Can charisms change? Insights from the examples of William Booth and Isaac Hecker

My research on the charism of William Booth and Isaac Hecker is raising some interesting questions in relation to the relative permanence or provisionality of charisms.   Are charisms a permanent endowment given to a person, or can they change, or even come and go, depending on the specific situations faced by the church in various times and places?

The issue is particularly important as it relates the charisms of ordained ministry, because traditions with a “high” view of ordination often believe it bestows a permanent character on the ordained person.

The report on Ministry from the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission (1973) provides an example of this kind of thinking:

In this sacramental act, the gift of God is bestowed upon the ministers, with the promise of divine grace for their work and for their sanctification; the ministry of Christ is presented to them as a model for their own; and the Spirit seals those whom he has chosen and consecrated. just as Christ has united the church inseparably with himself, and as God calls all the faithful to life-long discipleship so the gifts and calling of God to the ministers are irrevocable. For this reason, ordination is unrepeatable in both our Churches (#15).

On the other hand, Miroslav Volf, in his After our Likeness, while not discounting the possibility of lifelong charisms, suggests that charisms may come and go:

In contrast to calling, charismata in the theological sense of a combination of calling and endowment for a specific ministry in church and world are not “irrevocable” (Rom. 11:29). Various charismata can replace one another over time, something implied by the interactional model of their bestowal.  Over the history of the congregation and of its individual members, the charismata with which these members serve in the congregation can also change; certain charismata come to the fore at certain times, while others become unimportant (either for the congregation itself of for the bearers of these charismata). This does not mean that the divine calling and endowment for a certain ministry cannot be a lifelong affair; but it is not necessarily such.  In any case, there is no correlation between the permanence of a particular charism and its divine origin.  The Spirit of God is the Spirit of life, adn the Spirit’s gifts are accordingly as varied as is ecclesial life itself (233).

William Booth and Isaac Hecker are interesting case studies in relation to this question, because both experienced what could be called a “broadening” of their respective vocations.

For Booth, the broadening related to his theology of redemption.  This is the development traced in Roger Green’s War on Two Fronts, in which Booth’s understanding of redemption expanded to include efforts at social reform.   Whereas early in his ministry Booth was strictly a revivalist who engaged in some social ministry as a means to and end (the end being evangelism), by 1890 he had come to see efforts at social reform as part of the church’s mission.  Booth came to see salvation as social as well as personal, and therefore solidified and extended the mission of The Salvation Army to include organized efforts at social redemption.

Does this shift in missional thinking and practice signify a change in Booth’s personal charism, or did his charism remain the same, while he gained a broader understanding of its vocational direction?   The answer, of course, depends on how Booth’s charism prior to 1890 is understood.   Was his ministry to the poor and marginalized an essential aspect of his charism, or did he simply have the charism of an evangelist?  Is it possible to have a charism of “evangelist to the marginalized”?

I’m working these questions through right now, but I’m leaning toward suggesting that it wasn’t Booth’s charism that changed, but simply his understanding of where that gift ought to take him and the ways he ought to exercise it in his own context.   If salvation includes the social as well as the spiritual, then being an evangelist ought to include social action, since the good news of the gospel itself has social implications.

For Isaac Hecker, the change came in terms of the scope of his personal mission.   At the time of the founding of the Paulist Fathers (1858), Hecker was captivated by a strong belief that he should be a missionary to America.  He felt that his experience as a native-born American, his acquaintance with the culture, desires, and values of the American people, and his familiarity with a class of Americans who were already on a spiritual quest had placed him in a unique position to reach out to the American people as a Catholic evangelist.  This required, he believed, the founding of a religious society that was specifically adapted to the American culture, since the established religious orders were all of European origin, and thus unsuited to the task of reaching Americans.

Starting in the 1870s, however, Hecker began to broaden his vision, and now felt that the Paulists should not confine themselves to America, but should expand into Europe.  This was supported by his view of America’s providential place in the world – he felt that the American culture, and the experiences of the Catholic Church in America, would provide the solutions for the Church’s troubles in Europe.   He thought the Paulists should take what they had learned in America and come to the aid of the European Church.

Writing in 1875 along these lines, Hecker seems to suggest something like a “provisionality of charisms”:

One may be engaged in a good work, but of an inferior order, more on the circumference; but as it is a good work, and he sees no better, he should act where he is and be contented. Suppose, however, it is given to a soul the light to see a good of a much higher order, more essential, more efficacious, more general, more universal, including the former; and this light draws him from the former, all his interest as such in it has expired, and he lives in this higher and more universal light; can he do no otherwise than follow it? (The Paulist Vocation, Revised and Expanded Edition, p. 96)

As with Booth, I’m not entirely sure where to come down on this issue.  Hecker clearly believed his vocation, and that of the Paulists, had expanded – does this imply a change of charism?  Again, I’m leaning toward the idea that his personal charism did not change; rather his sense of vocation was expanded, based on his growing familiarity with the challenges facing the Church in Europe.

4 thoughts on “Can charisms change? Insights from the examples of William Booth and Isaac Hecker

    • It’s not important to me that charisms can’t change. I’m open minded on the question. I probably would agree with Volf – charisms might be lifelong and often are, but not necessarily. They might change. In the particular cases I’m looking at here, I think it makes more sense to say their charisms remained the same, but their sense of vocation broadened, so that they exercised their charisms in a different way.

  1. What I find interesting is that the appointment process that Booth began, which continues today, is one that has assumed the ability and authority to bestow charisms and to ‘change it up’ with each new posting/appointment. All churches do this to some degree, but few do so with the frequency and variety of TSA.

    I’ve been thinking about leadership in a similar vein. In the Salvation Army (and some other denominations) one has an initial “call” and thereafter, any changes in appointment, responsibilities, etc., are organizationally imposed rather than outcomes of a person’s response to a new calling. The appointment given is often referred to as a leadership position, yet in reality it is a position of authority. An organization can give someone authority and responsibility, but it cannot give leadership – which is a trait and skill to be developed, and in a spiritual context a gift that only the Holy Spirit can bestow.

    I’ve always thought that when the church is at its best, it recognizes and acknowledges an individual’s spiritual gifts and then places that individual in situations where those gifts can be put to best use for God. But that is very different than appointing someone to a role and assuming that gifting will follow. Do you think the church has been given divine authority to assign and alter charisms?

    • Hi Mark – sorry for the slow reply. I’ve been on the road all day.

      In response to your question as to whether the church can assign charisms, I would definitely say no. They are distributed as the Spirit pleases (1 Cor. 12:11). My understanding of authority in the church in regard to this question is that those in authority are to recognize, discern, test, and coordinate the charisms of those under their care; which means basically what you’ve said about the church at its best.

      I think there are some problems with the Army’s theology of ministry when it comes to officership – specifically for the reason you’ve mentioned: that officers can be thrown into a wide variety of roles, and these different roles often require different giftings. No one has all the gifts that are needed to fill all the roles that officers fill. I’ve never thought of if the way you do – that they are “assigning” charisms, although I guess you could look at it that way. I’ve thought of it more along the lines of assigning people to roles for which they might not have the charisms they need.

      In terms of officership in general, I’ve sometimes wondered if anyone can say what the “charism(s) of officership” is/are, or would be. Personally I think it is hard to identify the gifts that an officer needs, because they could potentially be so varied. So I think that perhaps, it would make more sense theologically if either a) officership was restricted to a narrower variety of roles, or b) several “streams” of officership were identified and officially recognized, so that candidates could have some greater assurance that they would be appointed to roles that matched their giftings.

      Thanks for the comment – I think there’s definitely some re-thinking that needs to take place on these issues.

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