Leader: The solid work of the Spirit

27 May 2009

Come, Holy Ghost, our souls inspire,
And lighten with celestial fire.

THE only metrical hymn in the Prayer Book (and it is in the Ordinal, which is really separate) is Veni, Creator Spiritus. The book gives two alternative English versions of this old Latin hymn addressed to the Holy Ghost — or Holy Spirit, as most would say now. The old name “Holy Ghost” has fallen into wide disuse outside hymnody. When an explanation is given, it is usually that the word “ghost” conjures up images associated with Hallowe’en. And yet attached to the idea of “ghosts” is at least a vestigial notion of personality. How often are preachers now to be heard carelessly speaking of the Holy Spirit as “it”? The Spirit of God is not only the breath on the face of the waters in Genesis, but the Third Person of the Trinity. This is a far cry from the vague concepts found on the Mind, Body, Spirit shelves in bookshops.

Pentecost, Whitsunday, is thus linked to order in the Church. The Spirit poured out on the apostles is the Spirit whom we ask the Father, through Christ, to send to “teach the hearts of thy faithful people”, so that they may “have a right judgement in all things, and . . . evermore rejoice in his holy comfort”. Under the impact of the Charismatic revival, there has been a tendency to think of the Spirit mainly in terms of spontaneity; and yet this prayer is as much about study, discernment, and authority, and the grace to stick with testing situations over the long term.

This week the congregation of All Saints’, Margaret Street, in London, marks the 150th anniversary of the church’s consecra­tion. It is not invidious to mention it, because it was designed as a “model church”, which can in some ways stand for others, too. It is a symbol of the 19th-century church revival (spurred on by, but not confined to, the Oxford Movement), which must be judged by its fruits as a work of the Holy Spirit. All Saints’ was not thrown up cheaply: it took nine years to build, and was intended as a reproach to meanness. In the liturgy, as in the building, no trouble or expense was spared. The choral tradition, from the first, required the patient honing of God-given skills. Consistent principles made the church remarkable for its preaching and pastoral ministry. Adherence to the founders’ ideals through thick and thin has continued to draw substantial congregations.

The intention at All Saints’ resembled that of the medieval church-builders. The Church rightly seeks to engage with much that is ephemeral in contemporary culture; and Christians now put a renewed emphasis on being on the move, “strangers and pilgrims”. But permanence, too, has a proper place among Christian aspirations; for the answer to the question “To what purpose is this waste?” is that the Holy Spirit is not like the foolish man in the parable. The Spirit builds on the rock.

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