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The Giggles Are For God

On a recent weeknight in Toronto, 1,500 worshipers gathered in the Vineyard Christian Church and had a good laugh. It began when a dozen pilgrims from Oregon got up to introduce themselves and then began to fall to the floor, laughing uncontrollably. An hour later, the huge new church looked like a field hospital. Dozens of men and women of all ages were lying on the floor: some were jerking spasmodically; others closed their eyes in silent ecstasy. A middle-aged woman kicked off her pumps and began whooping and trilling in a delicate dance. Scores of others proclaimed deliverance from emotional and physical pains. "I've been living in my spirit," said a woman from Long Island, N.Y., still giggling after 20 minutes on the floor.

These communal laugh-ins have been going on six nights a week, every week, for over a year at the charismatic congregation near Toronto's Pearson International Airport. In all, more than 100,000 people have experienced "the Toronto Blessing, " which believers interpret as an experience of the Holy Spirit much like the "speaking in tongues" mentioned in the New Testament. Hundreds of visiting pastors have taken the Blessing home to roughly 7,000 congregations in Hong Kong, Norway, South Africa and Australia, plus scores of churches in the United States. "It's a gusher of the Holy Spirit," says Pastor John Arnott of the Toronto Vineyard, who now travels around the world spreading the hilarity of the Lord.

Anglicans -- known for their reserve at worship -- seem especially prone to catching the new spirit. At Holy Trinity Brompton Church in the toney Knightsbridge section of London, Vicar Sandy Millar has added a Sunday-evening service to accommodate the 2,000 faithful who weave and laugh and shed their Burberrys raincoats while writhing in the aisles. The laughter is real, but is it really spiritual? On that question church leaders are divided. The Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr. George Carey, says that while he had not experienced the Blessing himself, those who have report that "it was a very refreshing event." John Wimber, the founder of the Vineyard, a network of 600 conservative charismatic congregations around the world, cannot find precedent in the Bible for laughter and falling to the floor. But neither does he find such actions prohibited by Holy Writ.

Recently the laughter has taken a beastly turn. Now some people who get the Toronto Blessing are beginning to roar like animals as well. To Hank Hanegraaff, who hosts a California radio show as "The Bible Answer Man," such fearsome noise suggests possession by the Devil -- and the need for exorcism. But pastor Arnott can point to plenty of holy shaking and quaking at revival meetings in the 18th century. Indeed, some proponents of the Blessing believe that roaring may be a prophetic sign. After all, in the Bible God is called the Lion of Judah.