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Why we're left feeling low by these spiritual highs

By Fionola Meredith

Published 08/05/2015

Rev Alan Kilpatrick
Rev Alan Kilpatrick

Manifestations of gold dust? Raising the dead? That doesn't sound much like the good old Church of Ireland I know. While there have been no reports of any mysterious glitter falling on the pews of St Matthias' parish church, in Knocknamuckley, Co Armagh - or indeed any attempts at spontaneous resurrection - I feel sure that it can only be a matter of time.

Because the current rector of St Matthias', Rev Alan Kilpatrick, isn't your average country vicar. He's multiply pierced, for a start, and he preaches robe-less, in jeans. More to the point, he's Pentecostal in style, and friendly with the Bethel School of Supernatural Ministries in California, where falling gold dust is familiar to the point of tedium. Rev Alan and his wife Jan recently ran a Bethel-designed training course in spiritual healing, and some of their Bethel friends even popped over for a visit just last month.

But not everyone is happy. The little stone church is split right down the middle, with some parishioners enjoying the new roller-coaster ride with Jesus that they're being offered, and others feeling outraged, let down and excluded, and calling for the rector to be removed from office.

"If you walked into one of his services, you would never know that it's a Church of Ireland church," said one long-time parishioner. "It's not what we know, love or were brought up with."

After backing his man - affirming Rev Alan's "spiritual authority" over the parish - the Right Rev Harold Miller, Bishop of Down and Dromore, has now stepped in to try to calm the whole thing down. Bishop Harold, although a hardline conservative on issues like homosexuality and abortion, is no stranger to the giddy delights of happy-clappy worship himself - but at least he generally keeps his robes on.

I can see why many church-goers are horrified by the prospect of getting involved with the Bethel School of Supernatural Ministries and its followers. Some of their antics - particularly the attempts to raise people from the dead - sound bonkers. One of the Bethel leaders, Kris Vallotton, explains that students from the school, inspired by a Bible verse, "decided to go down to the morgue and 'practise' raising the dead", something that he, Vallotton, had already tried himself twice, but with no luck as yet.

Other Bethel students started a 'Dead Raising Team' (DRT), which claims to have achieved "12 resurrections to date". Not bad, that's nine more than Christ himself managed. And do check out 'Dead Raisers', a 2013 documentary which examines the work of the DRT, and stars a man known as 'Chuck the Cannabalistic Humanoid Underground Killer', brought back from the dead by someone called TJ Aderholdt, who was dressed up as Jesus at the time.

Beside all this, the heavenly gold dust which appears when the 'glory of God' is present - which Vallotton says he has witnessed "hundreds of times" - looks like nothing.

I admit, Pentecostal worship - even in its less overt forms - scares the bejasus out of me. I've visited several Pentecostal churches in Northern Ireland, and I find them oppressive in their relentlessly hyped-up, emotionally-driven style of worship. Quiet thought and reflection is out, dry ice and dancing in the aisles is very much in.

I notice that the newer churches have substituted free sweets, coffee mornings and foam parties for the kids in place of old-school thundering about hellfire and damnation (to the frustration of some of the old-school thunderers). But while they may wear jeans and trainers, not fussy hats and suits, they don't seem very different, in essence, from traditional fundamentalists. They're hardline on social issues. They still believe you're headed for the hot place if you don't get born again. After you're saved, though, you're sorted: there's a parking space reserved for you in heaven no matter what you get up to in this life.

The Pentecostals have mass appeal, of that there's no doubt. While mainstream church attendance is in freefall, Pentecostal gatherings are on the up and up in Northern Ireland. They are confident, cash-rich and full to bursting every Sunday. Green Pastures church, in Ballymena, with a current congregation of 1,000 people, is even planning to build its own village, with social housing, a nursing home, a hotel and a supermarket.

How individuals choose to worship is up to them, of course. But the evangelicals are taking over, even in the Church of Ireland, and what people gain in spiritual highs they risk losing in spiritual depth.

Belfast Telegraph

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