by Karen Gorham
from Signs of the Times No. 71 - Oct 2018

Fr James Coriden, canon lawyer, academic dean emeritus and professor at the Washington Theological Union, has written an interesting book on the Holy Spirit.

The Holy Spirit and an Evolving Church, although divided by the author into six chapters, is really divided in three sections.

The first acts as a brief guide to the work of the Holy Spirit in scripture and the early church. Taking us from Genesis to Augustine of Hippo, Coriden creates a story of the Holy Spirit in the life of our created world and the church, an ever-moving dynamic presence, pervading, nurturing, disturbing and evolving.

In the second section Coriden sets out his own conclusion of the Spirit’s work, which is to bring in the reign of God. This is an evolutionary goal. It is a persuasive conclusion bringing light and life to the continued move of the Holy Spirit in the people of God today, with the Roman Catholic Church, like other Christian churches, being one portion or segment of the new people of God. As such the Holy Spirit, writes Coriden, continues to guide, build up and renew the church.

It is unfortunate that the author concludes his first historical section with the Council of Constantinople and the filioque clause and mentions only in passing subsequent saints like Hildegard of Bingen and Julian of Norwich (perhaps as an attempt to name a few women!) In fact, there is a huge jump from 1416 to the present day where in his final section Coriden picks up the Catholic Church with Pope Francis in 2015. It would have been interesting to have read, for example, how the Holy Spirit worked through the Second Vatican Council.

The first two sections of the book are used to create a final section on how Roman Catholic evolution could (or should) continue. It’s here that the text, which so far has been quite systematic, gets rather arbitrary, with Coriden choosing to focus on what he considers to be some key issues: synodality, arguing that current trends may be work of the Holy Spirit whereby all baptised believers have a place and a role; the selection of bishops and the evolution of the sacraments. The conclusion is swift, and the book feels like the ending has been rushed to chime in with current developments within the Roman Catholic Church. In fact, three more considerable topics - teaching, ecumenism and ecology - are afforded only a few paragraphs each.

There may be little doubt that the Holy Spirit is at work evolving the life of the Catholic Church; reading The Tablet each week highlights that fact. However, there are many other topics which could also have been helpfully seen through this lens, such as abortion, the role of women, celibacy and issues in human sexuality. In taking time to address some of these issues the author could have created a more useful handbook for the wider church.

This book would appeal to those who need further convincing of the significant dynamic that is the Holy Spirit, or by those wanting to explore both the Biblical and the early church background to its movement. And, although he has missed a trick not to include a fuller analysis in the final part of the book, Coriden does successfully highlight some current issues that need further consideration by the Roman Catholic and other churches.

Significant if they are to be seen in the context of a dynamic, not static, move of the Holy Spirit bringing in the reign of God.


The Rt Revd Karen Gorham is Bishop of Sherborne.