The Toronto Blessing: A Leek’s-Eye View of the UK Takeover

The Toronto Blessing: A Leek’s-Eye View of the UK Takeover January 23, 2020

Hello and welcome back to our conclusion to the Toronto Blessing series! Today, we enjoy a rare guest: LeekSoup, who hails from the United Kingdom (UK) and very graciously allowed me to pick his brain over the holidays. As a young leek, he experienced the Toronto Blessing (TTB) firsthand as it took over the evangelical population of the UK. Settle in while we explore a leek’s-eye view of how that all went down!

leeks in a frying pan
(slickclunk, CC.) I didn’t even know leeks existed till I was midway through college. And even then, I learned about them in relation to Japanese cooking.

I’m enormously grateful to our guest, LeekSoup, and very thankful he allowed me to pick his brain! He’s a gentleman and a scholar if ever there was one. I hope you enjoy the results of our delightful conversations! I’ll be the bold questions in large font headings; he’ll be the regular-font answers below the headings. I’ll add whatever notes I might have in italics. And I bet you’ll quickly notice the same themes that we did, as his answers began to come in. I’ve edited his replies a smidgen, added explanatory links, and Americanized some spellings. If any errors still exist in this post, they are mine and mine alone–so please direct any reports my way 🙂

(Previous TTB-related posts: What ‘Jesus’ Is Doing Lately Instead of Being UsefulAwakenings and Other Christian LiesThe Tangled WebTodd Bentley’s Amazing Escape From AccountabilityA Muddle of InfluencesAuthoritarianism in TTBThe Chaos Created by TTBThe Problem With the Christian Slapfight Over TTB; TTB Does The UK.)

Can you please describe your general doctrinal leanings prior to the Toronto Blessing (TTB)?

I was 18 in 1994 when TTB first hit my church. In October of that year, I left my hometown to go to university to study a theology degree. As an indicator of my personal beliefs, my intention was to get a theology degree and write the definitive Charismatic Systematic Theology. So I went to university with that idea of being a theological hero for the charismatic movement. Obviously that is toe-curlingly embarrassing now, but it does show how thoroughly indoctrinated I was and how convinced I was that our expression of Christianity was correct. [Cas note: just about everyone’s been there, right? No worries.]

TTB had been happening all through the summer, with big meetings held every night at either our church or our cousin Baptist church. I remember half joking about being annoyed that just when the God stuff was finally happening I was leaving town!

When I got to university, I went to the Christian Union (CU) and was really disappointed by how boring and anti-Charismatic it was. The Union was dominated by people I used to describe as Capital-E Evangelicals – very theologically conservative; completely closed and hostile to the Holy Spirit (as I saw it then).

In one of the first CU meetings I went to, one of the CU committee stood up and said that the Committee had met and had decided that Toronto was not a subject for discussion in the CU because it was so divisive. I was quite angry about that because it felt like they were being totally closed off to it. I didn’t last long in the CU.

Was your church involved with the Vineyard denomination?

No. There were / are Vineyard churches in the UK, and ironically about 10 years after my Toronto Blessing experiences, I joined a Vineyard Church. The church I attended where I experienced this was the one I grew up in. It was non-denominational, although a member of the Evangelical Alliance, which acted as an umbrella organisation for all kinds of churches that would be doctrinally evangelical. My church was theologically conservative evangelical, with a Biblical literalist, creationist approach. But in practice it was very charismatic, much more like a Pentecostal Church. So, speaking in tongues was a regular feature, as was being “baptized in the Spirit” and falling over when being prayed for. This was seen before TTB came along.

Looking back, the conditions were really perfect for something like TTB to take hold. My church was about 10 years old. It had been formed when a Baptist Church was affected by the ‘Charismatic Renewal’, which happened in the late 1970s in the UK. The church outgrew its building because it rapidly gained members. The eldership decided to set up a second church, which operated out of various rented premises for a time. It wasn’t a split and the original elders maintained quite close links. Although I think it’s interesting that the elders who stayed in the Baptist Church and the elders who took on the New Church had both moved on by the time TTB arrived. We were kind of cousin churches, if that makes sense.

But as the newer and not-Baptist of the two, our church was definitely more into the charismatic stuff. There was also quite an expectation that God was going to send a revival – we had that kind of promise fairly regularly when people shared “Words of Knowledge” or “Pictures” that they had received.

I don’t know for certain, but I imagine a number of people in the church would have heard John Wimber, the Vineyard founder, speak, when he toured the UK in the 1980s. Certainly he was considered an important figure in the charismatic church in the UK at the time. We sang contemporary worship songs and a lot of them were Vineyard songs.

What’s all this Alpha fuss?

[In the last post, we discussed one big UK name that signed on early to TTB: Terry Virgo, a New Frontiers International (NFI) pastor from the UK who experienced it in Missouri with Rodney Howard-Browne. As LeekSoup and I chatted about Virgo and his Alpha Course, which teaches new Christians how to Jesus correctly, this question naturally came up very quickly.]

Alpha started in the Church of England. It came out of Holy Trinity Brompton and has been a massive industry for them. But it’s pitched as non-denominational, which is why it gets used in all kinds of churches. HTB is a massively successful (ie numerically big) church in the CofE.

My church wasn’t part of NFI when TTB started or when the church got into it in 1994. They joined NFI a couple of years later. NFI used to run this big summer camp called Stoneleigh every summer and lots of people in my church went to that. (I say “my church” – it was the one I grew up in but I was away at university from 1994 onwards and never moved back to my home town.) I wasn’t a fan of NFI. They were very firm on male eldership and complementarianism and proscribed gender roles. [Cas note: It still amazes me that even a few people in the UK would put up with that kind of misogyny, what with the Queens Elizabeth and Iron Lady and all.]

I did go to Stoneleigh at least once. It was in 2000. Lots of hyped up praise and worship sessions along with Bible teaching in the mornings. There was still shaking and some laughter but none of the really way out stuff. I guess the leaders had got better at marshalling the manifestations by then. The headline speaker was… CJ Mahaney no less. [Cas note: He’s the disgraced former leader of Sovereign Grace Ministries.]

IIRC, Terry Virgo made a public apology for his skepticism about TTB and then embraced it fully. He saw which way the wind was blowing. A couple of other people were similar – possibly Gerald Coates, I’m not sure. Coates had a big charismatic preaching ministry in the 80s so was a natural adoptee of TTB.

When did you first hear about this whole Toronto thing?

Timewise it would have been springtime 1994 when it first got on the radar. I’m not sure exactly when it happened, but the Charismatic church has always had what I think of as Revival Chasers. It’s like in the movie Twister when the meteorologists are running after tornadoes – there’s a rumor of an anointing here, or a miracle there, or an outpouring over there, and the Revival Chasers jump on a plane to check it out. That’s actually what happens when something breaks out – if anyone starts talking about huge numbers of people turning up, then odds are it is Christians with FOMO checking out what is going on and trying to catch a bit of the Shekinah glory for themselves.

In April or May of 1994, some people went to Toronto to visit the Toronto Airport Vineyard (TAV), to see what was happening. At that point we knew that there was shaking and a few other odd “manifestations” attached to what was happening in Toronto. But the barking and stuff wasn’t being talked about.

One person I really remember coming back changed was one of the elders, a very quiet man who had always had a big beard, who came back clean-shaven. God had told him to stop hiding behind his beard! And he was really different in his personality. A lot more confident. He spoke much more clearly and took a lead role in things, where he had always been in the background before. He used to shake a lot and make strange groaning noises when the shaking got too much so it was almost like spasming.

We had a few Revival Chasers who were very intense and really into praying against principalities and powers in spiritual warfare. If it had been those people I think we would have all felt a bit sceptical. But it happened to a mild-mannered, very polite, very middle-class, very English, man who suddenly was laughing uncontrollably and shaking when he prayed for people and seemed really excited by what was going on. In a way, that was the authenticating factor – there’s no way this guy would fake stuff. He was too respectable and serious. This must be real! I don’t know if that’s how everyone felt, but it’s how I felt.

It seems like TTB took off very quickly and moved to the UK. Did you see that too?

It did seem to get into the UK very quickly. By the time I went to University in the October of 1994, it was already a divisive issue that could not be spoken about in the CU. There was a big church in the city I moved to who had embraced TTB and were having nightly meetings (which seems to have been a feature). I went to a few meetings, and one evening the BBC local news turned up with a couple of highly sceptical Anglican vicars in tow who had come along to give their verdict on the craziness. But I stopped going after a few weeks because I felt it wasn’t as authentic an experience as what I had experienced in my home church.

On reflection, that’s quite interesting. It seems I did realise this could be forced or faked, and there was something in the way it was being done that didn’t sit right.

Although it was big news in charismatic churches, there were a lot of churches which weren’t affected at all. Obviously there were some which were opposed to it and wouldn’t let themselves be Deceived by the supposed Blessing. But there were a lot where life just carried on and it never made any kind of impact. In the charismatic subculture though, it went stratospheric really quickly.

Was your church the first in the area to jump on TTB?

Yes. We were first, as far as I know, and very early. Our cousin Baptist church was close behind us and we had a lot of joint meetings in their newly built big church building. I know we were first because when I went to the church in the city where they were doing it wrong (!) it was a new thing for them and they had only been at it a few weeks. We were months into it by that point.

It was a sudden adoption rather than a gradual movement. It just started one Sunday when some of the people who had been to Toronto started talking about it and praying for people, and Boom! We were doing Toronto.

Please describe your experiences with TTB.

The really big date for me was Easter 1995. I was home from university and I went to a big meeting one evening in the neighbouring town. The nightly meetings in my hometown had stopped, probably because the Baptist church that had been hosting it was rowing back on Toronto by this point. The baton had been taken up by an ultra-charismatic church in the town nearby who were doing the nightly meetings and still seeing God move in tremendous ways.

I attended with my younger brother and a couple of other friends. We were sat together near the back. I had just turned 19, but still young enough to want to sit near the back of church. It was a large room with tiered seating so we got a good view of things.

The various manifestations began during the time of worship. At one point I looked at the guys with me and I started to laugh. They started to laugh. We continued to laugh harder and harder. It felt amazing. A cathartic release, I suppose. We started to shake.

I had experienced the shaking before, both in my original church and when I went to the church that was doing Toronto stuff in the city where I was at university. So this wasn’t new.

However, what was new was the roaring. The best way I can describe this is if you imagine a spasm going right across your stomach and pushing all the air out of your lungs as your diaphragm moves up. It’s the same way you project your voice if you are on stage or shouting at a sports event. All the air gets forced out of your body with a kind of roar. I remember being on the floor, feeling these constrictions and letting out roars.

Wow! What happened afterward?

People got very excited by this, naturally. These were big manifestations. People queued up to get prayed for by me and my friends. One of the elders from my church fell over when I prayed for him. I was probably praying in tongues as well. It’s hard to remember really as it was almost 25 years ago. I know I wrote about it shortly afterwards, but I don’t know where those notes have gone.

Afterwards I felt really drained as we drove back home. I think I was a passenger. By the time I got home I’d calmed down.

In terms of trying to stop, I think that would have been possible. Throughout the experience there was a little part of my mind reviewing what was going on in a very detached way. I remember thinking that I could stop it if I wanted to, but why would I want to stop? If this was God, then forcing myself to stop would be denying the Holy Spirit.

The reception it got was an encouragement to carry on as well. In a performative church environment where you get attention from doing things like that there isn’t an incentive to stop.

How long was it between any discussion from leadership to actually doing the full TTB stuff?

I guess there must have been some discussion ahead of that first Sunday, but we just launched into it. The discussion happened afterwards as some of the leaders wanted to rein it in a bit. But it was out of control at that point and anyone suggesting caution was denying the Holy Spirit. That led to a faction leaving the church. Several months in, the pastor of our cousin church suddenly declared there wouldn’t be any more midweek meetings and that caused a huge split in that church with a large number of people switching to our church as a result.

In hindsight, maybe a bit more discussion would have prevented those problems. There was some other stuff going on as well. The one elder who quit my church was definitely the most authoritarian of the elders. (They made us watch a music video warning us of the danger of rock music. It was called ‘Hells Bells’. It didn’t have the desired effect and one of my friends got really into AC/DC after seeing clips of some of their songs on it.)


[Cas note: This is part of the doco in question. I now know a couple of people who’ve gotten way into AC/DC as a result of seeing this. I was Pentecostal at the time it came out, and thus was not allowed to watch TV, so I missed it till much later–but I knew about it and set it on the same mental shelf as Chick tracts.]

I think those people left in late 1994, but they might have hung on until early 1995. I wasn’t at home at that point and was hearing everything that was going on in my church second hand.

Had you heard about the controversy about the catchers and animal noises?

The animal noises was the thing that critics of the Toronto Blessing fixated on, but I can honestly say I didn’t hear actual animal noises in the meetings I went to. Shaking, roaring, unrestrained hysterical laughter, singing in “tongues” and spoken tongues, yes. Animal noises, no.

We generally had catchers in place for prayer ministry times before TTB anyway. People falling over while being prayed for was always a risk. We called it being “slain in the Spirit”. There was a fairly strict ‘hands off’ policy during prayer, so the person praying wasn’t grabbing people’s foreheads and forcing them down, the way it’s seen in extreme American settings, or spoofed in movies. Catchers were part of the whole experience – we had to be ready for if God moved and someone fell over while experiencing the Holy Spirit.

It would be interesting to know where catching as common practice started in the UK. It was probably something done at big Christian events, then copied in local settings.

Did your church know about the TTB’s connection to Benny Hinn’s fraudulent “healing” ministry?

I didn’t know about it at the time. Even as a believer, I realised Benny Hinn was a crook and one of many utter conjobs to come out of American Christianity. Charlatans like Hinn can always find some credulous people in any country to con, but generally I think most Christians in the UK give any American preachers the side eye. (With the exception of Billy Graham.)

It’s not really a surprise that someone like him got involved with TTB. It’s a way for grifters to steal some legitimacy. It happens with other revival type scenarios. Stuff starts happening then one or two of the well known players get involved. It’s a mutual authentication – they lend their credibility and fanbase, but also get access to a new market of fans.

Also, 25 years ago Hinn hadn’t been totally exposed as a corrupt liar. So it would have been less of an issue if he endorsed TTB.

[Cas note: And as we know well now, there’s still Christians who believe this guy’s legit and keep him rolling in money. Hooray Team Jesus!]

TTB possibly took off because it was Canadian, not American, so wasn’t automatically suspect the way American Christian things were.

How long were you doing TTB stuff before you began to have some doubts about it?

At some point after my experience at Easter 1995, I took my girlfriend [now wife] home to stay with my family. We went to one of the meetings in the place where I had roared and she got really freaked out and upset by it. She is introverted and was never happy with the performative side of stuff, even though later she got more comfortable with it, when we were part of the Vineyard Church together.

My personal theology had changed slightly. I saw the manifestations of the Holy Spirit as hallmarks of God’s blessing but not indicative of a person’s salvation. I was never Pentecostal in that sense. So if she didn’t want to talk in tongues that was fine. It didn’t mean she was less of a Christian. But it put of a dampener on me and TTB. We were still fairly new in our relationship so I didn’t want to make it a big issue, so I didn’t go to any more meetings with her.

I know the meetings carried on for a bit, but at some point they fizzled out. I remained convinced they were genuinely a move of God, even if it wasn’t something I was involved in. I probably considered them genuine right up until the point where I realised I didn’t believe any of it. I think if I had been in a church which emphasised those performative aspects I would have carried on with them.

Did anybody talk about stopping, or did they just all peter out?

It petered out. The church I grew up in got involved heavily in a pseudo-denomination that was very Reformed in its theology and started to emphasise things like complementarianism. It’s hard to imagine Charismatic Calvinists, but that’s what they are now. They still do all the gifts in Sunday Services. There’s usually space for members of the congregation to bring ‘words’ and inevitably one of the songs will drift into a musical interlude where people can sing along in tongues.

Nobody talks about TTB any more, as far as I know. It’s considered ancient history. There may be one or two churches that have a bit of shaking occasionally, but I haven’t seen anything like that in my infrequent visits to the church I grew up in.

Most people who experienced it would still say it was a time of Refreshing, when God poured out his Spirit and lives were changed. My Dad, for example, was still very positive about it right up until he passed away. He would never have condemned it and would have defended it.

Whew!

WOW. I have to say, this whole conversation was eye-opening for me! It helped me contextualize a lot of what I was reading about how the Toronto Blessing infiltrated and took over churches–and how it happened so quickly and completely!

When I schedule the posts I write, I always try to leave myself open to interesting news that can change or shuffle around my planned itinerary. As they say, no GM’s plan ever survives an encounter with players! And this interview became one of those sudden inspirations. See, LeekSoup and I both noticed the same themes emerging time and time again in the answers he was giving. Those themes center around power and control and authoritarianism: all those awful impulses that DON’T put the “fun” into “fundagelical.”

Since LeekSoup’s very graciously open to an epilogue episode, we’ll run one on Saturday about those themes. Then we’ll have one last post functioning as an observation–more an afterword, really–about how ex-Christians can and do re-contextualize their weird and numinous experiences after deconversion.

I hope this series has been as fun and informative for you to read as it’s been for me to write. Thank you for spending your time here. I know these have been longer posts than usual–and I offer them up in the sincere hope that they are worth the time spent. Thank you, dear friends and lurkers alike, for giving me the room I need to explore these topics. I can’t ever say enough how grateful I am for all of you.

A special thanks goes out to LeekSoup, for all his time and care, and for being such an indelible part of our community.

NEXT UP ON SATURDAY: The epilogue to the Toronto Blessing: power and control. Also, look for a special edition of R2D late on Sunday about that Minnesota church’s decision to boot out its Boomers. I don’t want to interrupt this series for it, but dangit, I’ve got some thoughts. See you soon!


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About Captain Cassidy
Captain Cassidy grew up fervently Catholic, converted to the SBC in her teens, and became a Pentecostal shortly afterward. She even volunteered in church (choir, Sunday School) and married an aspiring preacher! But then--record scratch!--she brought everything to a screeching halt when she deconverted in her mid-20s. That was 25 years ago. Now a comfortable None, she blogs on Roll to Disbelieve about psychology, pop culture, politics, relationships, cats, gaming, and more--and where they all intersect with religion. And she still can't carry a note in a bucket. You can read more about the author here.
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