Thought for the Week - Trinity Sunday
Over the years I have had the odd conversation with bishops about the doctrine of the Holy Trinity, and must confess that they seemed as puzzled about it as I am. The first conversation was with the former Bishop of Lancaster, Dennis Page, at a conference at Whalley Abbey. It went something like this: "Bishop, if your Christology is Adoptionist, does that mean your understanding of the Trinity is modalist?" "Ah, Harry," he said, "I don't understand things like that, I'm only a simple bishop."
The second conversation was with the former Bishop of Burnley, Richard Watson sitting in my living room. The Bishop was telling me that he was preaching the University sermon at Lancaster University on Trinity Sunday. He told me that he thought he might preach about the Trinity. "Bishop," I said."Be very careful; you'll probably be heretical." "Do you really think so, Harry." he said. "I know so, bishop." I replied. He then asked me to give him a ring if I had any good ideas about the Trinity!
I tell these stories, not to score any points off two Christian bishops, but simply to illustrate the point that when it comes to understanding, let alone preaching about this central Christian doctrine, we all have difficulty. We know that "the Catholic faith is this: That we worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity," to quote the Athanasian Creed from the Prayer Book. That is easily said, but less easily understood. And yet it is orthodox Christian belief that God is three persons and one God, and all our worship is based on this belief. We worship the Father, through the Son and in the Spirit. That is a central and essential element in all Christian worship - the offering through the Son to the Father in the Spirit. Worship which departs from that formula, and which places undue emphasis on one person of the Trinity is in danger of becoming heretical.
There are elements within the Christian churches, the Church of England included, which face this danger, by placing undue emphasis on one person of the Trinity instead of constantly holding together the three persons in unity. Before his enthronement, the Archbishop George Carey of Canterbury said that he would like to rename the Church, the "Jesus Movement". That would be a dangerous move. For one thing the Church is not is a "Jesus Movement." any more than Islam is a "Muhammad Movement" or Judaism a "Moses Movement." To concentrate on the humanity of Jesus, which is what a Jesus movement would suggest, would be to revive a heresy that was condemned in the Church's formative years. The Church was quite right to condemn it, because to concentrate on the humanity of Jesus is to fail to recognize his divinity, without which there can be no salvation. The Church is most decidedly not a "Jesus Movement." We do not worship the person of Jesus as such. We worship the one God. We worship the Father through the Son in the Spirit. Three persons and One God. That is orthodox Christian belief.
Another development in the life of the churches which, whilst it has done much to revitalise the life of the Church, is also in danger of heresy, is the Charismatic movement because it places undue emphasis on the third person of the Trinity, the Holy Spirit. We do right to call upon the Spirit to inspire and renew us, but we must never forget that he is the Spirit who proceeds from the Father and the Son, as the Nicene Creed reminds us. Our worship is directed neither to the Spirit nor to the Son but to the one God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. We address all our prayer and worship to the Father through the Son in the unity of the Holy Spirit. This is the orthodox Christian faith which we are reminded of today as we celebrate the Feast of the Most Holy and Undivided Trinity, and offer our praise and worship to him.
How all this works, how there can be such a Unity in Trinity is a mystery I am content to live with, rest in, and rejoice in, and were I to attempt a full explanation of it I would no doubt fall into the heresy which I warned the Bishop of Burnley against. In the end, of course, the Holy Trinity is not so much a doctrine to be understood, as a life in which we as Christians live. Through our Christian worship we are taken up into the life of the Holy Trinity. Through Jesus the Son we are adopted as children of God and are presented to the Father in the power of the Holy Spirit. This is what this central act of Christian worship, Holy Communion, is all about. Through the Son, our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, we offer our worship, our gifts, ourselves, to the Father in the power and unity of the Holy Spirit. And in so doing we have a foretaste and glimpse of heaven where with angels and archangels and all the company of heaven we will laud and magnify God's glorious name, evermore praising him and saying: Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God of Hosts, heaven and earth are full of thy glory, Glory be to thee, O Lord most High. Amen.