The Spirit in the Prayerbook (Part 1):
The Prayer Book reflects the theological and pastoral priorities of the English reformers. In response to the over-emphasis of late medieval religion on works of human piety as meritorious means of obtaining God’s favor, the emphasis returns to the meritorious work of Christ on our behalf, and the faith that receives it, as the sole means of obtaining his favor; good works being the effect and not the cause of God’s favor to sinners. That shift of emphasis from human works to the work of Christ was a return to the catholic (anti-Pelagian) doctrine of grace, though now re-centered on the catholic (Chalcedonian) doctrine of Christ. In the re-centering of the church’s faith and worship where the New Testament places it, in the life-giving grace of God in Christ through faith, the person and work of the Holy Spirit do not receive the same degree of attention. Does the Prayer Book have a blind spot about the Spirit? I don’t think so. Even a short survey uncovers an abundance of material in it that touches explicitly on the Spirit and his work in our souls.
First, there are the Trinitarian confessions and doxologies in constant use throughout the year, which continually affirm the Spirit’s divine glory along with the Father and the Son: the Te Deum, the Gloria in excelsis, the Creeds, the Gloria Patri (recited after every psalm and gospel canticle); and the doxological conclusion of the collects (a practice sadly omitted in later revisions). Only if the Spirit is nothing less than divine, can we have God dwelling within us, empowering us for the faith and
obedience of Christ.
Second, there are the lessons anciently appointed for the Lord’s Supper, which include some of the most important New Testament teachings about the Spirit (Galatians 4:1-7 on Christmas 1; John 16:16-22 on Easter 3; John 15:26-16:4 on Ascension Sunday, John 14:15-31 on Whitsunday; John 3:1-15 on Trinity Sunday; Romans 8:12-17 on Trinity 8; 1 Corinthians 12:1-11 on Trinity 10; 2 Corinthians 3:4-9 on Trinity 12; Galatians 5:16-24 on Trinity 14; Ephesians 5:15-21 on Trinity 20). If we think of those lessons as merely incidental to the liturgy, then we do not understand what liturgy is.
Third, there are the collects. The greater number of these are translations of older texts, and though explicit references to the Spirit are few (e.g. Whitsunday, Trinity 19), the inward grace that is the Spirit’s work is constantly in view. Among the much smaller number of collects that Cranmer freshly composed for the Prayer Book, however, explicit references to the Spirit are comparatively frequent (e.g. Christmas, Circumcision, Quinquagesima, Lent 1, and St. Barnabas). It shows that Cranmer had no blind spot about the Spirit’s work.
Fourth, in the services of Baptism and Confirmation, there are references to the Spirit’s work of regeneration, and his imparting of spiritual strength through the gifts of grace, for our warfare against the temptations of the world, the flesh, and the devil.
Fifth, in the Ordinal there is a (somewhat condensed) translation of the 9th c. doctrinal hymn, Veni Creator Spiritus, which collects an abundance of scriptural images of the Spirit’s ministry to the faithful.
Sixth, there are the Proper Prefaces for Pentecost and Trinity Sunday. The latter is based on a pre-Reformation text, and affirms the deity of the Spirit; but the former is a fresh composition, a densely-woven catena of Scriptural allusions that declares the Spirit’s role in the apostolic proclamation: “according to [Christ’s] most true promise [John 15:26], the Holy Ghost came down as at this time from heaven with a sudden great sound, as it had been a mighty wind in the likeness of fiery tongues [Acts 2:2,3], lighting upon the Apostles, to teach them [John 14:26], and to lead them to all truth [John 16:13]; giving them both the gift of divers languages [Acts 2:4], and also boldness [Acts 4:29] with fervent zeal constantly to preach the Gospel unto all nations [Mark 16:15 and Matthew 28:18]; whereby we have been brought out of darkness and error into the clear light [1 Peter 2:9] and true knowledge of thee, and of thy Son Jesus Christ [John 17:3]” (the words in italics were omitted or altered in 1928). The dynamic power of the Spirit and the Gospel in the Church’s mission is unmistakable.
So great is this abundance, that it is evident one could compile a kind of treatise on the Spirit based on the Prayer Book alone. But we have so far passed over a handful of highly significant references to the Spirit in the Orders of Morning and Evening Prayer and Holy Communion, which we will consider next week.
This essay was published in the St. John’s Parish Paper for Sunday, May 23, 2021. If you have questions or topics for a featured story, please send them to Rector Gavin Dunbar.