It’s a chilly Thursday at noon, and there are 4 of us gathered in a tiny chapel on College Avenue for a mid-day service. I’m observing as Father John Prenger leads two other people through liturgy.
There are Bible readings, some responses from the Book of Common prayer, and a short message.
When it’s time for holy communion, they gather around the altar. From one person to the next, they pass a tiny piece of bread, and a small chalice of wine. But it’s not just the bread and wine – to them, the body and blood of Jesus Christ are present.
It’s one of the most intimate spiritual gatherings I’ve ever seen.
Watching, I see hints of different Christians traditions – and that’s exactly what it’s supposed to look like.
This is a hybrid Christian group called the Charismatic Episcopal Church.
Even though “Episcopal” is in the name, this isn’t an Episcopalian church. Here, the word “episcopal” is simply referring to the hierarchy of bishops.
Here’s a quick history lesson.
Back in the late 1980s and early 1990s, clergy from several different denominations – Pentecostals, Baptists, Anglicans, Lutherans, and others – wanted a church that blended different Christian traditions.
They wanted to include sacraments, or outward signs of God’s inner work. They also wanted a liturgy, a certain form of worship. Add to that a heavy emphasis on the Bible and preaching the gospel, plus an emphasis on the influence of the Holy Spirit, and you’ve got the mix. Sacramental, evangelical, charismatic.
After a lot of studying and prayer, that’s they created. In San Clemente, California, in June of 1992, the Charismatic Episcopal Church was born.
The group has grown to about 2,000 churches throughout the world. There are two in Missouri, including the one right here in Columbia.
At its largest, there was a time when up to 35 people would come to worship. Now, at the weekend service, there are usually about 10 people.
On weekdays, it’s typically just a few.
From click to click to church
Jim Jantz is one of the regulars. He was raised Southern Baptist, and later joined an Episcopal Church. From there, he found the Charismatic Episcopal Church.
It's kind of a funny story.
He was teaching college English at the penitentiary in Boonville, and one of his students wanted information on hieroglyphics. While looking for it, Jantz found a website about the Coptic Church.
The Coptic Church was established in Egypt around 43 AD, and it was founded by Saint Mark. Jantz had gone to a church called St. Mark’s in Arkansas, so the “Mark” part caught his attention.
He started clicking.
Several links later, he stumbled across the Charismatic Episcopal Church.
He looked to see if there were any in Missouri. Sure enough, there was one in Columbia, with Prenger's phone number. Jantz gave him a call.
"How'd you get my number?" Prenger asked.
"It was on the Internet," Jantz said.
"I didn't know that," Prenger said.
Soon, the two met face to face, and Jantz started attending.
Coming to terms with tongues
He was comfortable with the liturgy the evangelical aspect, but the charismatic part was a road block. Part of that involved the gift of speaking in tongues – syllables and words that come to people spiritually, through the Holy Spirit.
Years before, he'd read the book "Prison to Praise," by Merlin Carothers, which talked about the gifts of the Holy Spirit, and of tongues, but Jantz hadn't ever experienced it himself.
Then, after several months of attending the Charismatic Episcopal Church, something happened to change that. It was 4th of July weekend, and he was just walking around his apartment.
"All of a sudden, these syllables came into my head, and it was like, 'OK – this is what Merlin Carothers was talking about," he said. "And so I started speaking in tongues."
The next Sunday in church, as he was walking out the door after the service, he stopped and said, "Oh, by the way, I got the gift of tongues this weekend."
Everybody was excited for him, and they all wanted to hear more about it before he left.
"I wasn't looking for the gift of tongues, and God gave them to me, I guess, so that I would join up with the church," he said.
Torn between two callings
For Prenger, the journey to the church was much more of a struggle.
From the time he was in fourth grade, he wanted to be a Roman Catholic priest. He grew up, and that’s what he became. But then, things got complicated.
He wanted to get married – and that’s something Roman Catholic priests don’t do.
"It was clear to me that I was called the priesthood, then to marriage," he said. "The only thing is I wouldn't let go of marriage."
He started to see a pattern: He would become friends with a woman, and they would get close.
"And then push coming to shove, I would have to say, 'You know, I can't.'"
Then, while serving at the Saint Thomas More Newman Center here in Columbia, he met another woman, and began another friendship.
Not long after, he moved up Kirksville. It just so happened that she got a job up there. Since she didn't know many other people, the two of them spent a lot of time together.
Things got better and better – and more difficult.
In about 1992, he knew: "This is getting dangerous. What am I gonna do. What are we gonna do. Should I? Shouldn't I?"
He talked to the bishop, and then took some time to discern what to do.
"God, that was hell on wheels," he said. "Because I was choosing two things."
He felt called to be a married priest – but he couldn't.
Eventually, the call to marriage won.
He left the priesthood, and the couple was married in late 1994. Since then, the Prengers have had a few children, now teenagers.
For a while, the family was involved at the Newman Center. Although he was no longer a priest, Prenger would help out where he could, with certain ministries.
Then, he got a letter from the bishop saying he needed to stop. It changed everything.
He felt like he didn’t belong any more.
In the midst of all this, his good friend David Almond, who was also part of the Newman Center, had been telling him about the Charismatic Episcopal Church. Almond was thinking about joining. Prenger was skeptical.
But after a lot of soul-searching, questioning and research, plus a poignant spiritual moment, he finally decided to make the change.
And then, in January of 1999, he and Almond, along with a few others, joined the church.
Prenger was among the few who then started the first and only Charismatic Episcopal Church in Columbia.
From "church" to "religious house"
It’s a little different than most other Charismatic Episcopal Churches. It started out as a regular church. Then, in 2007, it became a religious order.
Basically, that’s a subgroup of a religion with certain practices, that people make vows to be part of. This group is called the Order of Franciscan Penitents, named for Saint Francis of Assisi, who is known for his ministry to the poor. The building where they meet is called the Chapel of Saints Francis and Clare.
But Prenger said he doesn't worry too much about correcting people. Often, people ask, "Well, how's your church? Is it growing?"
"Well, yeah," he said. "But I'm not even trying to grow it. I'm trying to be faithful to a vowed community that wants to get better and better, using the pattern of Francis, for following Jesus Christ."
There are different phases of preparation to go through before making the vows, and not everyone does them – some people become part of the order, and others simply attend.
The right place to be
Betty Ham attends services regularly, and she’s thinking about becoming a vowed Franciscan.
She was raised by a Baptist and a Catholic. She grew up Catholic and was active at the Newman Center. But when Prenger and Almond left, she followed.
It's hard to identify the specifics that led her to the Charismatic Episcopal Church.
Mostly, she said, "I just felt like it was a place that I needed to be."