Angela Tilby: Pentecost is not all about wind and fire

by
18 May 2018

ISTOCK

THERE is, apparently, very little in the Prayer Book about the Holy Spirit. This is not surprising. The medieval Church tended to distrust those who claimed the Spirit’s inspiration, and Cranmer often followed Latin texts when he judged that change was not needed. So the collect for Pentecost adheres pretty closely to that in the Gelasian Sacramentary (and has passed nearly unchanged into Common Worship).

By 1662, when the final version of the Prayer Book was published, the Establishment lived in dread of faith-inspired revolution, of a “world turned upside down”, as Christopher Hill put it. There were many Christian sects claiming to be inspired by the Spirit: Anabaptists, Levellers, Ranters, Brownists, Muggletonians, Diggers, Puritans, Philadelphians, Sabbatarians, Seekers, and Fifth Monarchy Men — all with competing visions of Church and Government.

Today, perhaps, we are more ready to discern the work of the Spirit in change, even when it is disruptive. The recent worship song “Enemy of Apathy” calls on the Spirit (She) actively to disturb us.

The traditional collect for Pentecost sounds, by comparison, a bit dull. God has taught the hearts of his faithful people by sending them the light of his Holy Spirit, and we ask to be granted by the same Spirit a right judgement in all things.

There is apparently nothing here of wind, fire, and divinely inspired revolution. But the linking of the Spirit’s gift to judgement is not accidental. Judgement here means discernment: in other words, learning to seek and discover God’s will in all things, at all times, and in all circumstances.

It is the foundation of any Christian vision of the world; the basis for any Christian interpretation of reality; the inspiration for any Christian action, from the humblest PCC resolution to the highest work of systematic theology, from a donation to charity to the Christian contribution to the environmental debate.

Without the Spirit, we are lifeless: either trapped in hopeless nostalgia or dissipated by restless enthusiasms. Discernment is difficult, because we all tend to be controlled by our passionate instincts.

It is easy to mistake strong attractions and aversions for God’s will. The traditional Anglican tools for discernment are the threefold application of Scripture, Reason, and Tradition. Reason here means something closer to common sense than mere rationality; and Tradition includes the lessons of experience.

When the Spirit disrupts, it is to restore us to sanity, either because we have embraced nonsense or simply fallen asleep. I love the Ascension to Pentecost refrain for the Magnificat from Celebrating Common Prayer: “The Spirit of God fills the whole earth; Holy Wisdom, herself unchanging, in Christ makes all things new.”

To me, that elemental renewal of our grounding in God is what Pentecost is all about.

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