Book review – Greater Things: The story of New Wine so far

Greater things cover image

Two weeks ago I attended the launch of this book (full citation below) which tells the story of New Wine on its 30th anniversary. It has been a very stimulating read as it narrates and reflects on a movement which has had widespread influence on the Christian church in the UK and beyond. The title is taken from John 14:12 and the teaching of Jesus that ‘whoever believes in me … will do even greater things than these’. It thus identifies New Wine at the outset as a movement of people seeking to follow the example of Jesus and perpetuate his ‘works’.

In reviewing the book, the constant peril is to digress into a review/critique of the New Wine movement itself. I have tried hard to resist that and to take the book on its own terms. Nevertheless, my reading of it is inevitably strongly influenced by my own experiences of the movement. Perhaps such broader reflections will find an outlet on another occasion.

For anyone not already familiar with it, and perhaps for some who are, the starting question will be: What is New Wine? The book does not attempt a definitive answer, in keeping with its style, as I shall describe. But it does eventually posit that it is ‘not a denomination or a brand’ (p.118) but is a network of churches and church leaders who have sufficiently similar theological and ministerial perspectives as to make such a network effective.

The book tells the story of David and Mary Pytches and the Anglican church of St Andrew’s Chorleywood experiencing a fresh charismatic renewal in the early 1980’s, under the teaching and ministry of John Wimber, an American Vineyard pastor. It follows their efforts to share this experience with others, initially though retreats and training for church leaders, and from 1989 onwards, through the annual summer conferences open to all. The key characteristics of such ministry are the exercise of the gifts of the Holy Spirit – healing, prophecy, wisdom – nourished by an experience of worship that is intimate and personal.

The book is organised partly chronologically and partly topically. With a Foreword by Justin Welby and Introduction by Paul Harcourt (the current leader of New Wine), thirteen chapters cover a slightly eclectic range of topics: David and Mary Pytches’ prior history; the experience of John Wimber’s ministry and teaching; the origin and growth of the summer conferences; the development of the church leaders’ network and other training events; youth work; music and singing; international connections; church planting; accessibility for all; and some concluding reflections and thoughts for the future. It is rounded off with references and an index.

The style of the book is chiefly anecdotal but varies from chapter to chapter depending on contributor. Whilst some are more reflective and some tend towards inventory, the dominant mode is of telling the stories of what God has done, as an encouragement to seek after more – the ‘greater things’ of the title. For example, we read of groups of children learning how to pray for others, then going and doing so, with several adults experiencing healings as a result.

Whilst much of the content will already be known to those associated with New Wine, I suspect there will be snippets of fascination for everyone. To mention a few that caught my attention: the origin of the name; the financial implications of some key decisions about summer conferences; and the source of the impetus for church planting. Perhaps most surprising for me was to learn that the change of location of the summer conferences (from 2019) was influenced by a desire for accessibility to a greater social diversity of delegates.

Some comments recur regularly throughout the book given that they bear repeating for anyone who has any involvement. These include Wimber’s mantra that ‘If God blesses you, then give it away’ and David Pytches’ desire that we should always ‘Let God be God’. These ideas encapsulate so much of the charismatic tradition on which New Wine stands: that Christian ministry is primarily about letting God work through us by the Holy Spirit.

My own reflections after reading the book are that its style and characteristics reflect those of the movement that it describes. It is often undefined, sometimes repetitious and occasionally inconsistent. But this simply reflects the character of something that is a wide family network, not an institution or a tidily run organisation. It is very personal in its focus, and so highly humane, but strongly focused on the most prominent ‘family members’. For example, when we read that the Church Army Captain, Alan Price, who led children’s work at summer conferences for many years, ‘still gets letters from those who attended’, I was itching for the following quotation to be from one such letter. But no, it was another one from Alan Price, of whom much had already been said.

Indeed, whilst it was delightful to hear personal stories from those most closely involved, it seemed a slight shame that there was no perspective from ‘outside’. Whilst not wanting to fall foul of my initial caution, I would say that at several points the environmentalist, the feminist or the post-colonialist within me was jumping up in alarm! However, I would not want to suggest that the book is overly introspective or not self-reflective. Indeed, there is a humility writ through all the contributions – explicitly and implicitly – and I personally felt that the theological component of Paul Harcourt’s reflections was a strong aspect of the work.

In light of that, I was surprised by how coy the book is about the circumstances of Mark Bailey’s standing down from the leadership in 2016. This is mentioned only cursorily, perhaps out of sensibility to those involved, despite its being in the public realm. I think that is a pity, not least because it is in the response to crisis that an organisation reveals its true character. I felt that the response to that situation – as exemplified by John Coles’ opening address to the national leaders’ conference in 2016 – was a wonderful piece of practical theology that spoke volumes about the values and identity of the network.

On a much more mundane level, I was disappointed that some of the references were not detailed enough to readily access the relevant source, but that is probably just the academic pedant in me speaking!

Overall, I am grateful for the effort that has gone into producing this book, providing as it does a helpful record of a significant movement within the church. I am sure it will be an essential primary source for anyone wanting to write more in the future. But most importantly, it gives glory to God for the great things that God has done in so many changed lives, and encourages us all to seek after ‘greater things’.

Harcourt, Paul & Turner, Ralph (eds.), Greater Things: The story of New Wine so far (London: SPCK, 2019), pp.xiv + 178. £9.99. ISBN 978-0-281-08155-4; e-Book ISBN 978-0-281-08156-1.

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