The Charismatic Episcopal Church

ASHEVILLE, N.C. -- This was only Janine Nitterauer's second time in the pulpit and her mind went blank when she finished reading from St. Paul's Letter to the Romans.

Father Bill McLoughlin guided her to the liturgy's next line. "The Word of the Lord," he said. "Thanks be to God," responded the congregation.

"I knew there was something I was supposed to say," said Nitterauer, laughing. Several friends offered hugs as she returned to her folding chair in the Church of the Resurrection's temporary sanctuary.

Welcome to the cutting edge of American church life, where it's getting harder to tell the players without an up-to-date program and people are constantly learning new roles.

Until recently, the 80 or so members of this mission, including their priest, were part of an historic parish in the Episcopal Diocese of Western North Carolina. Others were Baptists, Pentecostals or, like Nitterauer, simply unchurched. Now they are part of the Charismatic Episcopal Church, a hard-to-label flock that was born in 1992 and already has 120 congregations -- more than half of them missions.

Beginning in the 1970s, millions were touched by "charismatic renewal," which lit Pentecostal fires in many Roman Catholic and oldline Protestant churches. In the '90s, experts are seeing a movement on the other side of the tracks, where evangelical and Pentecostal believers are seeking liturgical roots.

The result is a collision between the American frontier and ancient Christendom that will change both, according to the Rev. Dan Scott of Phoenix, a Pentecostal megachurch pastor.

"We will learn that the treasures of the church belong to us all," writes Scott. "It will be all right for Lutherans to speak with tongues. It will be all right for a Pentecostal to make the sign of the cross. It will be perfectly in order for a Baptist to observe Lent. Charismatics will kneel if they wish for the Eucharist. The treasures belong to us all."

The Charismatic Episcopal Church began when independent charismatics and evangelicals began studying ancient rites and writings. Today, they continue to embrace miraculous gifts of prophecy and healing, as well as sacraments and liturgies they share with Orthodox and Catholic churches. These services include chanted psalms and folk rock, incense and informality, "smells and bells" with drums and amplifiers.

In this mission in a blue-collar neighborhood, worshippers kneel on linoleum and the walls feature stations of the cross drawn in crayon by children. Four musicians occupy a niche beside the altar in a sanctuary so small that most worshippers can hear the drummer singing while he plays and he doesn't have a microphone.

No one minded that a few windows were cracked open on this cold morning, because that kept the incense from becoming overpowering. Afterwards, a parish leader smiled and confirmed that the smoke detector inches above the priest's head is turned off during masses, to keep it from constantly shrieking.

The sermon centered on the New Testament call for believers to be "born again." Truth is, everyone gets into ruts based on "how things are supposed to be done," said McLoughlin. Baptists don't like how Catholics worship. Charismatics and evangelicals often assume that everyone else is spiritually dead. Those in elite churches may look down their noses at everyone else.

Over in Shelby, N.C., another parish is continuing its pilgrimage from Baptist to Pentecostal to Charismatic Episcopal. It'll be awhile before some there get used to calling their pastor "father," reciting creeds or tasting wine during mass. Meanwhile, their newborn denomination faces other challenges, such as wrestling with the impact of Pentecostal experience on its common life and doctrine. Also, Charismatic Episcopalians may struggle to keep their fresh approach as waves of hurting traditionalists arrive, fleeing the modernization of their old churches.

"This church is very new," said McLoughlin. "Yet it's also clear that what it's all about is people wanting to become part of something that's very old. ... We have to keep that balance. We're in this for the long haul."