Religion: Speaking in Tongues

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The early Christians were much impressed by the phenomenon known as glossolalia (literally, "speaking with tongues"), which appeared at the first Pentecost: "And they were all filled with the Holy Ghost, and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance." To the skeptical, the "other tongues" sounded like gibberish, but the faithful found special meanings in the spontaneous outpouring of sounds.

Peter saw the "gift of tongues" in a group of Gentiles as evidence that the Holy Ghost was present and they should be baptized forthwith. Paul cited it as a notable Christian gift, and though he had it himself ("I thank my God, I speak with tongues more than ye all"), he warned in his first letter to the Corinthians against letting it get out of hand. The general practice lasted into the 3rd century. Now glossolalia seems to be on its way back in U.S. churches—not only in the uninhibited Pentecostal sects but even among Episcopalians, who have been called "God's frozen people."

"Speaking in tongues is no longer a phenomenon of some odd sect across the street," the Living Church (Episcopal) editorialized. "It is in our midst, and it is being practiced by clergy and laity who have stature and good reputation in the Church ... Its widespread introduction would jar against our esthetic sense and some of our more strongly entrenched preconceptions. But we know that we are members of a Church which definitely needs jarring ... If God has chosen this time to dynamite what Bishop Sterling of Montana has called 'Episcopalian respectabilianism,' we know no more terrifyingly effective explosive."

Releasing Something Deeper. The Rev. Dennis J. Bennett, for one, is sure the explosion is on the way; last week he took up new duties in Seattle at St. Luke's Episcopal Church as the direct result of his interest in glossolalia. London-born Father Bennett, 42, a graduate of Chicago Theological Seminary (Congregational) who later became an Episcopalian, was assigned to St. Mark's Church in Van Nuys, Calif, in 1953. Last October he agreed to meet with some members of a fellow minister's church who had found themselves beginning to speak in tongues. First he was surprised to find that they were neither far-out types nor emotionally unbalanced; then he discovered that he had the "gift" himself and that the experience was "enriching."

Father Bennett brought the idea into his own parish—and began to run into trouble. Of his 2,000 parishioners, he says, some 700 developed a positive, sympathetic interest—"they included the junior warden and the chairman of the women's guild. They were about equally divided between men and women, and there was a large number of couples. The group included a Ph.D. and a brain surgeon." But conservative Episcopalians were shocked. In April the vestry asked Pastor Bennett for his resignation, and Bishop Francis Eric Bloy of Los Angeles sent St. Mark's a new priest and a pastoral letter banning any more speaking in tongues under church auspices.

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