The Rise of ‘Charismatic Orthodox’ Churches

Bishop Emilio Alvarez, center, prepares the Eucharist at The Cathedral at the Gathering Place in Rochester, New York. (Courtesy photo)

Every service at The Cathedral at the Gathering Place begins with an incense-filled procession of the crucifer and the Gospel, followed by the singing of “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” also known as the black national anthem, before the Rev. Emilio Alvarez, in full vestments, leads the congregation through the collect, Scripture readings and, after the sermon, the Eucharist.

From the ritual smoke to the sharing of the bread, the experience would strike most cradle Pentecostals as utterly foreign. “For the first 15 minutes, you’d think you were in a Roman Catholic church,” Alvarez told Religion News Service. “But when I get up to preach, you’d swear we were Baptist.”

Alvarez’s church is one of roughly two dozen in the Union of Charismatic Orthodox Churches, a 5-year-old group of mostly black Pentecostal churches in the Northeast and Australia dedicated to recovering the classical spirituality and theology of the early church mothers and fathers. They are also part of a broader trend in which “low” or “free” church Christians, raised on contemporary worship services with praise bands and dim lights, are seeking out “high church” traditions replete with sacramental rituals and ancient liturgy.

Chris Green grew up attending an independent Pentecostal church in rural Oklahoma that was “conservative in every possible way.”

“The service was about that altar call,” said Green. “It became something where I felt very manipulated—like we were trying to make every service mean something by generating a kind of energy that would create an intense joy or sorrow. … It felt completely hollow.”

Today, Green, 43, is ordained in the Communion of Evangelical Episcopal Churches, a network of churches that celebrates the Eucharist far more regularly than the Pentecostal congregations of his youth. Green is also a canon theologian for the CEEC and was recently a professor of theology at Southwestern University in Lakeland, Florida. As a member of The Order of Saint Anthony, a lay order in Tulsa, Oklahoma, he daily prays the morning and evening “offices” from the 1979 Book of Common Prayer.

Green is typical of the liturgical seekers Winfield Bevins wrote about in his 2019 book Ever Ancient, Ever New. Bevins, a North Carolina pastor affiliated with the Asbury Theological Seminary, conducted an ethnographic study of 200 young adults who had recently begun worshipping in a formal liturgical style. He calls what’s happening a “New Great Awakening” and “spiritual revival movement that’s drawing people back to ancient traditions.”

“It begins with a dissatisfaction with the state of the modern church, whether liberal or conservative,” Bevins told RNS in a recent interview. “Some leave the church, and you get the rise of religious nones. However, there’s this growing number that have decided, rather than leave the church, they want to go back to the roots and by going back to the roots, they are experiencing spiritual renewal.”

Bevins said the trend can be traced back to the mid-1980s, when Robert Webber was one of the first to call attention to it in his 1985 book, Evangelicals on the Canterbury Trail, and Thomas Oden’s embrace of early Christian writings inspired evangelical interest in “paleo-Orthodoxy.” In the 2000s, Mark Galli’s Beyond Smells and Bells built on Webber’s work by exploring why many Christians found liturgy attractive.

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SOURCE: Religion News Service