The last week of July perhaps somewhat surprisingly saw me and family in a large tent at the Royal Bath & West Showground, Somerset, for the 25th annual New Wine conference (and I think the 9th I’ve been at).
New Wine is an Anglican renewal movement and conference that grew out of John Wimber’s ministry in the 1980s. It’s thoroughly and unashamedly evangelical charismatic, with a strong emphasis on ministry in the gifts and power of the Holy Spirit.
The yearly week-long conference is attended by 10 – 15,000 enthusiastic Christians and bears some passing resemblance to other UK Christian gatherings like Spring Harvest, the Keswick Convention, the now-defunct Stoneleigh Bible Week, and the Greenbelt festival. But New Wine is unique for its focus on big worship meetings and prayer ministry. Our family call it ‘praising Jesus in a field’.
Evangelical Liberal it certainly isn’t. There was a time, perhaps ten years ago, when I was very much on board with New Wine’s theology and values, but increasingly I’ve been moving away from it towards the far more liberal and broad-church Greenbelt. Still, I do love musical worship and the children’s work at New Wine is undeniably great for our kids.
So it was with fairly mixed feelings that I approached this year’s New Wine. Indeed I’d originally planned not to go, but in the end changed my mind – partly because some very good friends were going, and partly because some anonymous benefactor paid for my (not cheap) ticket.
Let it rain?
It’s fair to say that the conference didn’t get off to a great start. We arrived at the site on the back of a very un-British month-long rainless heatwave, only for it to start raining just as we were trying to put up our massive, unwieldy and complex 12-person tent. And I’m not talking light rain; this was a full-on, drench-to-the-skin downpour.
So my first spiritual experience of New Wine was of being childishly furious with God about this, and swearing roundly at him. I hadn’t really wanted to come, I was feeling tired and low and in need of grace, and this just felt like a bad cosmic joke.
I also approached New Wine with considerable cynicism, partly in order to protect myself against expected excesses of charismatic theology. And it didn’t disappoint on that score; there were many aspects that I felt very uncomfortable with. There were times when it felt like the leaders were just indulging in showmanship and crowd-hyping; and I don’t like being told what to think or how to respond. And the big-band Hillsongs-style performance worship with all new songs just alienated me and left me cold.
Perhaps most difficult for me was the healing ministry, which is a prominent feature of new Wine. Miracle healings just don’t fit neatly with my current theology, or with my personal experience. But above all they don’t fit with my cynicism; I’ve stopped wanting them to be true, because they haven’t been true for me. And yet… there were just so many testimonies of healings, great and small, emotional and relational as well as physical, and I couldn’t shake the reluctantly growing conviction that many (perhaps most) were genuine.
So, somewhat irritatingly, I actually found my cynicism being challenged throughout the week on a number of fronts.
I was challenged by the attitude of a friend whose spirituality I admire; by their wholehearted engagement with and acceptance of New Wine, flaws and all, when I know they’re far from straightforwardly evangelical or charismatic.
I was challenged by several of the speakers, particularly (and surprisingly) an American Vineyard pastor called Jay Pathak, whose talks were warm, human, funny and thought-provoking. One of his particular challenges was that God doesn’t operate within our theological boxes; that he uses people who we see as theologically or even morally dodgy.
I gradually began to suspect that much of the problem is simply me, and the somewhat embittered and cynical attitude I hadn’t even realised I’d built up. So as the week progressed I began to open up just a little. I event went up for prayer ministry.
If I approached New Wine with mixed feelings, I also experienced mixed blessings. I made a list of my personal negatives and positives from this year, and almost every negative was offset by a positive.
I’ve said I was put off by some of the more extreme charismatic behaviour; yet I saw God working and doing amazing things through it. I disliked the worship when it felt like a rock band performance; but there were other times led by groups like Rend Collective when the worship was heartfelt and engaging. There were talks that left me cold, but there were some excellent speakers and sessions, including a fascinating one on Christian ‘mindfulness’.
New archbishop Justin Welby was the main speaker one day, and I was slightly surprised at how charismatic and evangelical his theology is (he’s apparently attended New Wine for years as a punter). But I was impressed with his openness to other forms of spirituality – he cited as one his most profound spiritual experiences praying in front of the sacrament in a Roman Catholic church. Above all I was taken with his plain down-to-earth get-on-with-it manner, as evidenced in his handling of the recent Wonga business.
I was frustrated with New Wine’s anti-gay stance (Justin Welby was applauded for having voted against gay marriage), but at the same time grudgingly impressed at their very positive attitude towards women in leadership. Similarly in the past I’ve been frustrated with their anti-evolution bias, yet this year they had a pro-evolution speaker.
Then of course there’s just the camping, with all its inherent difficulties and occasional joys. There’s the lack of privacy, the lengthy shower queues, dodgy toilets, wasps, wet tents and damp matches, and uncomfortable sleeping. But there’s also a unique sense of community and camaraderie, and the fun of living in your own portable space.
Even the weather was a mix of extremes – torrential downpours and glorious sunshine. Which of course is just like normal life, only a little more so; a bit more intense and extreme. That’s New Wine in a nutshell.
Spiritual warfare or strange grace?
It does feel like our family have had more than our share of difficult times at New Wine over the years. We’ve rather foolishly tried camping with a 6-month-old who couldn’t get to sleep and screamed for hours on end most nights (and mornings). Another time our 18-month old had febrile convulsions and had to be rushed to hospital. One year the whole family contracted worms (nice). Last time we went our daughter fractured her elbow and had to go to hospital again. And we’ve had the tent interior and contents so rain-soaked that we nearly had to give up and go home. Yet we keep coming back, because there’s almost always something that makes it worthwhile.
Also, you could choose worse places to experience problems than where you’re surrounded by thousands of helpful Spirit-filled Christians…
It’s tempting at times to ascribe all these difficulties to spiritual warfare. And of course New Wine very strongly believes in spiritual warfare.
Indeed, I had a mildly heated debate this year on that very subject. A friend of a friend was talking about the strong pagan presence in nearby Glastonbury and felt that there must be a lot of spiritual warfare going on over the town. I responded unguardedly that I no longer really believed in spiritual warfare. I didn’t acquit myself very well in the ensuing discussion, and it left me feeling uncomfortable and challenged. New Wine is somewhere where it’s much harder to maintain non-belief in things like spiritual warfare.
Nonetheless, my own belief is that some of the difficulties we’ve had at New Wine may actually be God’s strange grace, his blessing in (heavy) disguise. It feels like you have to take the bad to get the good; that that’s just how it works. You need the water for there to be wine; the water of rain-drenched clothes for the Wine of the Spirit.
So in a way, perhaps the heavens opening in a mighty downpour as we arrived on site was not a bad divine joke but a symbol of the Spirit. In this case, both the obvious symbol of rain falling on dry ground, but also the inconvenience, discomfort and awkwardness of the Spirit coming to disrupt our comfortable routines.
Signs of the Spirit
New Wine is of course very much about the presence and power of the Holy Spirit. But for me this time, it wasn’t so much in the big worship meetings that I glimpsed the Spirit. It was in the incidental and accidental things, and in the natural environment.
I glimpsed the wildness, freedom and loveliness of the Spirit in the flights of house martins swooping and diving around the campsite with unconscious grace and effortless skill.
I saw the unpredictability, beauty and uncapturability of the Spirit in the impossible fragment of rainbow hanging high in the clouds without any rain in sight; vibrant, glowing, ghostly and ethereal.
I sensed the majesty, immensity and immeasurability of the Spirit in the starry heavens stretched out infinitely above us, glittering with uncountable lights at inconceivable distances.
I felt the tenderness of the Spirit as I sat and prayed by a quiet stream on the campsite, sounds of running water in my ears and a breeze playing on my face… as I prayed the sun came out and I opened my eyes on butterflies dancing above the stream-plants, living symbols of resurrection and new life.
And I saw the mighty power of the Spirit in the thunderstorm we drove into on the way home, a great bolt of lightning branching across the whole horizon in a vast tree of electricity.
A suspension of the normal
It seems to me that New Wine is a suspension of normal life and normal rules. Things happen there that don’t happen in normal life, including apparently divine and supernatural things. And yes, with the ‘weird stuff’ I do think there’s always a mixture of the human and the divine, sometimes more of one than the other. But that doesn’t necessarily invalidate it.
There are many things about New Wine that I’m still uncomfortable with, and I can’t subscribe to all of its beliefs and practices. In some ways it does all feels a little extreme and one-sided, but then perhaps that’s okay – it’s not meant to represent the whole of life.
And if nothing else, I came away a little less certain in my cynicism; a little more open to God’s unexpected, odd and often irksomely inconvenient ways.