I recently responded to a question that has probably been kicking around the minds of many Anglicans in North America lately:
Could you please clarify the meaning of the response “And with your spirit” in the new Liturgies? I asked the clergy in my parish and they didn’t have an answer. How does the Anglican Church view this response? I know how the Catholic Church uses it and am wondering if we view it in the same manner.
I cannot presume to answer definitively on behalf of everyone, but I can offer some insight into the liturgical implications of the response “and with your/thy spirit.”
There is a prevailing line of liturgical interpretation in the Roman Church that considers this to be a reference to the special sacramental character of the priest. “Your spirit,” in that view, is a reference to the special grace of the Holy Spirit in the Sacrament of Holy Orders. There are Anglo-Catholics who I suppose would have no problem with this interpretation, but there are also Anglo-Evangelicals who are not so fond of that level of sacramental theology. But before we throw out “And with your spirit,” we need to ask if the sacerdotal ministry is the only interpretation the liturgy offers.
Looking through the classic Anglican prayerbooks, the phrase “and with your spirit” is present – although much less frequently than current Anglican liturgies use it. If “your spirit” was a reference to the grace of ordination, it was certainly being reduced in emphasis. But given the broader range of Anglican ecclesiology (and of Ordination specifically), it seems a bit presumptuous that this Catholic interpretation is the only one the Reformers had in mind when shaping the Prayerbook. There are two (complementary) lines of thought that can be seen in the liturgical dialogue: 1) a recognition of the general presence of the Holy Spirit in one another, and 2) the exchange of a blessing.
First, of all, by “general presence” of the Holy Spirit, I mean the indwelling of the Holy Spirit by nature of baptism/confirmation/faith. So it’s “general” or common to all Christians. This interpretation is supported by both the old prayerbooks by virtue of the fact that the exchange is found not in the Eucharist, but in the Office, which can be led by a layperson. When people respond “and with your spirit” to a layman, sacramental ordination is entirely out of the picture! Same with modern prayerbooks – the exchange is all over the place, again frequently involving lay leaders.
And secondly, the idea of this exchange as a blessing flows out from that. In A Priest to the Temple, or, the Countrey Parson, George Herbert (a 17th century Anglican divine) briefly argues for the importance of speaking Christian blessings upon one another. He gives the blessing at the end of Holy Eucharist and the end of the Office as prime examples, but doesn’t limit it to those. Nor does he limit blessing to ministers, though he points out that ministers need to be examples of such. Part of the point of such a blessing is to speak ‘beyond prayer,’ so to speak (not unlike how Charismatic Christianity talks about blessings today). Another point is to elevate our conversation from worldly to spiritual. “Have a nice day,” is nice and all, but “God bless your day,” actually means something. Similarly, when the worship leader says “the Lord be with you,” that’s a meaningful blessing. To respond “And with your spirit” is an explicit acceptance and intentional re-offering of that blessing back to the speaker. Responding “And also with you” can mean the same thing, but the language is more vague. It could be said with a spiritual mind, but it could also mean “Back at’ya, preacha!” – losing some (if not all) of the seriousness of the statement.
So if the sacramental grace of holy orders is not a favored theological perspective in your context, there’s still the presence of the Spirit in all believers to account for, and the perspective of offering a mutual blessing. All three views can coexist, and together they could be seen as representing the Catholic, Evangelical, and Charismatic “streams” of Christianity if you’re into that model, but our Anglican liturgy (nor even the Roman, for that matter) does not require us to view the exchange “And with your Spirit” in any one of those ways.