One of the more rewarding parts of internet life I’ve been involved in is music blogging. Although sites such as The Ancient Star Song and Heavenly Grooves are by far more active in the field, I’ve done a few albums here. In the process I’ve had the honour to establish (or re-establish) contact with the artists of the “Jesus Music Era.” Although I can’t say that every group was superlative, it was an enormously creative era for Christian music, albeit one that doesn’t get as much press these days as it should.
One of those groups is Emmanuel, the folk group that blessed the young people that my Catholic Charismatic prayer group took to the Young People and Youth Ministers’ Conferences at the University of Steubenville in the early 1980’s. Its guitarist, John Flaherty, has opened up for me another subject of the era that needs some exploring: Catholic Charismatic covenant communities. They formed one in Steubenville, and he was a member for many years until the local bishop made a visitation and didn’t care much for what he saw, at which point the community disbanded.
John has extensively documented the history of this community, the history of the whole covenant community movement as led primarily by Ralph Martin and Steve Clark. His documents at Scribd make for fascinating—and painful—reading. I waited until he put together a summary of the history of the community in Steubenville before I put something out on this blog, but the time has come, especially since the witnesses to that era are sadly passing away.
To some extent, my interaction with covenant Charismatic renewal is like Farley Mowat’s My Discovery of America: it ended before it started, in his case because he had been involved in organisations not to the liking of our intelligence and security community. In my case I pulled the plug on the whole adventure before making a final commitment. But I think even this abbreviated story has some merit, and perhaps will engender some further discussion on these communities and the lesson we can learn for today’s church.
I first became involved in the Charismatic renewal while an engineering undergraduate at Texas A&M. It was a peripheral involvement. I had the luxury of two good Christian fellowships there, one Catholic (our Newman Association) and one non-denominational coffeehouse (The Answer.) The former was charismatic only to the extent that people from the latter were there (and there were many.) The latter was charismatic in an odd sense: they had adopted the “rules of engagement” for spiritual gifts from Calvary Chapel, which meant that same were not openly manifested during the coffeehouse sessions, the only “worship service” they had. (The Answer’s leadership deflected the trajectory some wanted to take towards being a church.) The effect of this was to make the spiritual gifts something of a secret, akin to the ceremonies of a Masonic lodge.
One thing that wasn’t a secret was that some of my friends from Dallas raved about the Community of God’s Delight. When I graduated, moved to Dallas and went to work for Texas Instruments, high on my list was to visit their prayer meetings, which were at Bishop Lynch High School. I was a regular at those through the spring and summer of 1977. It got better: some members of the Community worked at TI, and we met for a lunch prayer meeting in David Peterman’s office. (David’s son is now head of the Community.)
Pretty soon they invited me to the Life in the Spirit Seminar. This was a multi-week seminar to introduce new people to the Christian life in general and the Spirit-filled life in particular. In the centre of this seminar is to introduce the participants to and pray over them for what classical Pentecostals refer to as the Baptism in the Holy Spirit with the evidence in speaking in other tongues. That didn’t come during the Seminar, but a couple of weeks afterwards in an independent church in Ft. Worth (and no one was praying for me at the time either.)
The way that God’s Delight did it, the Life in the Spirit Seminar that I went through was considered Part I. Part II was a weekend retreat where one made a formal commitment to the community. To understand the significance of that it’s necessary to put things in some perspective.
The Catholic Charismatic Renewal had its “formal” start at a weekend retreat at Duquesne University in 1967. Because of the parish structure of Catholic churches (more about that below,) Catholic Charismatics tended to form prayer groups. Some of these were exclusively Catholic and some were ecumenical. However, there were people out there such as Ralph Martin and Steve Clark who had the idea of taking things to a new level in the form of covenant communities. The largest and most illustrious of these were the Word of God in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and the People of Praise in South Bend, Indiana. These were (and those that are left are) highly structured, authoritarian groups.
The Community of God’s Delight was, in many ways, the covenant community with the strongest ties with these two communities outside of the Midwest. Its leader at the time, Bob Cavnar, was the father of James Cavnar, music director of the Word of God community. We received visits from the likes of Steve Clark. The music style was pretty much the same, flat style that the Word of God put on their recordings. One thing people in the community spoke about was “the land,” a parcel of property outside of Dallas where plans were being made to have some kind of communal living scheme. (Texans are always dreaming about moving out of town to the country, so that’s not an exclusively God’s Delight kind of thing.)
The nature of the community was becoming obvious, but the thing that crystallised the whole business was my acquisition and reading of Which Way for Catholic Pentecostals? by J. Massyngberde Ford. Written the year before, she divided up the Catholic Charismatic renewal into two types of gatherings. Type I groups were the structured, authoritarian communities like the one I was staring in the face. Type II groups were the less structured groups which also tended to be more adventuresome theologically. One criticism she had of Type I groups is whether they could truly be Catholic given that they were a) ecumenical and b) exercising authority without sacerdotal presence.
Although the “theologically adventuresome” business had little appeal for someone who left the Episcopal Church because of its theological adventures, Ford’s analysis correlated with what I was seeing in God’s Delight, and turns out to have anticipated much of the subsequent course of the Catholic Charismatic Renewal. At this point, in the summer of 1977, I decided to decline the invitation to attend the Life in the Spirit Seminar II and thus join the community. There were two reasons for this.
The first was that I really did not want another round of authoritarianism in my life. I have always believed and continue to do so that God’s authority is absolute and his commands must be followed as a part of our walk with him. But I came from an authoritarian upbringing. My father’s defining life experience was his time in the U.S. Coast Guard during World War II; the military was always his model, and it applied to many aspects of family life. My mother was one of those people who liked to micromanage; the way she did it would be referred to as “helicopter parenting” today, albeit without current technology. It was so bad that her mother-in-law, who raised my father and his sister in an era where children were seen and not heard, made adverse comments about it. We thought my mother was old fashioned, but it turns out she was just ahead of her time!
Although my parents were never shy about invoking “honour your father and mother” when the situation called for it, their basis for authoritarianism wasn’t uniquely Christian. That’s something that is lost today; conservative Christians like to consider strict upbringing as a purely Christian endeavour. Although it’s best done that way, the drawback from the parents’ standpoint is that they are as answerable to God as the children are, which is a dilution of their power. It’s worth remembering that, in pagan Rome, parents had the power of life and death over their children, something that my parents doubtless would have used at least as a serious threat if a Christian society had not intervened.
What that meant in the situation I faced in Dallas was that, after that heritage and facing a community where your elders dictated whom you could date and marry, where you could live and other details of your life, I had no desire to go back under that kind of regimentation. I had gotten through college, the first in my family in more than three score, and was gainfully employed. My spiritual life had undergone a revolution, one for the better. All of this was in a context of freedom. What could another authoritarian structure do other than make me miserable?
The second reason concerned the nature of the covenant community itself. Covenant communities, taking into consideration the demands they make on their members, are ecclesiastically metastable. Since many of you aren’t seminary or engineering school graduates, to use one of my father’s expressive phrases, covenant communities endure “as long as the termites hold hands.” That reality is, in turn, rooted in the New Testament. The NT does not envision the life of the believer in the church to be fulfilled anywhere outside of the local church gathering of believers. Although prayer groups, parachurch organisations and other like arrangements are useful and have their place, they are not a substitute for a local church. Covenant communities, by virtue of the level of demand of allegiance, seek to perform a function that is reserved by the New Testament for the local church.
But that consideration, in turn, forced me to re-examine my whole relationship with the Roman Catholic Church. Catholic parishes are generally large, detached institutions whose parish life has very little sense of community of any kind. The Catholic Church considers its position as an active mediator between man and God as a sufficient method for holding the church together, and the experience of Vatican II and its aftermath have only reinforced that preference. In the end, however, that dissonance between the nature of Catholic parishes and what the New Testament envisions for the life of the church is one I could not resolve, and it is a major reason why I am not Roman Catholic today.
Back in Dallas, I took my leave from contact with the community in stages. The following year I moved to Chattanooga, where I was involved with a prayer group which never even thought of becoming a covenant community, even though it had its trials too. Many involved in that effort have ended up leading or being a part of the Roueché Chorale, which puts on Christmas festivals of lessons and carols that have become community events here. I shared this with John Flaherty: all of this with no covenant community.
“Yeah, it can be done, can’t it,” was his response.
Yes, it can.
PS: there is an interesting thread re covenant communities here, also an entire blog (albeit not very active) on covenant communities here. HT to John Flaherty.