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The Spirit in the Prayerbook (Part 2):

As we saw last week, though the Prayer Book reflects the re-centering of the church’s faith on Christ and his work of redemption, and the grace of God that is received through faith in him, the person and work of the Spirit is not neglected, but is noticed throughout the Prayer Book, in the lessons and collects for the Lord’s Supper, in the rites of Baptism and Confirmation, in the creeds, doxologies, and the prefaces for Whitsunday and Trinity. What I want to consider next are two significant references, one in the Order of Morning and Evening prayer, and the other in the Holy Communion.

Aside from the texts mentioned, references to the Spirit are scant in these Orders; yet in both the reference appears near the outset of the service – in the Absolution, and in the Collect for Purity. What’s being indicated is the priority of the Spirit in our response to God and to Christ, in faith and worship. “We worship God in the Spirit” (Phil. 3:3); “through [Christ] we … have access by one Spirit unto the Father” (Eph. 2:18). “No man can say that Jesus is the Lord, but by the Holy Ghost” (1 Cor. 12:3).

The Order of Morning and Evening Prayer begins with penitence and moves on to praise and petition; because you have to deal first with sin, the barrier that separates us from God, before you can approach God. After the general confession of sin, the priest stands to pronounce the Absolution, in a form that begins by citing the commission of God to his ministers to absolve sins, and declares the execution of it to those who “truly repent and unfeignedly believe his holy gospel”. Having established that there is a remission of sins to be obtained through faith and repentance, he exhorts us to ask God to give what is required: “wherefore let us beseech him to grant us true repentance and his Holy Spirit” – for the sake of present acceptance, future assistance, and endless happiness – “that those things may please him which we do at this present, and that the rest of our life hereafter may be pure and holy, so that at the last we come to his eternal joy”.

As there is no remission without repentance, so there is no repentance without the assistance of the Holy Ghost. Repentance must not be narrowly construed, as a merely intellectual acknowledgement of wrongdoing. It is a turning of the entire person away from the false gods we have served and towards the true and living God, and we cannot do it without God’s help. “Repentance”, says Comber, “is a change of the notions of the mind, the choices of the will, the actings of the affections and passions, enduing us with new joys and sorrows, hopes and fears, desires and aversations [cf “aversions”]: so that it is a kind of new creation; and he alone that brought life out of death, and light out of darkness, can bring us from the death of sin and darkness of iniquity, to the life and light of holiness and piety. We can fall down by our own weight, but we cannot rise out of this narrow pit without help; nay, we sink lower, for our hearts are as backward to repent as forward to sin, and by frequent commission we love sin more, and more loath to part with it: yesterday we mistook by accident; today we desire to be again in such circumstances; tomorrow we shall run into them; so that we must seek repentance from God, and his Holy Spirit also….”

We seek “that those things may please him which we do at this present”, not least, the worship we are engaged in. Comber again – he is out of print, so I don’t apologize for another juicy quotation: “Without repentance all our prayers and praises, and all we do, shall be rejected as a mocking of God. Without his Holy Spirit also, all our services are harsh and unpleasant, flat and dull in God’s account; it is this good Spirit that makes our hearts and tongues agree; this enlightens our minds to see our wants, quickens our memory to remember them, touchest our hearts with a sense of them, confirms our faith that God can supply us, and enlarges our affections to beg the relief of them. In a word, this Spirit of God helps us to ask, inclines him to give, and fits us to receive all we pray for; so that God is not pleased when we worship him without it [Gal 4:6; John 4:124; Rom 8:26], and denies nothing when we have it: yea, our Saviour accounts it the same, to give us the Holy Spirit, and to give us all good things that spring from it [compare Matthew 7:11 with Luke 11:13]. And now who would not earnestly beg for such a true repentance as might invite this Holy Spirit into their hearts, which will be the seal of their pardon, and make all they do well-pleasing to God”. By our own weight we can fall down, but without the Spirit’s help we cannot rise. “Spirit divine, attend our prayers!”

This essay was published in the St. John’s Parish Paper for Sunday, May 30, 2021. If you have questions or topics for a featured story, please send them to Rector Gavin Dunbar.