religion without holy spirit william booth
Church of England

Is the Church of England doing religion without the Holy Spirit?

Much has been written about the Holy Spirit, or the Holy Ghost, or the Paraclete; the third person (hypostasis) of the Trinity. In fact, so much has been written over the centuries that there cannot possibly be any more to be said, and what follows is not an attempt to do so. Pneumatology deals with the person and works of the Holy Spirit; the Archbishop Cranmer blog deals with those thorny questions and prickly propositions which few others seem to want to bother with. And this post is concerned with the prescience/prophecy of William Booth and its possible application to the Church of England; the proposition that the Established Church is doing religion without the Holy Spirit. So here follows a bit of ecclesio-pneumatology, or, to be more specific, if you will tolerate the commingling of late Latin prefixes with Greek nouns, a bit of Anglo-ecclesio-pneumatology.

‘..when he, the Spirit of truth, is come, he will guide you into all truth‘ (Jn 16:13).

Have you ever noticed that any particular scriptural interpretation you hold or ecclesial preference you have happens to coincide perfectly with those of the Holy Spirit? His theological truth is yours; His behavioural morality is yours; His hermeneutic of continuity is yours. Handy, that, isn’t it? If someone doesn’t agree with you, they’re obviously wrong, because God Himself has revealed these truths to you – either directly as you read your Bible in your quiet time; or indirectly by the inculcation of revealed truth through the curated tradition of cumulative centuries.

So, if the Holy Spirit reveals to you in visions, dreams, mental pictures or feelings which illuminate Scripture that women may be priests and bishops, and a man may marry a man, and a woman a woman, this individual revelatory experience is prophetic because God has revealed this to you directly. His notion of justice is yours: your understanding of equality is His. And if the Holy Spirit has revealed to your church over long centuries that priests may not marry and that women may not even be deacons and that two men or two women most definitely may not enter any kind of sexual union of any kind, this corporate revelation is prophetic because it sustains the New Testament pattern for prophecy of forthtelling, even if some in this camp believe it doesn’t do any such thing and incline more toward individual revelation. One man’s prophet is another man’s heretic.

Or one woman’s…

There’s a manifest problem, isn’t there, when the Spirit who is supposed to lead believers toward visible unity reveals such a plethora of divergent if not mutually exclusive truths that the end result is confusion and division. So, either it is not all of God, or the Holy Spirit is divided. But since Jesus can’t be divided, it must follow that it is not all of God. So how do we sift divine thoughts and intentions from human thoughts and intentions? How do we ensure that we are listening to God and not just our own consciences; submitting to His will and not just serving our own agendas?

The problem is not new. There are truths which were not previously known and not otherwise knowable apart from God. These need to be proclaimed anew in each generation, and that ‘anew’ demands the application of human reasoning and the deployment of the vernacular, otherwise it becomes foolishness to the Greeks. This is applied, heart-searching preaching. But the touchstone is the doctrinal content:

If there arise among you a prophet, or a dreamer of dreams, and giveth thee a sign or a wonder,
And the sign or the wonder come to pass, whereof he spake unto thee, saying, Let us go after other gods, which thou hast not known, and let us serve them;
Thou shalt not hearken unto the words of that prophet, or that dreamer of dreams: for the Lord your God proveth you, to know whether ye love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul (Deut 13:1-3).

The Holy Spirit reveals Bible truth: any direct revelation which deviates from this cannot be from God. Those who believe they teach or preach and minister prophetically cannot and should not be disassociated from the impartation of divine knowledge already available. The Holy Spirit reveals truth; He does not leave us to thrash it out by rational thought.

And these truths usually aren’t remotely comfortable: taking up your cross daily; giving all you have to the poor; feeding the hungry; housing the homeless; suffering with the persecuted; loving your neighbour as you love yourself; loving your enemies… It’s all a far cry away from the contemporary obsession with self-edificatory exhortation – if it feels right and good to me, it must be of God, because God is love, and so what I love is of God, because love is of God, and everyone who knows God is born of love and knows God.

How does this apply to the Church of England?

Well, it doesn’t. For those who survey nothing but the church’s interminable wranglings over matters of gender, sex and sexuality, and then cry ‘Ichabod’ (1Sam 4:21, 14:3), the glory hasn’t departed, not least because Jesus promised: ‘Lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world‘ (Mt 28:20), and ‘I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it‘ (16:18).

But it does apply to some individuals within it.

Who concerning the truth have erred, saying that the resurrection is past already; and overthrow the faith of some‘ (2Tim 2:18).

The problem is not the Church of England, for the church is filled with many humble, faithful servants of the Lord, who do indeed take up their crosses daily; give a very great deal of their time to helping the poor; feed the hungry in foodbanks; house the homeless in winter shelters; suffer with the persecuted… These people are the church of England, who have chosen to use their gifts serving the Church of England.

But then there’s the hierarchy, the leadership, the teachers, some of whom are false teachers whose doctrine is not reported or refuted. In 2Tim 2:14-26 we glimpse those who are teaching the error, or heresy, that the resurrection has already taken place. Substitute here any modern false teaching you wish. There is a context, a tradition, a seeking after truth. When Judaisers (with all the law) meet Gnostics (with all the knowledge), there is nothing and can be nothing but interminable contradiction, dissension, controversy and deception.

O Timothy, keep that which is committed to thy trust, avoiding profane and vain babblings, and oppositions of science falsely so called‘ (1Tim 6:20).

Perhaps this is where we now find the Church of England: so many spirit filled Christians are doing so much spirit-filled work in so many parishes, and this goes largely unreported and unknown, for who wants to read about good news? But the leading Bishops and governing Synod are captivated by complex and delicate questions of orthodoxy and catholicity, and this is divisive and dangerous, and this becomes the lens through which the world discerns the church’s character and apprehends its mission. The judgment may (justifiably) be that the Church of England is hopelessly anachronistic with its ideas of deviancy and distortions of justice, but the implication must then be that some within still guard an original, authentic deposit of truth which was given to the saints.

For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them‘ (Mt 18:20).

While the Holy Spirit reveals to you that the Church of England is apostate and heretical, it is worth remembering that the early Christians came to be regarded as heretics by orthodox Jews, and Jesus was considered apostate, having been found guilty of blasphemy against God because of the claims he made for his own person. And Stephen, the first martyr, was confronted with the charge that he had blasphemed against Moses and God (Acts 6:11 cf vv13ff). St Paul was similarly charged (21:21, 28). Not all heretics and apostates are anti-Christ.

And not all churches which challenge received orthodoxies and question longstanding traditions are necessarily worthy of ‘Ichabod’. However, the god of this world may certainly have blinded the minds of some of those among us (2Cor 4:4). Our task is to discern, to correct and rebuke, and to gather and pray. And then to preach Christ and him crucified. As long as two or three are gathering in prayer and doing that, the Holy Spirit remains.

He may, of course, have told you differently.