritual quality of Allan’s leadership. Without offering it as a criticism, I was amazed at Allan’s degree of organization and the thorough and methodical way he went about everything. The epitome of this was signified by the fact that he chose the hymns for three services each Sunday for the whole year in the first week of January. It was also born out by the fact that at the start of his ministry some years earlier he started preaching at Genesis Chapter One and when we arrived he was beginning to preach the book of Joshua. His preaching was also methodical, heavily compacted, theologically pristine and often boring.
In the early part of 1971 the charismatic renewal was just beginning to appear on the radar. Moore College, being located on the periphery of Sydney University was geographically close to the action. Things were happening down in the St. John’s Catholic College and the adjoining St. Joseph’s Church. One of the central personalities in these beginnings was a Methodist minister called Allan Langstaff. His local congregation happened to be less than a kilometre away on Leichardt St., Waverley. He and Allan Alcock were good friends and soon Allan and his wife Kay (Alcock) were frequenting the meetings that the Longstaff’s held in that church. Very soon after than the Alcocks were telling everyone about some of their Holy Spirit experiences. They were among the most openhearted and guileless people I ever know. When they experienced baptism in the Holy Spirit, they told everyone what it was like. When they spoke in tongues, the same. Soon others in St. Luke’s were making the trip up the road and came back quite obviously different – in the very best sense. About that time, Youth With a Mission had started a base up a different road in Randwick. Some of the young people in my junior youth group started going up there and came back impacted as had the adults.
I was very worried about all of this. In the Bible College that myself and my wife, Nola had spent two years being trained, the idea of being “filled with the Spirit” and the idea of gifts of the Spirit were treated as heresy. Pentecostalism was taught as a cult along with Mormonism and the Jehovah’s Witnesses. I was certain the the speaking in tongues phenomenon was from the devil. I had read a few books supporting that idea and the lecturers at Moore College only deepened my conviction. As the charismatic renewal took hold of more and more good people around the Sydney Diocese the push back from Moore College staff became more strident. My problem was that I was hearing each weekday that the gifts of the Spirit had ceased after the formation of the New Testament Canon, but on Friday night and Sunday I would see and hear more and more miracles and signs that didn’t seem to be demonic, like they were touted. People were being healed, set free and were becoming passionate followers and worshippers of Jesus. My later summary of these times used to emphasize the fact that the greatest miracles I saw in those days were not the hearings and deliverances. The greatest miracles were seeing nominal Anglicans become passionate followers of Christ.
The life of the Parish was totally revolutionized. One of the more obvious signs that things were different was the fact that Allan’s preaching became inspired and anointed. His methodical and dry doctrinal sermons became life giving and challenging. I can hardly remember a Sunday where there were not people coming to Christ, getting filled with the Spirit and being touched by God in obvious ways. So many of the young people in my junior group were filled with the Spirit and wanted to worship, pray, study the Bible and go on outreach to the beaches and shopping centres. They were sharing boldly, preaching on the streets and praying for people on the beaches. Many young people came to Christ who had absolutely no contact with any church. Their testimonies and their stories were powerful testimony to what God was doing.
In the midst of this I was cracking up – I can remember being angry that both young people and adults were not waiting to be asked, but were praying for each other, sharing their stories and their sincerity was infectious. I thought it was unfair that these things should be happening to people who were not theologically educated like me – and therefore knew better than to be carried away with all the emotion. One night I watched a while one young man who had only been a Christian for a few weeks prayed for his friend, whom he had brought to our meeting. His friend had a leg that was permanently damaged though a bike accident. God healed that young man’s leg in front of my eyes. I was totally messed up by the whole series of events. I had kept quiet in most cases out of loyalty to Allan and Kay, but the more I thought about it and the more I read the Bible and some other books the more I realized that this was from God. So one Sunday night I went to the communion rail at the altar call and asked to be filled with the Spirit. It totally transformed my relationship to Jesus and just about everything else in my life.
The Anglican parishes where charismatic renewal was happening were soundly ear-marked by the Diocesan leaders. St. Marks and Malabar, St. John’s at Darlinghurst were two who, like St. Luke’s, were experiencing the same set of phenomena. We began meeting together and hosted a veritable litany of Australian and overseas speakers who gave us Holy Spirit teaching. The same things had been happening in churches around Sydney from other traditional denominations. There were many big teaching rallies and conferences. We were all hungry for every bit of teaching we could get.
One of the most powerful common denominators in all the experiences I personally experienced, witnessed and heard about was the fact that this movement of God was profoundly grass-roots. There were wonderful godly leaders whose names became household words to us, but the more common story was that a group of people in someone’s lounge room would pray and worship long in to the night and those who had been filled with the Spirit would simply be praying for those who hadn’t. Every week there were testimonies of this kind of experience. Leaders definitely gave teaching, but the power of the movement was the fact that ordinary believers felt empowered to do the work of the ministry whether there were ordained people in the room or not. And the ordained people within this movement would more than likely step aside and simply watch ordinary people allowing God work through them.
The whole series of experiences was not without controversy. That happened both within and beyond the local parish. Lots of people who were not at all impressed by what was happening vented their opposition. Many of them moved to other parishes were things were still happening “like they used to.” There was huge pressure from the Archbishop, to the Bishops, to the members of an organization called the ‘Anglican Church League.’ They felt that their neat Diocese was being ravaged by heresy. The main thrust of this push-back was led by people like Phil Jensen and John Woodhouse. They were unceasing in their criticisms and unrelenting in their defence of what they deemed to be Reformed orthodoxy. Our local Bishop was a very well known and loved Bible teacher, Rev. John Reid. HIs children were in my youth group. Even though I thought Allan and Kaye handled the situation with wisdom and patience, the force of their opposition was such that they soon withdrew their children and relocated in a different Parish. Despite all of these controversies, the work continues to grow and increase. Soon the make up of the congregation had changed. What used to be traditional reformed Anglican was now thoroughly charismatic. One of the three Sunday services was still conducted in the traditional Anglican way, but the momentum of Parish ministry was not being generated from there. Many of the people who came to the church were from a variety of other denominational backgrounds, but were there by choice because of what was happening through the power of the Word and the presence of the Holy Spirit.
After two years, Nola and I had to leave. Our first child had been born and Nola was no longer free to continue her teaching profession and provide the income for our family. We eventually moved to Balmain where I was employed full time to work with young people there, especially street kids. We continued to join with the St. Luke’s people when we were able and Allan and Kaye Alcock were closer friend and spiritual father and mother to us for many years to come.