The Spirit in action
A polity wonk’s guide to pneumatic presence
By Robert Bayley
Come, O Spirit, dwell among us; come with Pentecostal power;
Give the church a stronger vision; help us face each crucial hour.
Built upon a firm foundation, Jesus Christ, the Cornerstone,
Still the church is called to mission that God’s love shall be made known.
This hymn text by 20th century Presbyterian hymn writer Jane Alford and found in the new Presbyterian hymnal, Glory to God, has us singing a plea to the Holy Spirit for the power of Pentecost. “Come Spirit Dwell Among Us” is reminder of that mission to which this Pentecostal power has called us.
At this time in the history of our denomination, few would deny the need for this pneumatic reality. Is there something we are missing?
It’s not that we don’t acknowledge the Holy Spirit. The Book of Order is filled with over 50 references to Holy Spirit, anchoring convictions reflective of our identity.
Foundations of Presbyterian Polity, part one of the Book of Order, acknowledges our reliance on the Holy Spirit if we are at all to be the church of Christ:
“…we rely upon the work of God’s Spirit through Scripture and the means of grace to form every believer and every community…” (F-1.0302.c)
Function follows formation in this sovereign working of the Trinity:
“In Christ, by the power of the Spirit, God sends the Church into the world to share the Gospel…” (F-1.0302.c)
The Spirit in Our Form of Government
The Form of Government, part two of the Book of Order, provides a succinct portrait of the Holy Spirit utilizing three distinct yet overlapping activities on the Spirit’s part:
The ordered ministry of the Church depends on
“. . . the movement of the Holy Spirit…” (G-2.0103)
The effectiveness of ruling elders depends on
“…the discernment of God’s Spirit…” (G-2.0301)
The work of the General Assembly depends on
“…the guidance of the Holy Spirit…” (G-3.0501.c)
The Spirit in Worship
The Directory for Worship, part three of the Book of Order, is where the Holy Spirit surges to the forefront, claimed some 38 times as central to it, and summarizing worship thusly:
“The Spirit of God quickens people to an awareness of God’s grace and claim upon their lives. The Spirit moves them to respond…” (W-1.1002)
From start to finish, we acknowledge our dependence on the Holy Spirit in all the elements of worship and ministry we seek to identify and cultivate spiritual gifts, knowing that “…the Holy Spirit has graced each member with particular gifts for the strengthening of the body of Christ for mission,…” (W-2.5002).
In services of healing, we anoint with oil, lay on hands and pray for the sick, believing that “Healing is…the gift of God through the power of the Holy Spirit.” (W-3.5405). When we experience a loss through death, we are grateful that we can be “…sustained by the power of the Holy Spirit and the community of faith.” (W-4.1001).
And in what continues to be a strength of our denomination, we believe twin witnesses to the Gospel:
“God sends the church in the power of the Holy Spirit to exercise compassion in the world,…” (W-7.300)
“God sends the church in the power of the Holy Spirit to call people everywhere to believe in and follow Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior.” (W-7.2001)
Rules of Discipline, part four of the Book of Order, a place for processing relational brokenness in the church, finds the Holy Spirit conspicuously absent. The Rules of Discipline leave to us alone the painful task of sorting out conflict without any intentional recourse in the text to the Holy Spirit for discernment, guidance and wisdom.
We are at a place of critical intersection in the PC(USA). The difficult reality in the issues dividing us is that there are those on both sides deeply committed to Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior, who know Him in a personal, life-changing way, and whose source of opposing theological convictions is the same Word of God.
If there is to be any hope of any semblance of our belonging together in Christ, it is going to have to come from a desperate dependence on the Holy Spirit, who, the Book of Order reminds us, addresses our divisions.
“In the life, death and resurrection of Christ, by the power of the Spirit,
God overcomes our alienation and repairs our division.” (F-1.0302.c) and,
“In Christ, by the power of the Spirit, God unites persons through Baptism regardless of race, ethnicity, sex, disability, geography or theological conviction.” (F-1.0403)
As a denomination, we are structurally and relationally seeking ‘a way forward,’ hoping against hope that something will come of it. We have watched too many such efforts come and go as decline has remained steady. Our old templates and ways are not working.
In 1962 Karl Barth delivered the Warfield Lectures at Princeton Theological Seminary, where he said, “As a foolish Church presupposes His presence and action in its own existence, in its offices and sacraments, ordinations, consecrations, and absolutions, so a foolish theology presupposes the Holy Spirit…Only where the Spirit is sighed, cried and prayed for does he become present and newly active.”
And those of us who constitute the PC(USA) – are we that foolish church? Do we presuppose the presence and power of the Holy Spirit in what we are about simply because we insert ‘Spirit’ in appropriate places in our laws and in our liturgy? Or are we willing to follow wherever the Spirit leads us?
The late Jane Parker Huber, born in China to Presbyterian missionary parents, was a prolific 20th-century Presbyterian hymn writer, whose hymn text, “On Pentecost They Gathered” is found in the new Presbyterian hymnal, Glory to God. May her declaration of faith regarding the power of the Holy Spirit be ours, not only in liturgy but in life as people who confess a Reformed faith.
May we dare to believe God for a pouring out of the Holy Spirit on our part of Christ’s Body on earth known as the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), formed and reforming.
“God pours the Holy Spirit on all who would believe,
On women, men and children who would God’s grace receive.
That Spirit knows no limit, bestowing life and power.
The church, formed and reforming, responds in every hour.”
Rev. Robert Bayley, HR, is Stated Supply Pastor of Westminster Presbyterian Church, Wilmington, North Carolina.\