Laughing for the Lord

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It's Sunday evening in London's fashionable Knightsbridge neighborhood. Though pathetically tiny flocks of Londoners attend many Anglican services, Holy Trinity Brompton has a standing-room-only turnout of 1,500. Oblivious to the hot, airless sanctuary, the youthful throng buzzes with an anticipation more common at a rock concert or rugby match. After the usual Scripture readings, prayers and singing, the chairs are cleared away. Curate Nicky Gumbel prays that the Holy Spirit will come upon the congregation. Soon a woman begins laughing. Others gradually join her with hearty belly laughs. A young worshipper falls to the floor, hands twitching. Another falls, then another and another. Within half an hour there are bodies everywhere as supplicants sob, shake, roar like lions and, strangest of all, laugh uncontrollably.

; This frenzied display has become known as the "laughing revival," or "Toronto blessing," from the city that has popularized it. Though similar to the emotional outbursts found in some U.S. Pentecostal and Charismatic circles, the paroxysms of laughter are new, particularly for straitlaced Anglicans. And they are catching on. After first appearing at Holy Trinity only last May, laughing revivals have been reported in Anglican parishes from Manchester to York to Brighton.

The ecstatic displays appear to have American origins. They are similar to the flamboyant services -- characterized by the trademark laughing outbursts -- conducted by Rodney Howard-Browne, a Pentecostal revivalist from Louisville, Kentucky. According to Charisma magazine, an American pastor who saw Howard-Browne in action brought word to the Vineyard Christian Fellowship, a Charismatic church near the Toronto International Airport. Similar outbursts began taking place there in January, at six-nights-a-week services that can last until 3 a.m. They have since spread to churches of several denominations across Canada as well as to England.

Though virtually unknown today, holy laughter was a long-standing Pentecostal tradition that petered out in the 1950s, according to religious historian Vinson Synan of Virginia's Regent University. Why has it resurfaced in such an unlikely place? "It's a kind of emotional release for a lot of people," maintains Synan. "It shows there's a spiritual and emotional hunger that's not being met in mainline churches."

At London's Holy Trinity, schoolteacher Denise Williams says she "came here a little skeptical," but soon was caught up in the fervor. "There was a lovely feeling of warmth and peace." Secretary Jo Luzquinos "felt as though I had chains around my wrists, and I prayed for release." Says Andy Bush, a bookshop proprietor: "If this experience means a deeper love for God, and therefore others, then it is a good thing."

Though such eruptions sometimes split parishes, Holy Trinity remains united, and three offshoot churches are thriving. The reaction of other pastors is benignly wary. "We are watchful," says the Rev. Richard Bewes, vicar at All Souls, an evangelical Anglican church in central London. "One doesn't want something to be blown up that then proves to be a letdown." No sign of that yet: lines outside Holy Trinity now start forming an hour and a half before services.