In 1986, I was leaving my teaching post in Montreal to come back to Oxford as a college chaplain as well as a university lecturer. I was quite nervous about it, because I had been in academic work for several years. The thought of suddenly being plunged into a vivid little community where there were hundreds of people who would come to me for spiritual counsel and help was daunting. I thought I wouldn’t have a clue what to say to them.
I remember sharing this with a cousin of mine who was, in a quiet way, a charismatic Christian. And she said: “Well, it may be that God will give you a gift like the gift of tongues.” She prayed with me and, the next thing I knew, I was praying in tongues. I was very startled...this wasn’t supposed to happen!
I’ve never exercised this gift in public, and I’ve no particular desire to, but my cousin was absolutely right. Many, many times, when I have needed to pray into a particular situation, but had no idea of what I should be praying for, the use of tongues in private prayer has enabled me to hold people in situations within the love of God.
Naturally, there are Christians who view the gift of tongues with suspicion. I remember being quite wary of it myself in the early 1970s when many evangelical Anglicans began to experience charismatic renewal. There was some teaching at the time from a lovely old theologian, John Wenham, who was very open to God doing all sorts of things, but he said: “Let’s not imagine that there is just one ‘second blessing’. First you get converted, then you get baptised in the Spirit...and that’s it.” That was a very mechanical point of view. Rather, God wants to go on blessing you every day in new ways.
Likewise, the gift of tongues shouldn’t be regarded as the be-all-and-end-all. As if, either you’ve had it and are now one of the elite, or you haven’t and you’re a mere lowly mortal. It’s quite clear in 1 Corinthians that Paul does not expect everybody to speak in tongues (see 12:30).
Some parts of the Church take a ‘cessationist’ view – that the gift of tongues ended with the closure of scripture. Again, that goes back to 1 Corinthians 13, where Paul says where there have been tongues, “they shall cease” (KJV), but he doesn’t actually say when.
In fact, in that passage he’s actually talking about the ultimate future, and that in the present there are all sorts of gifts which won’t be necessary in the future. He’s contrasting that with love, which will be all the more important in God’s new creation. We won’t stop loving in God’s new creation, but there are all sorts of things we won’t need to do any more and speaking in tongues will be one of them.
But for now, speaking in tongues is an important reality for many Christians. Of course, we must resist any kind of elitism that says “they’re the real deal and the rest of us are just playing around”. It’s not given to everybody. It’s really just a gift.