Do ‘rules’ and ‘order’ stifle the Spirit?

St Ignatius of Antioch

For my two tutorials this week, the assigned texts for one were about the earliest evidence for church orders, ie. bishops, priests, deacons (and apostles and prophets). The other was about St. Francis of Assisi. Reading these, I’ve been thinking about rules and order and whether they are as stifling as some people say.

For example, the Didache (ca. 90-100) teaches about how to go about baptising people and the Eucharist, and talks about receiving apostles and prophets. Clearly the latter group has some sort of charisma from the Spirit; the point of rules here is to help people discern between false and true prophets. I do not believe this is a way of stifling the Spirit but, rather, practical guidance for people in real situations.

By St. Ignatius of Antioch (d. ca. 117), the ecstatic, charismatic role of the prophet seems to have melded with that of the local bishop — at least in Ignatius’ case. He asserts his authority through stating he has been given certain knowledge in a vision. This prophetic episcopal role will persist, as visible in St. Cyprian of Carthage’s statements regarding his own visions and dreams from the Spirit in the mid-200s. The Spirit has chosen to work with the people in the episcopal hierarchy — this is an observation regardless of whether or not episcopal hierarchy is the best way to run a church. The Spirit will blow wherever he pleases.

The bishop, the hierarchy, seem to be taking on the role of mediating the gifts of the Spirit to the people. Unfortunately, the only evidence I know of for this period of lay charisma is Montanism (discussed here), which the hierarchy branded as heretical. So perhaps the hierarchy was stifling the Spirit somewhat — although, if we take Cyprian and Ignatius at their word, the Spirit seems to have got around the issue and is still communiting the Divine Will to the Church through the members of the hierarchy.

And just when we think this state of affairs may solidify in the fourth century, the monastic movement begins — lay people outside of the official hierarchy of the Church claim direct access to God and special knowledge and mystical experiences. This potentially unstable element does not start to be tamed until the Early Middle Ages, after Benedict, and in the Carolingian age when Benedict’s Rule (discussed here) is used to regularise Western European monasticism.

And so we have entered that long, large, and largely passed-over middle half of Christian history. Did the mediaeval hierarchy with its various developments, its liturgies, its monasteries, its canon law — in all their various manifestations throughout the centuries and places of Western Europe — stifle the movement and action of the Holy Spirit? St. Hildegard, St. Bernard, readers of Dionysius, Lady Julian, St. Catherine of Siena, the miracle-workers of visionaries of insular Christianity (vs. the tendentious romance of ‘Celtic Christianity’), seem to say to me no.

Let us look at St. Francis of Assisi.

Talk about someone with rules. Rules about what you eat and when, what you pray and when, how you get your food, how you deal with money (don’t), about preaching and working and so on and so forth.

But look at the sheer whimsy of the man. Running off to become a hermit. Rebuilding San Damiano and Santa Maria di Portincula because of a vision. Singing songs of love to God in the streets. Abruptly preaching to birds, leaving his companions on the roadside. Abruptly leaving his companions on the road when he went to pray on an island for 40 days. Jumping off the dock to catch a boat to Syria. Climbing Assisi’s church steeple to ring the bell so the Assisians could enjoy the beauty of Sister Moon.

Blown by the Spirit, indeed.

But Francis respected the ecclesiastical hierarchy, the Pope, the priests, the Eucharist, all of that sort of thing. His was not an anti-clerical revolution. His charisma and openness to the the movement of the Spirit was not in opposition to how things were meant to be ordered — although undoubtedly opposed to how things often operated.

We must not mistake anti-clericalism for ‘openness to the Spirit’ and a desire for order for ‘stifling the Spirit.’ If the Third Person of the Trinity truly blows where (s)he wills, then it is not a matter of how we order our churches but a matter of our hearts. Are we open for the next adventure, even if that adventure is the mundane task of growing vegetables in the monastery garden? Or if the adventure is cleaning a leper? Or if the adventure is preaching yet another sermon on the magnificent love of God to a congregation who couldn’t care less? Or if the adventure is running off to be a missionary in Morocco?

If God pervades everything, our openness to his Spirit is not dependent upon our Church structures — be they allegedly anarchist or congregationalist or episcopal or presbyterian — but upon our hearts and those of our leaders. Same goes for Sunday morning worship.

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3 thoughts on “Do ‘rules’ and ‘order’ stifle the Spirit?

  1. That would have to be tied up in discussions of grammatical gender and the fact that the word in Latin is masculine, in Greek neuter, and in Semitic languages feminine. And thus transcending any gender at all. 😉

  2. I also blur the number of the Trinity, but that’s a much clearer thing to do.

    I would never, I must hasten to add, forthrightly call the Paraclete feminine or female the way some people do; I believe that Miroslav Volf’s discussion of gender and the Trinity in Exclusion and Embrace demonstrates that such an action misunderstands the relation between the persons and the concept of gender.

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