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The Holy Spirit and Worship, by Elizabeth A. Welch

21 May 2021

John Saxbee reviews a comparison of teaching about the Holy Spirit

ELIZABETH WELCH has set about testing theologically the principle that opposite poles attract. Her focus is on the Holy Spirit, and when it comes to apparently opposing poles, her choice of theologians to compare and contrast is just perfect.

John Owen was a prominent figure in political and religious controversies during the Commonwealth period and the ascendancy of Oliver Cromwell in 17th-century England. A prolific author, Owen was one of the most influential of Puritan divines. His emphasis on scripture and spiritual experience as central to the worshipping life of a gathered community challenged the hierarchical and authoritarian character of the Established Church.

John Zizioulas is a theologian in the Greek Orthodox tradition. Drawing heavily on the Cappadocian Fathers, he has consistently offered a critique of congregationalism, emphasised the importance of episcopacy, and affirmed the centrality of the eucharist as constitutive of the Church locally and globally.

While the Holy Spirit is, indeed, her focus, Welch is not attempting a comprehensive comparative pneumatology. Rather, her theme is how different understandings of the Holy Spirit affect Christian worship, and the sometimes surprising overlaps in the writings of Owen and Zizioulas with regard to this particular topic.

Although giving active expression to experience of the Holy Spirit in acts of worship is relatively understated, or even subject to suspicion, in mainstream Churches today, it is very much a feature of the fastest-growing congregations. Understanding why this is so is something that churches in decline cannot ignore, and this ensures that this carefully argued case study is timely as well as theologically instructive.

After setting the scene in respect of how the Holy Spirit has related to worship historically, and currently, Welch devotes chapters to the Trinitarian core of Owen’s and Zizioulas’s theology. The recovery of an emphasis on the Spirit, and the Spirit’s significance for worship, are common factors, notwithstanding these theologians’ radically different traditions.

The book is cleverly organised around a “quadrilateral framework” comprising four key chapters: the Holy Spirit and the Trinity; the Holy Spirit encountered in worship; the Holy Spirit and relational truth; and worship in the power of the Spirit.

Relationality within the Trinity draws worshippers into relationship with God and one another. Relationality gets to the truth about God and, reciprocally, to truth about our human condition.

At every stage in the argument, the similarities and differences between Owen and Zizioulas are explained, and the similarities are shown to be highly significant.

Welch is a former Moderator of the United Reformed Church, and ecumenism has been for her an abiding passion. The ways in which her two featured representatives of very different eras, backgrounds, and ecclesiastical affiliations find commonality in relation to such key themes is, for her, itself evidence of the Spirit at work, and “can make a significant contribution to wider contemporary ecumenical discussion and reflection”.

Welch takes the reader by the hand more than is absolutely necessary, but the footnotes, bibliography, and index reflect a breadth of learning and passionate commitment which is infectious and inspiring.

The Rt Revd Dr John Saxbee is a former Bishop of Lincoln.


The Holy Spirit and Worship: Transformation and truth in the theologies of John Owen and John Zizioulas
Elizabeth A. Welch
Pickwick Publications £28
Church Times Bookshop £25.20

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