As we celebrate Pentecost this week, my attention and reflection is drawn to the origins of the Pentecostal movement and its implications for cultural diversity and Church unity. This reflection starts with the day of Pentecost as we found in Acts 2. The Jewish feast of Pentecost (50 days after the Feast of Passover) brought together Jews who were from Palestine as well as Jews born outside of Palestine. Those from outside Palestine were those who over the years were scattered or in Diaspora to different parts of the world such as North Africa, Asia and Europe. It was these Jews and others who had decided to follow the Jewish religion who heard the disciples speaking in their languages (Acts 2: 5-12). Perplexed by the phenomenon of the disciples speaking in their dialects, the people explained it away by jumping to conclusions that the disciples must have been drunk. Peter, empowered by the power of the Holy Spirit, seized the opportunity, explaining that it was too early to get drunk. He preached a powerful message that drew the audience to ask the question “what shall we do?” The result was the conversion of about 3,000 people. In essence, the implication of the Church beginning on the day of Pentecost was that God was signifying that His Church was going to be culturally diverse.
The beginnings of the modern Pentecostal movement were interracial. William J. Seymour (an African-American) and the revival at Azusa Street in Los Angeles from 1906-1909 are considered by many as the start of the movement. Others consider the beginning of the movement to lie with Charles F. Parham (a white American) and his defining doctrine of speaking in tongues as the evidence of the Baptism of the Holy Spirit, along with the events of Topeka Kansas in 1900/1901 when Agnes Ozman, one of Parham’s students, spoke in tongues. Whichever people chose, one thing is clear and that is that Charles F. Parham influenced Seymour to some extent. Seymour trained in Parham’s Bible School in Texas and they also preached together on the same platform to a community of African-Americans. All this happened at a time when the Jim Crow laws were in operation and racial segregation was ripe. The Azusa Street revival and the later Apostolic Faith Mission founded by Seymour are remembered as mission-oriented with a multicultural membership. It seems to me that just as God used the day of Pentecost to bring different people from all over the world to give birth to the Church, so has used both Parham and Seymour to start the modern Pentecostal movement.
The origins of British Pentecostalism are culturally diverse as well, with an additional layer of ecumenism. Alexander A. Boddy, an Anglican priest from Sunderland, has been credited as the father of British Pentecostalism. However he was not alone in this journey as he was influenced by the Norwegian Pentecostal minister T.B. Barratt. In addition one of the people who attended the revival meetings conducted at Sunderland was the Ghanaian Rev. Thomas Kwame Brem-Wilson who founded the first African Pentecostal Church in Britain in Peckham, London, in 1906. This reveals the cultural diversity of early Pentecostalism in Britain. In addition Boddy and another Anglican Cecil Polhill worked with other Pentecostal pioneers in this country. These include D.P. Williams and W.J. Williams, founders of the Apostolic Church, Smith Wigglesworth, Stanley H. Frodsham and Donald Gee from the Assemblies of God Britain. These ecumenical relations between Anglicans and Pentecostals were rare at a time when Pentecostalism was considered a cult or sect.
Today in Britain Pentecostals are still in the business of Church unity and cultural diversity. An example of this is the relationship that exists between Holy Trinity Brompton, Jesus House and Hillsong Church in London. Holy Trinity Brompton is an Evangelical Anglican Church known for its Alpha course. Jesus House is the national church of the Redeemed Christian Church of God (RCCG), a Pentecostal Church from Nigeria. Hillsong Church is a Pentecostal Church from Australia. These three different Churches have had joint concerts, gatherings, leadership conferences and pulpit exchanges. Their various gatherings have attracted thousands of Christians from across the denominations. They had a gathering last year for Pentecost at the O2 Arena in London. The service reflected the diversity and the gifting of the Churches. Nicky Gumbel did the preach with his gentle character of persuasion, Gary Clark, the leader of Hillsong Church did the altar call and Pastor Agu Irukwe gave an exaltation as well as took the offering. The Jesus House choir ministered alongside the worship team of Hillsong and worship leaders of Holy Trinity Brompton. Their gathering this year at Earl’s Court on the 19th of May attracted about 10,000 Christians from all over the capital. Worship was led by groups from the three Churches. The three leaders, Pastor Agu Irukwe (Jesus House), Nicky Gumbel (Holy Trinity Brompton) and Gary Clarke (Hillsong Church) were all on the stage together. The three leaders appear to be working in an equal partnership as the Churches did not try to outshine each other. This Trinitarian ecumenism, if one may use the term, and its cultural diversity, is speaking to and inspiring other Churches and Church leaders to work together in London. Another Pentecost event coming up this weekend (26th of May) which is bringing together various Church leaders, networks, streams and Church denominations is London’s Burning happening at Leyton Orient Stadium. This will be another significant Pentecost event! Global Day of Prayer in Wembley Stadium on 29th September 2012 looks set to be another!