The Pentecostal and Charismatic constituency within the British Church is extensive, diverse and definable. It brings together all who embrace experientially those distinctive gifts of God’s grace, the charisma that are specifically listed as ‘Gifts of the Holy Spirit’ in 1 Corinthians 12:7-10, and which made their first appearance at the Pentecost celebration immediately following Christ’s crucifixion, resurrection and ascension, as described in Acts 2. The continuing growth of the constituency is both indigenously-propelled and diaspora-driven. It is a constituency that exists both within and among Britain’s ‘historic denominations’.
There is general agreement within the Pentecostal and Charismatic constituency that the apparent absence from much of church history of the ‘charismatic’ and ‘Pentecostal’ gifts (which include the ability to speak in unknown tongues) has been due to their neglect rather than their withdrawal. However, some Pentecostals and Charismatics do speak of a restoration of these gifts, which some take as implying reintroduction, rather than rediscovery. This can be confusing as the terms ‘restoration’ and ‘renewal’ have been used in academic circles to distinguish between those who use the gifts within the ‘historic denominations’ (who are said to have experienced ‘renewal’) and those who have sought an expression of these gifts outside the historic denominations (who are inappropriately labelled ‘Restorationists’). In practice the theological gap between the two groups is small, since all are agreed that the 1 Corinthians 12 gifts of the Holy Spirit are available to the church today and that these gifts relate to a greater personal experience of the Holy Spirit (such as was advocated by the 18th and 19th century holiness preachers, some of whom used terms such as ‘second blessing’, ‘filling with the Spirit’ or ‘baptism with the Spirit’).
Looking at today’s Charismatic and Pentecostal churches and church groupings that are ‘among’ Britain’s historic denominations, rather than ‘within’ them, it is possible to identify four church-planting ‘waves’ that led to their emergence and continue to sustain their growth. Two of these ‘waves’ are indigenously-related and two diaspora-related. Three ‘waves’ are associated directly or indirectly with the Pentecostal movement, which is generally regarded as having arisen through the emphasis on ‘the baptism of the Spirit as evidenced by the gifts of the Spirit’ that developed at the beginning of the twentieth century. The other is associated with the emphasis on ‘the baptism of the Spirit and the availability of the gifts of the Spirit today’ that marked the birth of the Charismatic movement in the mid-twentieth century. Neither of these movements was a strictly British phenomenon. Similar things were happening in the United States, either at the same time or occasionally slightly ahead, with academics agreeing that multiple factors from many locations contributed to the birth of both movements. Both movements had some impact within the historic denominations theologically but the church-planting waves they gave rise to were also committed to seeking New Testament patterns of extemporary worship and practice. The two movements are distinguishable from each other largely as a result of the theological and stylistic nuances they embraced from the interpretations and practices prevalent at the time they arose, although neither movement has remained stylistically static.
Britain’s Indigenous Pentecostal Churches
The churches that came into being in Britain at the time of the Pentecostal movement’s initial impact, gathered together into indigenous Pentecostal denominations that expanded strongly at home and overseas. Given their continuing strength, it is these indigenous Pentecostal churches that are still the most geographically wide-spread expression of Pentecostalism in Britain today, with many well-established congregations impacting towns and cities from their own purpose-built premises, whilst newer congregations operate out of schools and community centres to reach more local communities. The effect of these Pentecostal denominations’ early missionary endeavours is still being felt too.
The Caribbean Diaspora Pentecostal Churches
The request for Commonwealth workers to come to post-war Britain led to high levels of immigration from the Caribbean in the 1950s and 1960s. Some who came had their roots in the Pentecostal denominations already established in the Caribbean and the United States. Others were members of ‘historic denominations’ who expected to integrate into British church culture but found themselves more warmly welcomed in the ranks of the Caribbean Pentecostal assemblies that were beginning to meet in homes and halls. Many of the Caribbean denominational churches have for many years now occupied their own premises and contributed greatly to the life of the Caribbean diaspora, advocating for rights and meeting social needs as well as spiritual ones.
The Indigenous Charismatic Churches
Whilst the Charismatic movement found some acceptance in many local denominational churches, this was by no means universal and, from the 1960s onwards, new churches with an openness to the gifts of the Holy Spirit were formed throughout Britain, often in people’s homes, giving rise to what was initially known as the House Church movement but is now better known as the New Churches movement. In the 1970s these churches formed a number of ‘apostolic networks’, taking oversight from a lead figure, who surrounded himself with a leadership team. In the 1980s several of these groupings became widely known for their annual Bible weeks. Today many of these ‘New Church’ networks are stronger than they were at their formation, effective succession is taking place and local churches around the country are continuing to grow to a size that belies any ‘house church roots’.
The African Diaspora Pentecostal Churches
African immigration into Britain in the 1960s led to the establishing of a significant number of African Indigenous Churches, with their founders experiencing similar struggles to those planting the Caribbean Pentecostal denominations. From the late 1980s into the 1990s, though, the numbers entering Britain from Africa increased markedly as many more students and professionals came to develop their careers, some already having British citizenship and others applying for ‘indefinite leave to remain’. Many of these were members of the new, less culturally-adjusted independent Pentecostal churches that were emerging in Africa, influenced by the fresh Pentecostal and Charismatic emphases gaining ground in Britain and America in the 1970s. Leaders of these churches quickly became aware of the needs of their diaspora members and saw the benefits of sending pastors to plant branch congregations in Britain. The strong entrepreneurial church-planting culture, increasingly evident within the independent Pentecostal church sector in Africa, then began to be replicated in Britain as church members who had served in various leadership roles and discerned a personal ministerial call set up new independent congregations in schools, community centres and former industrial units, with some, who have seen membership grow into the thousands, purchasing former cinemas and theatres (just as some indigenous Pentecostal and Charismatic Churches have done).
And Other Diaspora Pentecostal Churches
It is not only African-based churches that have sent Pentecostal church-planters to Britain. Neither is it just African and Caribbean diaspora communities who have raised-up Pentecostal church-planters from their midst. The sending and raising pattern has been repeated within Britain by South American, Far East Asian and many other diaspora groups. As Pentecostalism has grown globally, more and more migrants entering the UK have had a desire to see their national brand of Pentecostalism established in Britain. Even some enthusiastic Pentecostals with no UK-based diaspora community to minister to now see Britain as a mission-field, which they believe they have an obligation to evangelise on the ‘you brought the gospel to us, we now need to help you’ basis, a thinking also widely evidenced among African migrants. The pattern of international Pentecostal engagement in Britain is now extensive (some of the strongest youth-oriented churches recently established in Britain have links to Australian Pentecostalism!)
A combining of the strands
Whilst this briefing has separated out the strands of Pentecostal and Charismatic Christianity in Britain to highlight the diversity, extent and definable nature of the constituency, the strands intertwine historically, theologically and practically.
In summary, whilst most within Britain who have an experiential embrace of the charismatic gifts, either within the historic denominations or within the New Churches movement, take the label ‘charismatic’, many others who share the same theological/experiential embrace prefer the designation ‘Pentecostal’ as an acknowledgment of their own theological and historical links. For some these links are direct, through membership of one of the foundational Pentecostal denominations, for others they are indirect through involvement with overseas churches, networks and denominations that have come into being as a result of a Century-long rise in Pentecostal and Charismatic Christianity, traceable in part to the early global missionary endeavours of the British Pentecostal denominations, complemented, of course, by the efforts of their American, and European, Pentecostal counterparts.
And the links are not just theological and historic. There are increasing patterns of mutual accountability at a local church level and a denominational level, with the independence that many Charismatic and Pentecostal churches value not being seen as an indication of a resistance to accountability but as part of an ongoing exploration of a New Testament ecclesiological balance between autonomy and collaboration. There is clearly, within the British Pentecostal and Charismatic constituency, a continuing appreciation of its internal coherence.
And finally, a plea for sensitivity
To assume that British Pentecostalism, especially when considered with its Charismatic counterpart, is predominantly an African and Caribbean, or even a multi-diaspora-related import, is mistaken and unhelpful. British Pentecostalism is both indigenous and culturally diverse, so ethnic stereotyping is best avoided. Clearly not all African and Caribbean Christians in Britain are Pentecostals (and the same is true of Christians within other minority ethnic groups where Pentecostal and Charismatic convictions are widely held). More importantly, though, those from minority ethnic backgrounds who are Pentecostals would not want mistaken ideas of their dominance to obscure the unity that exists within the diversity of the British Pentecostal and Charismatic constituency, a unity which has within it a desire to be an increasing blessing to the wider Christian community.
This paper was prepared by the Co-Chair of the UK Charismatic and Pentecostal Leaders’ Conference, Dr Hugh Osgood.
 Purely for the sake of simplicity, in this explanatory briefing the term ‘historic denominations’ will be assumed to embrace all formally-organised groupings of churches that existed in Britain prior to the end of the 1800s.
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Photo credit: © Valter Hugo Muniz / WCC