Pentecost —The democratic state as a descendent of the Free Church of the Spirit

Readings: Acts 2:1-21

Our responsibility in Society (The Essential JLA, Skinner House Books, 1998, pp. 163-164)
by James Luther Adams

We of the Free Church tradition should never forget, or permit our contemporaries to forget, that the decisive resistance to authoritarianism in both church and state, and the beginning of modern democracy, appeared first in the church and not in the political order. The churches of the left wing of the Reformation held that the churches of the right wing had effected only half a reformation. They gave to Pentecost a new and extended meaning. They demanded a church in which every member, under the power of the Spirit, would have the privilege and the responsibility of interpreting the Gospel and also of assisting to determine the policy of the church. The new church was to make way for a radical laity – that is, for the priesthood and the prophethood of all believers. “The Spirit blows where it lists.”
          Out of this rediscovery of the doctrine of the Spirit came the principles of Independency: local autonomy, free discussion, the rejection of coercion and of the ideal of uniformity, the protection of minorities, and the separation of church and state. Power and responsibility were to be dispersed. In a fashion not unlike that of the primitive church, the doctrine of the Spirit became the sanction for a new kind of social organization and of social responsibility. A new church was born, and with it a new age.
          Once released, the new spirit poured forth into all areas of society. It could not be kept within the bounds of church life. First it was carried over into the sphere of the state. The Independents began to say, ‘If we are responsible to God for the kind of church we have, we are also responsible for the kind of state we have. If it is wrong to be coerced by church authorities, it is wrong to be dominated by political authorities. As children of God, we ought to have a greater share of power and responsibility in the state as well as the church.” By analogy the conception of the new church in a new age was extended to include the demand for a democratic state and society. Thus the democratic state is in part the descendent of the Church of the Spirit.



There is a well-known story that I first heard in educational circles about a sailing ship setting-off for a long voyage to a distant, promised land. The crew begin the journey with passion, clarity and purpose and undertake all their tasks in this light whether they are coiling ropes, setting sails or cleaning decks. However, after many, many months at sea slowly they begin to forget their beginnings and, without them fully noticing it, their tasks become increasingly detached from the initial, enabling passion, clarity and purpose and the crew begin only to coil ropes, set sails and clean decks and emptiness, listlessness and dissatisfaction begins to set in; in a word, “ennui”.

I have noticed that, whenever this story is told, most people believe that the solution to this problem is to be found simply by somehow restoring the original conditions of the voyage. If this can be done, so the argument goes, then the meaning of and passion for their present tasks will suddenly be restored, all will be well and, re-energised, and the journey can proceed as before. But this reading fails to take into account the fact that the present state of the journey, with all it’s ennui is, in fact, a fruit of the same original conditions.

It is important to see that it is impossible to restore to the crew the initial conditions that obtained at the start of their voyage because, thanks to the experiences of the journey, they are now very different people from those who originally set-off. Additionally, they are now, quite literally, in a different place and time.

Consequently, the matter of how to restore meaning and passion to the current crew is, therefore, more complicated than it first appears because the only thing that might be capable of restoration is something about their faith in the original promise even though, right at this moment, the current fruit of that promise — their ennui and lack of passion, clarity and purpose — tastes to them bitter and bad.

Let’s now translate all this into the story of Pentecost as we have understood it in the Free Church tradition.

The strange account of the giving of the Spirit is the mythical story of the initiating moment when we were gifted with our initial passion, clarity and purpose which, in turn, sent us out into the world to proclaim a new message of hope: namely, the promise that the Spirit of God, which would bring with it the new, fulfilled and free life of which Jesus spoke, would be poured out on all flesh. This Spirit, it is important to understand, was primarily a community-making power which the early Christians spoke about as “living in Christ”.

But Christian community can be made in all kinds of ways and “at different times Christians have demanded the rule of the free-Spirit of God (pneumatocracy), theocracy, absolute monarchy, sectarian communism, constitutional democracy and democratic religious socialism” (The Essential JLA p. 161).

Our own, Free Church conception, centred on the words of Joel cited by the author of Acts: “I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh”.  

Not least of all this was because by the sixteenth-century we felt that this promise had been utterly stymied by the monolithic, medieval institution that Christianity had become. As some wit later said, Jesus may have promised us the kingdom of Heaven but what we got was the Church, and the Church most certainly did not want the community-forming power of the Holy Spirit to be shared openly and freely by all.

But, as James Luther Adams reminds us, during the Radical Reformation, along with many other small, independent communities, we were inspired to re-kindle the Spirit so it could continue to spread truly into all flesh. We “demanded a church in which every member, under the power of the Spirit, would have the privilege and the responsibility of interpreting the Gospel and also of assisting to determine the policy of the church.” For us the “new church was to make way for a radical laity – that is, for “the priesthood and the prophethood of all believers.”

As the centuries continued to unfold the Spirit re-kindled by churches on the left-wing of the Reformation was, indeed, poured out upon more and more people and not just in churches. However, it is important to realise that in this process the Pentecostal flame that was passed from person to person was not in the form of literal tongues of fire but rather in the form of the tongues of men and women who, in an increasingly conversational, democratic spirit began to create what became our modern, secular democracies. As Adams says, “Thus the democratic state is in part the descendent of the Church of the Spirit” (ibid. p.164).

(As I gave the address, in connection with the previous thought, I noted that people may be interested in exploring Simon Critchley's recent book "Faith of the Faithless: Experiments in Political Theology" A review of the book for the LSE can be read at this link.)

But, as this democratic fruit of the Spirit matured, it began to acquire a hitherto fore unfamiliar taste. The new “taste” that emerged was the important recognition that every illuminating vocabulary (including our own Christian derived one) is only contingently useful — i.e. useful “here” in such and such conditions but not necessarily “there” in such and such conditions.

And so, today, each of us knows deep in our bones that had we been born, say, in Saudia Arabia, India or Soviet Russia rather than in Western Europe or North America, our basic, illuminating vocabulary would, in all likelihood, not be Christian but Islamic, Hindu, or Atheistic.

And so an important fruit of the Spirit’s recent movement among and within us is this powerful recognition that no voice, ideology or belief (not even our own) can any longer dominate the whole in an absolute way — single voices and illuminating vocabularies can only properly play their part when they engage conversationally in the ongoing process of discernment (enlightenment) that is a genuine, pluralist democracy.

But the recognition of such a pluralism as a gift of the Spirit has not been easily received and accepted by many kinds of Christian thinking. Let me tell you of one example of this that happened to me.

I trained for the ministry in Oxford and our college, Harris Manchester College, in addition to being a full college of the University, is also one of the University’s Theological Colleges. This meant we were always invited to contribute to an annual ecumenical service in the University Church. In 1999, as the only full-time Unitarian and Free Christian ministry student that year, I was duly sent along to the preparatory meetings to play my part.

I was asked to contribute a pastoral prayer to follow the singing of Psalm 130 by the monks of Ampleforth Abbey who attended St Benet’s Hall; that psalm begins: “De profundis clamavi ad te, Domine” — “From the depths, I have cried out to you, O Lord.” Given this theme I wrote a prayer which spoke about the darkness we often experience in the lived moment and I concluded with the line: “And so we pray for the wisdom to acknowledge the flame of truth wherever we may find it.”

I read this prayer to the preparatory meeting and, for a few seconds, thought all was well until one of the representatives from Wycliffe Hall began to speak. Some of you will know that in 2007 that this notoriously conservative Anglican theological college was finally “placed on notice that it must improve its academic standards and not succumb to narrow conservative evangelicalism if it [was] to remain part of Oxford University.” The university told it that “it must maintain the values of a liberal education and will be monitored to ensure it does.” 

Well, in this unmonitored room, Wycliffe’s representative insisted that I should tell him exactly where I saw the flame of truth? I replied that I didn’t think it was necessary for me to spell this out because, surely, we would all acknowledge the flame of truth wherever we thought we had found it? He insisted I answer. I refused to accept that it was necessary to provide an answer. This carried on until the hapless convenor also insisted I answered. And so answer I did. I spoke of the flame of truth seen in both men and women, in Christian saints and sages and the saints and sages of other faiths and, if I may be forgiven for putting it this way, in all the humanist and atheist saints and sages. I spoke of the flame of truth found in the Bible and the whole panoply of holy books and secular literature in all human culture. I spoke, too.  of the flame of truth found in the insights and discoveries of the natural and social sciences. The representative from Wycliffe Hall was horrified by all this and threatened to boycott the whole event and then promptly left the meeting. Over the next few days a number of letters were sent to me and my College Principal asking for the prayer to be dropped or significantly altered. It was all very unpleasant.

You will, I hope, be pleased to hear that I did not change my prayer and, in the end, Wycliffe Hall did not boycott the service but I did add the line of Jesus where he is reputed to have said “In my house there are many rooms” (John 14:2). As I left the church at the end of the service the representative from Wycliffe whispered angrily in my ear: “You know full well that’s not what Jesus meant”. Oy vey! 

It was for me a salutary lesson and taught me of the pressing need to keep alive and burning bright the Pentecostal flame that was our Free Church community's first empowering promise — that the Spirit would be poured out on all flesh and that this would open our world up to multiple languages, visions and dreams.

James Luther Adams is one of the few people I have read within our own tradition who saw this clearly and who powerfully reminded us that we must accept that Christianity, at least as we in the radical Free Church tradition have been living it for over four-hundred years, has consistently been revealing to us that our world is plural and that the modern, secular democratic state is a descendent of the Church of the Spirit. It’s priesthood and prophethood is one to be shared by all people which, in turn, means that power and responsibility in our society must continue radically to be dispersed among us.

In consequence, Adams thought that our “peculiar responsibility in society” was

“. . . to offer a church in which there is an explicit faith in the community-forming power of God, a practice of the disciplines of liberty, and eliciting of the participation of our own membership in creative fellowship. From such a fellowship, concerned to extend the community in which all persons may be encouraged to make their own contribution, our members can meet their social responsibilities by expressing in the other areas of life — in the state, the family, the school, the voluntary association, and industry — the response to the love that will not let us go” (ibid. p. 174).

If we can begin to feel again “the vocation placed upon us by the promise of old, [that] ’I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh’”, then I have hope that all our activities as members of the crew that is this liberal Free Church community, and as citizens of a secular democracy, whether we be coiling ropes, setting sails or cleaning decks, we will, once again, begin to be filled with a passionate fire that can give our lives direction, meaning, passion and purpose.

Happy Pentecost to you all!

Following the service those who wishes stayed behind for a brief communion service. The liturgy for that can be found at this link.