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Maintaining mystery and unity

Trinity Sunday: 30th May, 2010
Bishop Graeme Rutherford,
Assistant Priest, St Peter's, Eastern Hill

Up until fairly recent times, the doctrine of the Trinity was something of a church Cinderella — something of great beauty but of little significance, treated as an embarrassment and sometimes even with contempt. For the most part, it was regarded as a remote, obscure piece of theoretical speculation giving the impression that the church is more about God-the-theory than God-the-person.

All that has now changed. In recent years there has been a renaissance of interest in the doctrine of the Trinity. As in the earliest times of the church's history, it is now regarded as the nerve centre of the Christian way of life. There are two implications of the Trinity that I want to focus on this morning: first, the fact that it helps us to preserve a sense of God's transcendent mystery in our worship and second, it is a major incentive to invest in our communal relationships.

1. The Sense of God's Mystery

Words, of course, are inadequate to describe this doctrine, but for precisely this reason it acts as a kind of safeguard against simplistic or reductionist approaches to God, which inevitably end up by robbing God of mystery, majesty and glory. As has often been said, 'a god who is small enough for me to understand isn't big enough for me to worship'.

The Brazilian Liberation theologian, Leonardo Boff, relates the Trinity to worship in this way:

Seeing mystery in this perspective (i.e., from the perspective of the Trinity) enables us to understand how it provokes reverence, the only possible attitude to what is supreme and final in our lives. Instead of strangling reason, it invites expansion of the mind and heart. It is not a mystery that leaves us dumb and terrified, but one that leaves us happy, singing and giving thanks. It is not a wall placed in front of us, but a doorway through which we go to the infinity of God. Mystery is like a cliff: we may not be able to scale it, but we stand at the foot of it, touch it, praise its beauty. So it is with the mystery of the Trinity. [1]

What we know about God from the revelation of the scriptures is true and reliable but there is always more to know. We can never get to the bottom of God. God is not an idea but a person to be known.

Bishop Stephen Cottrell, the new bishop of Chelmsford, claims that the sense of mystery in Anglo-catholic worship was one of the most powerful factors in getting him started on his own journey of faith. He writes that 'it was the reality and beauty of God in worship that drew me and that sustains me'.

In his book, From the Abundance of the heart — Catholic Evangelism for all Christians Cottrell says, 'There is a re-discovery of catholic spirituality and worship going on in many of our churches and many of us haven't even noticed it! Catholic parishes need to wake up to the fact that it is the very aspects of our worship that some parts of the church have been telling us are irrelevant that are the ones that are speaking to young people today. It is not entertainment that young people crave, but holiness, authenticity and participation. These, surely, are the dance and feel of catholic liturgy.' [2]

For this reason, Stephen Cottrell strongly opposes those who think that the Eucharist should not be celebrated when there is a large number of uncommitted people present. He says, 'I simply don't buy the attitude that says the Eucharist is not appropriate for people who are new in church.' 'All church services' he says, 'are strange and alien to those who have never worshipped before. There simply isn't a way of doing it that will be immediately credible and nor should there be. One of the great mistakes the Church of England has made in recent years is to muddle accessibility and credibility. Of course we make our services as accessible as possible, ... but if we sacrifice the necessary incredibility of our claims and try to make our faith instantly understandable, then the baby will be lost with the bath water'. [3]

1. The Trinity preserves the sense of God's mystery in our worship.

2. The Trinity is the basis for the expression of God's love in our relationships.

If God was a simple, single, undifferentiated being there would be no such thing as relationship and therefore no love. A person who spends his or her whole life in a room alone, has no experience of love from a human point of view, because there is no relationship. But the Trinity means that before the universe came into being, there is relationship and therefore at the heart of everything there is love. This is how Eugene Peterson translates Ephesians 1:4 in his translation known as The Message: 'Long before he (God) laid down earth's foundations, he had us in mind, had settled on us as the focus of his love, to be made whole and holy by his love.' As someone put it, 'Before ever there was a sin for God to hate, he always had a Son to love'.

Islam has no doctrine of the Trinity and it is interesting to note how the Koran always stops short of saying that God loves us. It says other marvellous things about God — that God is merciful, beneficent, kind but it can't quite bring itself to say that God loves us. At the heart of Islam is submission to the will of Allah. Allah sends a book but he does not come in person.

The Trinity is all about unity-in-diversity. It provides a vision of a society and a church that can embrace difference and yet hold together in unity.

Monotheism tends towards boring sameness.

Polytheism, on the other hand, tends towards chaos. One of the huge problems in a post-modern, pluralistic culture where there is a wide variety of opinions and views and no single truth, is that we struggle to hold together in community.

The Trinity gives a vision of a community that can embrace difference, yet hold together in unity. That is the vision that the doctrine of the Trinity holds out before us. Currently, at an international level, in our Anglican Communion we are struggling with how we can work this vision out in the midst of painful divisions, particularly over different approaches to human sexuality.

In his address last week to the Synod of the diocese of Durham, Bishop Tom Wright succinctly summarized our Anglican dilemma. He said, 'Granted that there are many differences between us, how can we tell which differences make a difference and which ones don't? How do you know? Who decides? How can you tell differences between differences which make a difference and differences which don't make a difference?'

This weekend, the Archbishop of Canterbury has released a pastoral letter to the entire Communion in which he says that The Episcopal Church, in consecrating Canon Mary Glasspool (a lesbian woman, living in a committed relationship over the last 22 years) as an Assistant Bishop in the Diocese of Los Angeles in California, has breached the acceptable limits of diversity in our Anglican Communion. In his letter the archbishop proposes, among other things, that representatives of the Episcopal Church and conservative provinces in which there has been a 'crossing of boundaries' cannot be 'placed in positions where they are required to represent the Communion as a whole'. This action he points out, is necessary because our ecumenical partners need to know who it is they are talking to and who represents the agreed consensus of the Anglican Communion.

And yet, the archbishop continues to struggle in his pastoral letter with the implications of what it means to live out the vision of the Holy Trinity in our Anglican Communion. Having reaffirmed the present mind of the Communion on the limits of diversity he goes on to assert the necessity of working relentlessly for unity. The proposal to publicly 'distance' The Episcopal Church from the life of the Communion, is followed quickly by words calling for a deepened capacity to love. Dr Williams says: 'The least Christian thing we can do is to think that this absolves us from prayer and care for each other, or continuing efforts to make sense of each other'.

What I think is important for us to grasp this morning on this Trinity Sunday, is that the vision that the Archbishop is holding before the eyes of the Communion at this painful time, is a Trinitarian vision. However we work out the nature and make up of the organizational structures and adjudicating bodies of our Church in response to the Bishop of Durham's questions — 'Which differences make a difference, how do you tell, and who says?' — we must do everything possible to stay together because God in his very being is a communion of unity-in-diversity. The ancient maxim that reaches back perhaps as far as St Augustine, sums up what a Trinitarian mindset should be like: 'In things essential, unity: in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity'.

Some Christians, impatient with doctrine and dogma, assume that the doctrine of the Trinity is a piece of theological lumber that we can get on very happily without. Dogma becomes a dirty word, loaded with overtones of obscurantism, unreality and mental enslavement. For such people, personal guesses and fantasies about God replace the church's doctrine of the Trinity, a doctrine which has been believed by Christians 'everywhere, always, and by all'. It is a doctrine which, as I have suggested, has powerful application to our church life by, first, safeguarding the sense of divine mystery in our worship of God and thinking about God and second, in holding before us a vision that requires us to go deeper than we ever imagined in investing in our relationships — particularly with those with whom we disagree.

I have recently begun the habit of invoking the Trinity before getting out of bed in the morning. I have found it a marvellous way to focus my day on God. (Moreover, when I pray it, God doesn't let me lie there for another 15 minutes which I might otherwise be tempted to do!). I have adapted a short prayer that the evangelical icon, John Stott, prays daily, first thing in the morning. Try it for a month and see whether it helps you focus your day on God, the true God, the Holy Trinity:

Good Morning, Heavenly Father, my creator and sustainer;
Good Morning, Jesus my companion, Saviour and Lord;
Good Morning, Spirit of God who causes the fruit of the Spirit to ripen in my life;

Glory to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit. Amen'

I commend it to you.


Notes:

1. Alister McGrath, Christian Spirituality, Blackwell, 1999, p.52

2. Stephen Cottrell, From the Abundance of the Heart — Catholic Evangelism for all Christians, DLT, 2006, p.124

3. op cit., p.119


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