An Elder Brother Joins the Party
One of England's foremost critics of the Toronto Blessing found himself apprehended by God. Tony Higton relates the circumstances that prompted him to oppose God's blessing, and then to embrace it.
While driving home from a holiday in 1994, my wife Patricia and I listened to a tape of a testimony by someone who had visited Toronto. I was moved as I heard the dynamic spiritual effect of the Blessing in her life. Later a number of the key charismatic leaders in Britain also told me they had had a similar experience. I listened with interest, but mentally filed it all under "pending."
“It was superficial, aggressive and manipulative at times and the behaviour of the huge audience seemed out of control.”
Soon after controversy began to rage, I became more and more negative about the "animal noises" and some of the more unusual involuntary bodily actions. I was convinced God would not do this to people.
In December that year we attended a renewal meeting associated with the Toronto movement. I didn't question the fact that the leader conducting the meeting was a sincere child of God, and that God was using him. However in my estimation the meeting was a disaster. There was no ministry of the Word that night except during an extended appeal for money. The administration of the meeting left much to be desired: it was superficial, aggressive and manipulative at times and the behaviour of the huge audience seemed out of control. I now believe leaders of that meeting still had much to learn about how to minister during renewal services and how to administrate them.
I wrote a scathing two-part article denouncing the meeting in my regular column in a national Christian weekly.
As a result Patricia and I were both invited to join an anti-Toronto consultation with other well-known charismatic leaders in January 1995. We published a critical statement. The headline in the Church of England Newspaper read "Charismatic’s against Toronto."
I then began to write a long, biblical study paper on the issues raised by the Blessing. I had to acknowledge that some manifestations were acceptable and had occurred in past revivals. But I concluded that animal noises could not be a work of the Spirit because they seemed degrading to human beings.
Soon after this we attended another Toronto-style day conference and were attracted by the testimonies but greatly disturbed by the speaker's inappropriate interpretation of Scripture. We didn't even consider asking for prayer for ourselves in such a context. At a second consultation in May, we heard more horror stories about the effects of the Blessing and saw some videos which implied that renewal leaders associated with the Toronto Blessing are prone to extreme and manipulative behaviour. When we combined this experience with our own negative theological arguments, the conclusion we drew was inevitable. The participants of the consultation set up a small working party to begin a campaign against what we saw as unbiblical, experience-based deceit within the renewal movement. That of course, included the Toronto phenomenon. We were both invited to write chapters for a negative book; my invitation was eventually dropped and Patricia later withdrew her contribution.
“I confess I lead the meeting rather provocatively.”
I was due to chair the anti-Toronto working party in London in late June. But as we travelled to the meeting I felt increasingly uneasy. For some reason I couldn't get the older brother in the prodigal son story out of my mind. There was no rational explanation for this increasingly dominant thought.
I confess I lead the meeting rather provocatively. In my opening remarks I said we must be careful not to be pharisaical and that surely we also longed for more of God's blessing. The comment wasn't well received but sparked a brief and lively debate on pharisaism. The meeting continued and included further unsubstantiated horror stories which were, it seemed, readily accepted. I was concerned at what appeared to be a hint of some anti-charismatic as well as anti-Toronto trends. However, Patricia and I were able to prevent a negative public statement from being issued.
I left even more uneasy and disturbed. The relevance of the older brother began to dawn on me. He couldn't cope with the father’s blessing of someone whom he disapproved, namely his younger brother. The Holy Spirit seemed to be pointing out that we couldn't cope with the Father’s blessing of those whom we disapproved. Still we found it difficult to be positive about the Toronto phenomenon.
In early July we decided to attend a day conference at which Randy Clark was speaking. I had very mixed feelings about going and circumstances unconnected with the conference left me in a very negative frame of mind during the morning session. Basically we were expecting the same bad experience we had had with the previous speaker, but this time from a brash American! We'd heard stories about him too.
To our surprise, Randy was unlike anything we had imagined. He was a humble, godly man who obviously loved Jesus. It took the wind out of our sails. His ministry was explicitly biblical and at one point he gave an hour's biblical sermon on Jesus. We found the same thing at a conference this year where John and Carol Arnott spoke. John spoke for an hour on the Cross.
“ In desperation I prayed, "Lord, please speak to me through your Word."
Yet the battle with negative thoughts was still raging within me at lunch time. I told Patricia, with little conviction that I intended to go home. While I was waiting for Patricia, I happened to meet the leader of the church organizing the conference and I soon found myself less than willingly telling him the problems I had with Toronto. By this time the afternoon session was beginning and I felt trapped into attending. Reluctantly and rather resentfully I wandered back into the hall. Randy's ministry was just as profound in that session and my hardness of heart was beginning to melt. The Holy Spirit was manifestly at work. The time for ministry arrived and Patricia was immediately up and away for prayer. With true British male Anglican recklessness, I sat firmly in my seat wrestling with my conflicting emotions. In desperation I prayed, "Lord, please speak to me through your Word." My Bible fell open at John 12:37 to a heading, The Jews Continue in Their Unbelief. The following verses hit me hard:
"Even after Jesus had done all these miraculous signs in their presence, they still would not believe in Him. This was to fulfill the word of Isaiah the prophet: "Lord, who has believed our message and to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?" For this reason they could not believe because as Isaiah says elsewhere: "He has blinded their eyes and deadened their hearts so they can neither see with their eyes nor understand with their hearts and turn that I would heal them..." Yet at the same time many even among the leaders believed in Him. But because of the Pharisees they would not confess their faith for fear they would be put out of the synagogue; for they loved praise from men more than praise from God.
“I went forward for ministry!”
It was like having a warm shower in the love, peace and joy of the Lord. I stood vertically for a long time basking in His presence.
We drove off to Windsor Great Park and walked in the sunshine. It was as if a huge weight had lifted from our shoulders and, more important, a veil had fallen from our eyes. We suddenly saw how negative, judgmental and legalistic we had become over the previous six or seven years. This wasn't only true of the Toronto Blessing, but over areas of Charismatic renewal too. Although we had rightly expressed caution over some aspects, we had partially and unwittingly turned against the work of the Spirit. For the previous 11 years I had been speaking prophetically at a national level into the Church of England about bishops denying creedal doctrine and against multi-faith worship and homosexual practices. I continue to stand by these positions but at the General Synod just a few days after our day with Randy Clark, the Lord broke me in repentance for the wrong attitudes of being negative, judgmental and legalistic. At the same time He began to overwhelm me with the immensity of His mercy. He doesn't throw the book at us. Scripture shows God acting in both redemptive judgment but also extravagantly blessing sinners in order to win them to repentance.
I'm still not comfortable with some of the more unusual manifestations, although it helps me to remember that they are not a work of the Spirit, but a human reaction to the work of the Spirit. Some strange manifestations may also result from healing of deep traumas or deliverance from demonic influences. As always in Christian circles there is a mixture of flesh and Spirit. Many of these problems can be resolved by wise, strong and disciplined administration at the local church level. This is sometimes lacking. We as leaders need to use sanctified common sense.
On the other hand, many vehement critics have unwittingly fallen into the same failings as we did. Unlike us, some of them have never experienced first-hand the ministry of people like Randy, John and Carol. Yet they speak with confidence against them and given into the negative gossip and the fearful spiritual superstition which bedevils some Christian circles. Still their views find many supporters.
I'm sure God has even greater things to do in the future than the current Blessing. But I am very glad to testify that prayer in a Toronto context led me to deep repentance and perhaps the most pro- found biblical paradigm-shift I have ever experienced. We’re still rejoicing in the fruit of it and working out its practical implications.