... From the Goodnews archives, May/June 2006
Prophet of Unity
Rev David Matthews, a prominent House Church leader based in Brentwood, who will be speaking at the Birmingham Conference and at this years Irish National Conference in Athlone, shares about his roots in Northern Ireland and the importance of Christian Unity.
I didnt meet a Roman Catholic until I was 18 because in Northern Ireland we lived in our territorial areas. He was a collegue from the civil service. Although we didnt socialise outside of work, we became firm friends, and he helped to change my views about Catholics, but not Catholicism, which I still thought was totally in error and unbiblical.
My parents were not church goers, but like many respectable working class people they would send their children to Sunday school. But I took to it like a duck to water from my earliest age. I gave my first talk when I was 10 years old. My Sunday school teacher had died, and I was asked to speak at his memorial on behalf of my classmates. My mum got converted that night, so you could say she was my first convert. Speaking in front of others never troubled me and when I was 12 I used to lead the youth services at the church regularly.
Never planned to be a preacher
I never planned to be a preacher. My mother wanted me to have a steady job and suggested that I be a school teacher and this was what I was planning to do. It was my pastor who suggested I go into the ministry. I didnt agree, but he said he would pray for me and by the end of the year I found I had changed my mind.
My dad was a gentle giant and I never heard anything from him that was inflammatory towards anybody, but the whole culture we grew up in was full of fear and suspicion. I remember when I was a child he told me that we had guns in the attic so we would be safe if the Catholics came for us. Our Protestant identity was reinforced by the summer marches in July and August and I remember when I heard the music something deep within me would stir. This was nothing to do with religion, but about primal cultural and tribal identity. It was only after I was baptised in the Holy Spirit, that something changed inside me, and then when I heard the sound of the bands, I would weep for our history.
Tribal loyalty very deep
Outsiders can never understand the strength of this tribal loyalty and it does defy logic. Ive heard very similar things said in the deep South of the USA against blacks that you hear in Northern Ireland against Catholics. Ive got nothing against them. Just dont ask me to mix with them! or You cant trust them!
My baptism in the Holy Spirit happened when I was 16 years old. I was part of an evangelical witnessing group and a Baptist friend and I had just read the book The Cross and the Switchblade. We were very impressed by what we read and decided we wanted this power of the Holy Spirit. So my friend prayed for me. I had a very powerful experience and immediately started speaking in tongues. I felt full of the Holy Spirit and went round to see Mary my girlfriend(and future wife) so I could lay hands on her so she could receive it too. When she saw me, she knew something had happened, and decided whatever it was, she didnt want it. Undeterred I went out to witness, thinking people would be converted on the spot. But they werent.
The whole experience lasted a couple of hours. When I went home, I immediately started searching in the bible for an explanation of what had happened. Because I was taught to revere the bible, everything I did had to have a biblical basis. Thus it was natural for me to validate my experience from there. Of course there was plenty of teaching about the gifts, and I found others mentioned that I didnt know about. I decided to try and sing in tongues. I got out my grandmothers hymnal and sang one of the hymns, and then using the same tune tried it in tongues. It was all very innocent. I did mention what happened to my new pastor. Nobody quite understood what was going on with me, however, so I decided it was a private thing and continued with my own personal bible study about it for the next couple of years.
Almost lost the charismatic dimension at bible college
When I was old enough I went off to England to train for the ministry. The approach to the Bible at my college was very academic like in many seminaries and there was no outlet for the use of the gifts of the Holy Spirit, so in the process I almost lost this charismatic dimension to my faith.
When I was 22 I was ordained in the Free Methodist Church I had grown up in. My first pastorate grew out of the little group I had planted at 16. Within a year we had grown from 4 to 50 people and things were going very well. Then one night, at a weekday night prayer meeting, the Holy Spirit fell in a powerful way on the whole congregation. It began when I prayed for a woman. As I prayed for her she began to speak in tongues. Then it just seemed to spread like wildfire and everyone in the group started manifesting unusual things. I sat there frightened stiff. I knew it was the Holy Spirit, I knew I shouldnt stop it, and I knew I would get the sack. I did lose my job and found myself, just married, a little baby on the way, with no money, no home and no training to do anything else but be a preacher. We prayed desperately. It was a terrible time but eventually things sorted themselves out and I ended up in a house group, which in time grew into one of the first House Churches in Ireland.
Not what I wanted to hear
When I was 25 I was praying one day and asking God what He was doing so I could join in with it. I felt him say in my heart. I am baptising Roman Catholics in the Holy Spirit. This was not what I wanted to hear and I began to argue with God. I felt him say, you wanted to know what I am doing. If you dont want to do what I ask I will find someone else. Thus it was kicking and screaming and with huge reservations that I got involved with a group of Catholic Charismatics meeting at the university chaplaincy in Belfast. This in turn led me to get to know Des Dick and a group of Roman Catholics meeting in Andersons Town in West Belfast. As we prayed and talked we felt the Spirit calling our two communities to combine together. Thus the Belfast Christian Family came into being made up of 2/3 Protestants and 1/3 Roman Catholics. It was the first ecumenical community in Ireland at the time.
We tried to do everything together that we could while respecting our differences. We worshipped together and had home groups together and as for the things we couldnt do together, we went as far as we could in solidarity. We found that in practice most of our problems were more cultural than theological. I remember one Roman Catholic saying do me, Why do you Proddies have to pray so long? Could you not just ask the Lord what you want and then say Amen?
Although we were only 100 people or so, just trying to be together the way we were, was such a witness that I was called in by the government to ask how we did it. Not everyone was impressed though. It was considered all very new and suspect. A lot of my fellow pastors in Ireland and England were worried about me. They were concerned that having such a close relationship with Catholics my beliefs would become tainted and even worse I might be brainwashed into becoming a Catholic myself. The Catholic members got the same from concerned people on their side. But in fact being together, helped us understand our own beliefs better. One of the best things was just being able to meet each other and talk. You came to realise a lot of the things you thought about the others were untrue. As Protestants for example, we were taught that Catholics had the crucifix rather than the cross because they didnt believe in the resurrection! Catholics had their own myths about us.
Work of the Holy Spirit greater than our boxes
This relationship with Catholics helped me to widen my understanding of the work of the Holy Spirit. I came to realise you cant keep the Holy Spirit in the box of what you believe. He is bigger than that. It was very liberating for me personally and a great blessing. I think I originally got involved with the CCR to evangelise Catholics. But in the end we evangelised each other. I realised that some of the things, for example that I thought were biblical, werent. They werent bad but they were just cultural traditions, not biblical imperatives.
For me the body of Christ is a bit like a big disfunctional family which isnt talking to each other. By not talking we miss some of the Fathers heart and his revelation for us as his family. If I dont discover my brothers and sisters I am the one who suffers as there will be something missing in me. Once we start talking and listening to each other we find that we are part of the same family, and our differences can be enriching.
When the Catholic Charismatic Renewal started 30 years ago or so it was very grassroots based, very ecumenical and prophetic. Then I think we started to go our separate ways again, with the aim of renewing our own traditions. Unfortunately I dont think this has worked. I think the Holy Spirit is calling us to find each other again. Not just at conferences and among the clergy, but at the grassroots level. I think when we do this we get a special blessing from the Holy Spirit. We jump to a different level of understanding that is at the heart level rather than the mind. We need to know how to express things theologically but the heart level is also important because it goes beyond credal statements and touches something primal in us.
Are we prepared to pay the price of unity?
When I moved to England, I found that it is not just in Northern Ireland that there is prejudice and hatred between Catholics and Protestants. Only in England it is done in a nice polite way. Its very British and nice but it is still sin and not what God wants. In my small way I have always tried to keep links with Roman Catholics by speaking at Catholic conferences when I am asked and inviting from time to time Catholic speakers to my church. Sr Maria Natella and her nuns were a great hit when they came to our church a few years ago, and did a wonderful concert for us to raise money to build their chapel.
Since the Newman Consultation which I was privileged to be invited to, I sense a fresh impetus for unity. This year I am speaking at three Catholic conferences. The folks in Ireland in particular I think are very brave in inviting two Protestants to address the conference. That sends a big message out. When you are prophetic though at some point there will be a price to pay. I hope we will be willing to pay it. We walked away from it before. Lets hope this time we can say yes!