Sunday 30 May 2015
Depending on where and when you lived, in an earlier period of the history of the Christian church in the west at any rate, if you had turned up for a service on the Sunday after Pentecost you would have encountered some surprising differences from what you find today. So one basic point I want to make right from the start is that if you are engaged with Christian liturgy – the prime source for most of us in learning Christian doctrine, you are inevitably and inescapably engaged with change, as insights develop and the tradition is engaged with different circumstances. This is as true of the Christian church and its doctrines and traditions as it is of other long-lived elements of human culture, not least religious culture. And given that God is ultimately mysterious and inexhaustible and sometimes very much a ‘God of Surprises’- to use the title of a book published some time ago – what else might we expect? Whatever we mean by ‘revelation’ it does not exclude necessary habits of reflection and prayer and the willingness to think things anew. I needn’t labour the point as we look forward to the future of All Saints and how we worship together in the years to come!
But the main issue here this morning is to do with Trinity Sunday- some features of it as we have so far received it, because giving it attention at least once a year may help us to focus on its importance, rather than regard it as maybe we sometimes do as another baffling item of tradition that we might just as well do without. Take the very title of today: Trinity Sunday. It takes its origin, apparently, from the fact that Thomas a` Becket wanted the day of his consecration of- Pentecost Sunday, to be remembered, ‘making a statement’ as we might say, about the distinction between the authority of the Church as compared with that of the monarch. Given that his consecration was to be followed by his murder in that same cathedral (Canterbury) by the fourteenth century the commemoration of the day of his consecration was widely established (and not just in England). Given also the development of the last part of one major creed also in general use which focused on the Spirit in the Church, the time was ripe for Pope John XXII to establish Trinity Sunday on the existing day of commemoration in 1334, as it were drawing to a conclusion the story of the Incarnation whilst celebrating the Church’s origins and authority – as indeed Becket himself might have wished!
So whereas it used to be the case that Pentecost was the key feast commemorating the sequence of events associated with the Incarnation as the church in both east and west sorted out its list of scriptures and read that sequence, now there was an additional and explicitly doctrinal emphasis. There are of course differences in the scriptures relating Ascension to Spirit-giving, but Pentecost fifty days after Easter celebrated the gift and the innovation of Trinity Sunday related the gift of the Spirit to the Church as it had developed.
In addition, notice too that if you had turned up to a Eucharist in the first thousand or so years of the Christian church, you might or might not have encountered a creed as part of the liturgy. For creeds – and there were many of them in use all over the place – were primarily associated with baptism. It was at a baptism that Christians committed or re-committed themselves to the vision of reality sketched out in a creed and put their hearts into what that might involve for them in their particular circumstances. Given that creeds sometimes featured in a Eucharist, however, it was not unreasonable for Pope Benedict VIII in 1014 to authorise the place of the creed we know in the Eucharist – and as I’ll explain later, that was because he was being leant on by the then Holy Roman Emperor. As the reference to Becket indicated, what goes on in Christian liturgy sometimes had a lot to do with political pressures of one kind or another, odd though that may seem from our perspective.
One of the most significant occasions of political pressure well before Benedict’s time of course, and setting an uncomfortable precedent, had resulted in the inclusion in a draft statement of belief – a creed in the making, one might say, of the phrase we find in our liturgy – that Christ is ‘of one substance with the Father’ – a phrase to which we perhaps do not give enough attention. The phrase was so to speak beaten into a draft statement of belief at a famous council, summoned by the Emperor Constantine in 325 A.D. By that time Constantine had polished off his rivals and competitors, and was on the verge of transforming Byzantium into Constantinople. Having committed himself to supporting the new religious movement of the Christian church, he wanted the bishops of his empire to finish with controversy about Christ’s relationship to God the Father- a very important issue for understanding and appropriating what was meant by ‘salvation’ and the security of salvation. So on the 20 May, 325 A.D. after some victory celebrations, the as yet unbaptized emperor presided in person over a conference at Nicea (modern Iznik) supported by his civil servants. As the bishops knew perfectly well, he was going to get their signatures on the document that was to be drafted or getting back home was going to be a somewhat distant prospect. The records of the meeting are problematic, to put it mildly, and no one knows who produced the key term – ‘Homoousios’ – ‘being of one substance’ – a Greek term capable of multiple interpretations even by the Greek speakers present, never mind the Latins, given different ways of relating Father/Son/Spirit together. To find a term of such ambiguity was of course a master-stroke- maybe provided by one of those civil servants?- so almost all the bishops signed, enjoyed an imperial banquet and imperial presents, went off to their different parts of the empire and went on arguing about the meaning of the term for many years. At that stage the statement of belief (probably based on the creed of the Jerusalem church) finished simply with the affirmation of belief in the Holy Spirit – full stop.
So there was likely to be more to come, and come it did in 381, with Constantine long since baptized and dead, and Emperor Theodosius still struggling with some of his bishops at a meeting convened In Constantine’s new capital – Constantinople, minus bishops from the west and minus civil servants. The assembled company endorsed the moves made by the bishops at Nicea- which is why the creed incorporated into the Eucharist is rather sloppily referred to as the Nicene creed which it is not, and given the development of the third clause- on the Spirit- it is more properly referred to as the Nicene-Constantinopolitan creed.
Nothing to do with imperial power in its origin, there was to be one further development which you may notice if you look at that clause about the Holy Spirit –said in the creeds in use in the west to ‘proceed’ from the Father ‘and the Son’ – the nuisance phrase of the ‘filioque’, a source of continued disagreement between western and eastern Christendom to this day. (The eastern church prefers ‘proceeds from the Father through the Son’). The ‘filioque’came into existence perhaps as the result of an attempt to emphasise Christ’ s continued presence in the church, though at the cost of introducing an element of ‘subordination’ in the Trinity where none was intended. (The second clause had narrowly avoided the problem set up by the use of ‘Father’ and ‘Son’ by incorporating the phrase affirming that they are ‘ of one substance’).
The phrase ‘proceeding from the Father and the Son’ seems to have originated in Toledo in the sixth century, and was incorporated into the service books copied and distributed throughout what had become the Holy Roman Empire. Pope Leo 111 could not be persuaded to add the phrase into the creed out of justifiable concern as to how this would further irritate relationships between west and east, so had the creed without the clause inscribed on two silver shields put up at the tomb of St Peter. The Papacy lost out to the Holy Roman Emperor (Henry II) of the day when Benedict VIII leant on to incorporate the phrase into the now well developed creed when he needed imperial troops to fight some of the papacy’s battles.
And there is one final innovation to note, for in the consecration prayer, beyond the so-called words of institution, there is a prayer to God the Father to send the Holy Spirit on the congregation and the bread of wine so that these become the Body and Blood of the Son. That invocation too would not have been present in earlier versions of the consecration prayer in the west at least. If we stop to think about it, however, I think we can see that there is a certain incoherence between the third clause of the creed as we have it with the Spirit proceeding ‘from the Father and the Son’ and the consecration prayer to the Father to send the Spirit etc., whereas if we did away with the ‘filioque’ the difficulty would not arise.
This time this particular development of the liturgy has come about not as the result of political pressure in the sense of pressure from state authorities but presumably as the result of deeper appreciation of the criticism of the eastern church that despite the ‘filioque’ phrase there was something of critical importance missing from western theology and Eucharistic liturgy in particular – the significance of the Spirit.
So, there is part of the story of how we come to have a Trinity Sunday, a Sunday dedicated as it were to a doctrine summarising both gospel events and their consequences, and the doctrine itself sometimes developed in what must seem to us now to be surprising circumstances. The main point I want to make, tough, as I said at the beginning – is that if we are part of a living tradition, as insights change and we learn from one another and from maybe surprising sources and strange circumstances, we should expect and even nerve ourselves not to fear or resent change in liturgy but to find the courage to hope for it and to welcome it. And strange though that may seem, it seems to me that it is the very doctrine of the Trinity itself – given its innovative and one might say experimental and indeed controversial character as the creed sketches it, which might help to cheer us into thinking constructively about All Saints and how we worship here in the next few years – not least because of the arrival of a new Rector!
Apart from artistic representations of the Trinity it is worth looking at the ‘three spheres/rainbow/flame’ vision of the Trinity ‘limned with our image’ of Canto XXXIII of Dante’s The Divine Comedy: Paradise. Dorothy L. Sayers explores the Trinity as ‘Creative Idea/Creative Energy/Creative Power’ both in the speech she gives to the Archangel Michael at the end of her 1937 Cathedral play, The Zeal of Thy House and more extensively in her 1941 book, The Mind of the Maker.There is also a meditation on ‘Trinity Sunday’ in Malcolm Guite’s collection of his own poetry, Sounding the Seasons: Seventy Sonnets for the Christian Year 2012.