Rector's Reflections - 23 May

Rector’s Reflections  

Thursday May 2024

Come, Holy Ghost, our Souls Inspire

Over the last week or so,  I have been sharing  a series of reflections on how and why we might pray for the gift of the Holy Spirit. I have based my reflections on the text of the old hymn, “Come, Holy Ghost, our Souls Inspire”, and you might well have been wondering: who wrote this hymn? What were the circumstances of their life?  How might the circumstances of their life have given them an insight into the work of the Holy Spirit?   The author was John Cosin, a Church of England Bishop who lived back in the 17th century.  I will give an outline of his  life in today’s reflections, and go on to consider the connection between his life and the work of the Holy Spirit in tomorrow’s reflections, which will bring the current series to an end.

John Cosin was born in Norwich in 1594. He was a bright boy, and after attending Norwich Free School, went to Cambridge University. He flourished at the University and became chaplain first to the Bishop of Norwich and then to the Bishop of Durham.  By the mid 1620s, he looked set for a successful ecclesiastical career in the North of England.  He also published a popular book of prayers, under the title The House of Prayer: A Collection of Private Devotions.    This collection had been compiled at the request of King Charles 1, and was a best-seller.  As I write these words in the reign of another King Charles,  I wonder whether our current king would make a similar request, and if so, whether the compilation would enjoy a similar degree of success – perhaps it might.  Cosin was of a moderate High Church tradition, and he appreciated services with a certain degree of ceremonial and reverence. He also appreciated music and the visual arts, and felt it was appropriate to use both music and art to give glory to God.  Not everyone agreed with him, and some Puritans considered that he was far too Catholic in his tastes. However, Cosin attracted the favour of king Charles, and he was appointed a royal chaplain in 1633. The following year, he was appointed master of Peterhouse, Cambridge, and in 1640 , Dean of Peterborough.  A glittering future lay ahead. Perhaps he would even end up as Archbishop of Canterbury.

And then disaster struck. Financial difficulties forced King Charles to summon a meeting of Parliament, and this in turn led to the English Civil Wars. Many powerful voices in parliament felt that High Church clergy such as Cosin were leading the Church of England astray. Parliament deprived Cosin of all his ecclesiastical posts.  He managed to hang on for a few years as Master of Peterhouse, but his tenure became increasingly insecure. It was clear to all that Cosin remained loyal to King Charles. So he was deprived of his Mastership in 1644.  His once glittering career now lay in ruins. Cosin left England , and went to live in Paris, where he eked out a living as  chaplain to the royalist exiles in the court of Queen Henrietta Maria. 

Back in England, Parliament had decided to abolish the Church of England, and this placed former Church of England clergy in a dilemma. Do they go with the flow, and switch their allegiance to the new form of church?  This would enable them to keep their income and their homes. Or did they remain true to the beliefs and practices of the Church of England?  This would leave their conscience intact, but would deprive them of an income to support their families.  A further complication is the fact that the English clergy in the 1640s and 1650s had no idea how things would turn out in the longer term. We know today that the Church of England was restored in 1660, and has remained the Established Church in England ever since. But Cosin’s contemporaries did not know this.

Cosin decided to keep faithful to the Church of England. He continued to live in exile in Paris,  happy but poor. And then everything changed. The English people had had enough of the Cromwellian regime.  The monarchy was restored in 1660, and so was the Church of England.  Cosin was rewarded for his steadfast loyalty to the royalist cause and to the Church of England. He was appointed Bishop of Durham, and remained Bishop until his death in 1672.  As well as his work in his diocese, Cosin worked with others to revise the Book of Common Prayer. This revision, known as the 1662 Book of Common Prayer, became the standard service book for the Church of England until at least the 1920s, and is still in  use today.

So this is an sketch of the life of John Cosin.  He was a faithful, prayerful, scholarly and generous Christian who remained true to what he believed in. Not everyone agreed with his priorities and opinions, but he was good man, who stood by his beliefs. He knew both success and failure. He knew what it was to have power and wealth. But he also knew what it was to be poor and  dependent on the good will of others. 

Cosin certainly lived an eventful life. What might his life have to say to us about the work of the Holy Spirit? We will look at this tomorrow.


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