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A Taste of Liberty – A. M. Allchin

July 30, 2017

The author was a British Anglican priest and theologian. He was librarian of Pusey House, Oxford from 1960 to 1969, a residentiary canon of Canterbury Cathedral from 1973 to 1987, and programme director of the St Theosevia Centre for Christian Spirituality in Oxford from 1987 to 1996.

These talks were given to the Fellowship of Saint Alban and Saint Sergius.


In order to consider the work of the Holy Spirit, we shall turn to Andrewes’ Pentecost sermons and see what they have to say to us. First we shall look at the way in which the work of the Spirit fulfils the work of Christ. The Bishop on Whitsunday 1606 tells us that without the coming of the Holy Spirit all that goes before it is of no avail for us.

Howsoever we make it, sure it is that all the rest, all the feasts hitherto in the return of the year from his incarnation to the very last of his ascension, though all of them be great and worthy of all honour in themselves, yet to us they are as nothing, any of them or all of them, even all the feasts in the calendar, without this day, the feast which we now hold holy to the sending of the Holy Ghost.

`Christ is the Word, and all of him but words spoken or words written, there is no seal put on till this day’. It is in the coming of the Holy Spirit that we have the actual possession of that which was promised by Christ. And Andrewes goes on: ‘These if we should compare them, it would not be easy to determine whether the greater of these two: That of the Prophet, Filius datus est nobis, unto us a Son is given, or that of the Apostle, Spiritus datus est nobis, to us the Spirit is given; the ascending of our flesh or the descending of his Spirit; incarnatio Dei or inspiratio hominis, the mystery of his incarnation, or the mystery of our inspiration.’

The great promise of the Old Testament accomplished, that he should partake our human nature; and the great and precious promise of the New, that we should be consortes divinae naturae, “partake his divine nature”, both are this day accomplished.’

At times this diversity of languages symbolizes the curse of Babel, our failure to communicate and understand each other. But when the Spirit comes, then there is understanding; across the barriers of language and race all tongues are united in a symphony of praise. We might note that Andrewes himself knew more languages than any other scholar of his day. His contemporaries said of him that he could have acted as interpreter at the tower of Babel.

Of even greater significance is the fact that in his preaching Andrewes weaves together insights of Hebrew, Greek, Latin and English scholarship into a harmonious whole. The Holy Spirit is, as St Paul teaches, the principle of both unity and diversity in the Church; he is the one who distributes different gifts to each one of us so that we are able to become the unique, unrepeatable person we are created to be, and yet, at the same time, he is the one who unites us all in a single fellowship.

This understanding of the transcendent dimension of worship was clearly in the mind of the greatest of our post-Reformation theologians, Richard Hooker, almost an exact contemporary of Lancelot Andrewes. His great book, Of the Laws of Ecclesias­tical Polity, is in large part a defence of the Church’s tradition of liturgical prayer, and not least of its outward splendour and ordering. Already in his day there were many who said that the real nature of Christian worship was inward, and therefore that it need not have any external beauty. Hooker recognizes that the inward nature of worship is essential; without it we have nothing but a husk. But because man is body as well as spirit, and because worship must express the whole of our being, the outward part is essential to its fullness as well. Therefore he defends the use of outward gesture in worship and has much to say in defence of church music.

As he was dying, St Vincent de Paul, a saint who, like Mother Teresa, had given his whole life in the service of the most distressed, said, ‘I haven’t begun. I haven’t begun’.

So it is that, as St Maximus the Confessor says in a wonderful paradox, as we draw near to God, so he draws away from us. Not that he does remove himself, but that we, drawing nearer to him, begin to see how far we have to go, how little we know, how weak is our faith. So the feeling that each one of us has at some point in our lives, that we are going backward, need not be a sign that we are actually doing so. It may be a sign that we are making progress, seeing more of reality. It is a point at which the advice of someone with experience is particularly valuable in helping us to discern how things really are.

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