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Are English-speaking Churches “grieving the Spirit” in the way in which they address God the Father Almighty?

The Revd Dr Peter Toon

The answer is “Yes”.

To address God, the LORD, is to speak to the Creator of the Cosmos, the Judge of the Nations, the Holy One beyond holiness, the Beautiful One beyond beauty, the Righteous One beyond righteousness, and the Ineffable One beyond our choicest thoughts and words.

Thus it is a requirement of devotion that human beings ought to address the LORD with reverence and awe, and in godly fear. This requirement remains constant even though male and female are made in the image of God and become, by Grace, the temples of the Spirit of the Lord. Even when deep from within their souls they genuinely cry, “Abba, Father,” they do so in godly fear and holy awe.

The Holy Ghost, the Spirit of the Father and of the Son, is present in the Church, the Household of God, as He is also present in each member of the Body of Christ. This Presence is not to be taken for granted but to be acknowledged appropriately in faith, hope and charity and in such a way as to please such a Guest.

One thing that the baptized believers are told with reference to the Spirit is this: “Do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, in whom you were sealed for the day of redemption.” (Ephesians 4:20) Here the Spirit is spoken of in personal terms, a truth that is later recognized in the Church by the dogma of the Holy Trinity, wherein the Holy Spirit is the Third Person of this Trinity.

Obviously one can cause grief or grieve a person in human contact in a variety of ways. For example: How many young people today cause grief to their parents by the way they live and by the company they keep?

Christian believers cause grief to the Holy Spirit by any of their sins of omission and commission against God the Father – e.g., by their refusal to confess a particular besetting sin, turn from it and amend their lives. Here I want to suggest that amongst English-speaking people within the Church of God, there is one longstanding and continuing way in which they cause grief to this Divine Person. Further, this causing grief is compounded because there is virtually no recognition of doing it.

I refer to the way in which we address God when we make use of pronouns, which we do virtually every time we offer a prayer to God.

My argument is simple.  In the providence of God, it became clear to the Ecclesia Anglicana, the Church of and in England, in the period when English was first used partially and then wholly in devotion and in Church services (i.e. from say 1300 to 1600) that the right pronoun for the Persons of the Holy Trinity is “Thou/Thee”. This practice was universally adopted and remained the norm in all forms of English-speaking Christianity until the 1960s. And it was only dropped then because of  a period of social revolution in the West, when many norms, traditions and manners were abandoned.

The force of this argument is much strengthened when it is realised that social conventions of the time (1300-1600) could have pushed the Church to address God as “Ye/you”.  It is very well known that a King was addressed as “Your Majesty” – never “Thy Majesty”, and that Dukes and Duchesses were addressed as “Your Grace” as were also Archbishops and Bishops. (In fact this custom is clearly evident in The Book of Common Prayer [1549, 1552, 1662] in the service for the Consecration of a Bishop where the individual bishop is actually addressed, following this custom of politeness, as “ye/you/you”!) The use of “you” was both the second person plural and also the form of the second person singular used when politeness was required  (again there are several examples in The Book of Common Prayer of an ordinary person being addressed as “you” to conform to this rule of polite address.)

Why then did the Church of God choose – against the odds as it were – to address the LORD as “Thee/Thou”?  Before answering let us recall that in ordinary speech this basic form of the second person singular was used by Masters to servants, by servants to one another, by members of a family of one another, and by lovers to each other.  The answer is twofold:  (1) to maintain beyond all doubt that the LORD is one God and one God only [“thou/thee” could never be the second person plural, whereas, of course, “ye/you” could be and was]; and (2) to maintain the biblical emphasis that baptized Christians are the children of God because He adopts them into the family of His Son, and as family members they address him an a filial way.

So it was that in The Book of Common Prayer  of the Church of England, as well as in the many books of doctrine and devotion produced by the Puritans in England and the Presbyterians in Scotland in the same period (16th & 17th centuries), the evidence is clear of the commitment of British Christians to recognized norms as they sought to create and maintain filial reverence & awe before God as they addressed Him as “Thou/Thee.”

The custom from the 1960s (with roots into earlier decades of course),  and now made into a rule within many churches, of addressing God as “You” is a major way in which I believe, English-speaking Christians  today grieve the Spirit of God. Many do so unwittingly as they follow the leaders but others do so firmly, deliberately and without apology. The grieving of the Spirit is compounded further by the general ethos and climate of much western Christianity. A spirit of “celebration” and “relaxation” and “informality” has so taken over that a sense of reverence, awe and godly fear before God, the LORD, seems rare – even not desired. In fact, the use of “you” of the LORD (where God can so easily be regarded as if he were one of us but more important) makes it difficult for people to realise and recognize that they are in worship addressing not anyone but the unique Glorious One, the LORD, the Holy One.

[For more details of the historic and classic way of addressing the LORD and the use of “thou/thee” in Scripture, see  Peter Toon & Louis R Tarsitano, Neither Archaic nor Obsolete. The Language of Common Prayer and Public Worship, 2003, available from The Prayer Book Society of the U.S.A. (1 800 727 1928) and Edgewaysbooks.com  in the UK – ISBN 0 907839 75 4.]

The Revd Dr Peter Toon  October 4, 2004.