In the tongues of mortals and of angels

"All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.” (Acts 2:4) Photo: Renata Sedmakova/Shutterstock
Published June 6, 2019

Welby’s daily prayer in tongues unusual among Anglicans today, scholar says

A Canadian Anglican scholar who specializes in Pentecostalism and the charismatic movement says he was surprised to learn this winter that Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby prays every morning in tongues.

Welby opened up about his practice in a January interview with Premier, a Christian media company based in the U.K.

“Part of my prayer discipline is praying in tongues every day for a certain period,” he said. “It’s not something I make a great song and dance about, and given it’s usually extremely early in the morning it’s not usually an immensely ecstatic moment because I’m sort of, ughhh, struggling.”

The Rev. David Reed, a retired professor of pastoral theology at Wycliffe College and author of “In Jesus’s Name”: The History and Beliefs of Oneness Pentecostals, says he wasn’t surprised that Welby had some personal familiarity with tongues given the archbishop’s background at Holy Trinity Brompton, a London church plant known for its association with the charismatic movement. But Reed says he was struck by how deeply the archbishop seems to have integrated prayer in tongues—also known as the use of prayer language—into his daily spiritual discipline.

“In our current post-charismatic era, I think tongues as a daily devotional practice is relatively uncommon among even devout charismatics,” he says.

Though there are records of these phenomena occurring sporadically throughout the history of the Christian church, modern speaking and praying in tongues are both traceable to the Pentecostal movement, which began in the U.S. in the early 20th century, Reed says. In the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, speaking in tongues and other practices—the laying on of hands for healing, for example—that were seen as gifts of the Holy Spirit (or charismata) by their practitioners spread to non-Pentecostal denominations, including Anglicanism. This trend is known as the charismatic movement.

The Rev. David Reed

In a 1990 research project, Reed estimated that about a fifth of Canadian Anglicans identified themselves as charismatic. But the charismatic movement in Canadian Anglicanism has lost more members than it has gained since then, Reed says, so this figure is likely to be lower now. “As a movement it has plateaued; it’s more active in the North and in the more rural areas, say northern Alberta and Ontario, and other places—but in the major urban centres of southern Canada, as a movement, it’s kind of gone,” he says.

Pentecostals and charismatics find precedents for their experiences in certain passages of the Bible. One is the second chapter of Acts, which describes the apostles being filled with the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost. The apostles “began to talk in other tongues, as the Spirit gave them power of utterance,” according to the passage. Another is I Corinthians 13-14, in which St. Paul mentions speaking “in tongues of men or of angels,” and of the relation of speaking in tongues with prophecy; in the same passage, Paul speaks of using ecstatic utterance in prayer.

Reed, who was raised a Pentecostal, says he has used prayer language, sometimes when people have come to the altar for communion and asked him for a prayer.

“There’s been occasions when I feel there’s something going on that I just don’t understand, and it’s not my place to understand, and so I very quietly—not to disturb them—I kind of mutter away when I’m with them, my hands on their head, and I’ll pray in tongues,” he says.

Pentecostals and charismatics, Reed says, have variously believed their utterances to have been the language of humans (the passage in Acts describes people from various lands overhearing the apostles, and recognizing their own languages); of angels; or a kind of non-linguistic vocalization. For many—including himself—fitting the phenomenon into a linguistic category has not been important. The essential thing, he says, is that it’s a form of communication with God that reaches beyond the thinking and formulating part of the self.

“The heart of it is that it is a gift that God has given us to communicate with God in ways that are not simply rational or the use of the conscious mind,” he says. “Speaking in tongues is God’s gift to enrich, or to guide, or to direct, or to uphold or edify the whole person.”

The Canadian theologian James K.A. Smith calls speaking in tongues “resistance language,” Reed says, because it subverts the modern conviction “of rational and empirical dominance in which we believe that we have control over everything.” Another scholar, Simon Chan, writes about prayer language as a means of achieving a special kind of closeness with God—like the ungrammatical vocalizations human beings sometimes pass into in moments of exceptional intimacy with each other. Chan, he says, gives two examples of this.

“One is a mother speaking to a baby— all that kind of language that means absolutely nothing to anybody else, and yet to the mother and the baby it’s profound communication. And the second one is two lovers whispering sweet nothings in each other’s ears. That is deep communication of love and affection between those two—deep communication, but not rationally understood.”

Pentecost this year falls on June 9.


  • Tali Folkins

    Tali Folkins joined the Anglican Journal in 2015 as staff writer, and has served as editor since October 2021. He has worked as a staff reporter for Law Times and the New Brunswick Telegraph-Journal. His freelance writing credits include work for newspapers and magazines including The Globe and Mail and the former United Church Observer (now Broadview). He has a journalism degree from the University of King’s College and a master’s degree in Classics from Dalhousie University.

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