Martin Warner reflects on God’s mysteries in the sacramental life


The small village of Ingleby Greenhow lies on the northern edge of the North York Moors. It has a pub, an excellent butcher and an 11th century church which contains a fine 17th century altarpiece, depicting Moses and Aaron on either side of the 10 Commandments, the Lord’s Prayer and the Apostles’ Creed. These Old Testament figures who speak about Anglican identity are deeply embedded in the 17th-century formation of the nation’s faith. The title page of the King James Version of the Bible, published in 1611, shows Moses and Aaron as the largest figures in a heavenly assembly surrounded on four corners by the four evangelists, and above them the 12 apostles and St Paul. 

What is it that the Church of England was saying about itself by using Moses and Aaron as icons of its life? They assert the relationship between the State (represented by Moses the law-giver) and the Church (represented by Aaron vested as the priest), or between the Monarch and the bishop. The Monarch, representing the State, governs the life of the Church. But under God the Monarch is also accountable for it as the divinely instituted vehicle for promoting a just and well-ordered society built on the template of the kingdom of heaven.

The Book of Numbers speaks about authority and the contribution of religion to the common good. Its reference to the giving of the spirit is an Old Testament example of a similar process in the New Testament, when the Holy Spirit is given by Jesus Christ to the Apostles for the ministry of ordination. 

When we try to work out how the Church of England uses iconic images and symbols to define itself, the definitive guide we should consult to test our interpretation is The Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity by Richard Hooker, who set the standards for the Church of England’s claim, under the settlement of Elizabeth I, to be both Catholic and Reformed. He understood the similarity between God sharing the spirit between Moses and the 70 elders of Israel, and Jesus Christ instituting an ordained ministry (of bishop, priest and deacon), noting that ‘the Holy Ghost which our Saviour [gave] in his first ordinations’ concurs with ‘the spirit which God derived from Moses to them that assisted him in his government’. 

His point is about something more profound than just a pleasing similarity between Old and New Testaments. It is about the effect of the ministry that is exercised by those that God has called and chosen and who, through the prayer of the Church, receive the Holy Spirit as the gift of God. It is exercised by mortals, in spite of their unworthiness, but what it effects is the work of God himself, authoritatively and unmistakably. And the moral benefit of this within the realm is summed up in the 1662 Prayer Book’s prayer for the Church’s work on earth, looking for the ‘the punishment of wickedness and vice’ and the maintenance of ‘true religion and virtue’. Hooker concluded: ‘Whether we preach, pray, baptize, communicate, condemn, give absolution, or whatever, as disposers of God’s mysteries, our words, judgements, acts and deeds, are not ours but the Holy Ghost’s’ (E.P. Book V Ch. lxxvii. 8).

The 1662 Ordination service for the Consecration of Bishops evokes three stories that describe how Jesus, after he had risen from the dead, empowers the Apostles he had called as his disciples, to continue his work on earth. In one of the stories, he gives them the power to forgive sins. In another, he commands Peter ‘Feed my sheep’ – feeding the mind with Scripture as well as the bodily and spiritual feeding with the Eucharist. And in the third gospel story, Jesus gives the Apostles universal authority to baptise and to teach what he had taught them. It is the oversight of this work, empowered by the Holy Spirit, that a bishop undertakes as one who stands in the succession of those first Apostles whom Jesus sent as the agents on earth of his redeeming work. 

Richard Hooker refers to bishops as ‘disposers of God’s mysteries’ which is a very ancient description of Christian faith and its public worship, especially through Baptism and Confirmation, and above all in the Eucharist. 

These are not mysteries to be solved, like in a novel by Anthony Horowitz or PD James. These are mysteries in which we touch the inexplicable reality of the unseen life of God. We are transformed by it as it reshapes what we desire and how we live. Augustine of Hippo describes that experience in these words: ‘I tasted you, and now hunger and thirst for you: you touched me, and I have burned for your peace’. 

In the rite of Confirmation, we ask God the Father to seal the gift of Holy Spirit in those who have been baptised and who seek to complete their entry into the Church, which they will do when they begin the practice of their faith through receiving Holy Communion. We ask that the seal of this gift will empower them to live in the dignity of the baptised, as witnesses and agents of the gospel of Jesus Christ in daily life. The last of the seven-fold gifts of the Spirit that is sealed in them is a spirit of holy fear. This is the fear that trembles with delight in the way that Augustine describes, as it encounters the mystery of God’s love reconfiguring us in dignity and glory.

This mystery, says Augustine, is like a fragrance that you long to breath in more deeply and more often. May the gift of the Spirit, received in Confirmation, nurture such longing for the vision of God when, at the last, Jesus Christ calls us to the perfection and glory of resurrection life in heaven.