Preacher: The Very Revd Adrian Newman, Dean (2005-2011)
22 May 2005, 10:30 (Trinity Sunday)
I think it’s unlikely, but if by any chance you have come along on this Trinity Sunday in eager anticipation that the Dean of Rochester Cathedral will offer you a lucid, coherent, spellbindingly obvious explanation of the doctrine of the Trinity, please feel free to file out of the cathedral in disappointment now. The idea of God as 3 persons, Father, Son & Holy Spirit, is – to say the least – a bit tricky.
But however much of a mystery it may be, the Trinity is an idea whose time has come. Let me start with a few stories as a way in to explaining why:
Social workers and health visitors report that they are finding fewer and fewer tables in the living rooms of the families they visit. Sociologists cite this as evidence for the breakdown of the family – in other words, nobody eats meals together any more. Educationalists cite this as one of the reasons for underachievement in schools – because young people have nowhere to do their homework.
How often to you hear the following story? Police are called to a flat on the 12th floor of a high- rise block in Gillingham. A neighbour has reported that for some time now they haven’t seen an elderly man who lives next door. The police knock without an answer, and eventually break down the door to find the man has been dead for 6 months. Nobody knew, nobody called, nobody cared.
Whereas in days gone by young people would have joined uniformed organisations in high numbers, these days they are as likely to be shut in their rooms all alone, on-line in an MSN chat- room with some virtual friends.
It really wouldn’t be heard to multiply these stories 10 times over. They all reflect the breakdown of community that is happening all across the UK and the western world.
If you want a commentary on the extent of this breakdown, watch any reality TV show – I’m a Celebrity, Big Brother, or even The Monastery. These programmes make for compulsive viewing because people are simply not geared up to live co-operatively these days, and when people are thrown together in any sort of community experience the friction wheels turn and the sparks begin to fly. We are finding it harder and harder to live co-operatively and ‘do’ community.
All we are witnessing is the logical conclusion of the sociological trend away from mutual responsibility towards individualism, the so-called Me First society.
Which is where the Trinity comes in, and why this obscure and tricky doctrine is an idea whose time has come. Because the Trinity is the theological basis for believing in the supremacy of community over individualism.
Like most of our central and orthodox Christian doctrines, the doctrine of the Trinity is the result of the experience of believers, argued about, meditated upon, thrashed out over the first four centuries of the Church's history. Over the last 1600 years Christianity has asserted one God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit; three persons in relationship with one another.
Now, whatever the origins of the doctrine of the Trinity, I hope it is immediately apparent that there are enormous implications in the idea that God is a social being, that God is somehow personhood in inter-reactive, mutually dependant relationship. That God is, if you like, community, and there is diversity in the divine.
I don't know about you but I am not all that interested in the arguments as to how this can be. What interests me are the implications of this belief for a world tearing itself apart at the beginning of the twenty-first century.
Paddy Ashdown, former leader of the Lib Dems, a man brought up in Northern Ireland across the religious divide, continues to go back to Bosnia twice every year and takes a leading role in trying to broker a continuing peace. When he was asked why he did this, he said this, and I quote "the great scourges of our age are fundamentalism and tribalism. I'm horrified by how flimsy the veil is that separates us from the brutes, and how easily it is torn down. And once that veil is torn down it is almost impossible to put it back again. People who were next door neighbours do unspeakable things to each other on the basis that my us is different from yours".
Fundamentalism and tribalism are the great scourges we face in the modern generation. You don't have to look very far to see this on the international stage; Northern Ireland, the Baltics, Chechneya, Sudan, Darfur, Iraq, Afghanistan, the Middle East - the list of places torn apart by fundamentalist or tribal conflict is almost endless.
But what is true on the international stage is equally true among our domestic communities. Divisions between rich and poor, black and white, old and young, male and female are arguably as wide if not wider than they have ever been. Our nation is far from a community.
In the face of this disintegration, the doctrine of the Trinity offers us a blueprint for a way forward.
For if the very essence of God is community, unity in diversity, then the essence of following God is the pursuit of community. And that offers us some clear guidelines to pursue in our churches. Let me highlight 3.
1. To demonstrate or model inclusive communities where people can find a sense of belonging. The church is to be a community of hope in a world that’s lost the art of community.
My sister lived in California for many years, home to one of the world’s most unusual churches. Its pulpit is an electronic revolving pulpit. The preacher delivers their sermon to the congregation seated inside the church and then, at the press of a button, the pulpit starts to revolve, taking
pulpit and preacher outside the walls of the church to deliver another sermon aided by sophisticated electronics to another congregation who are seated inside their cars.
It is, to my knowledge, the only drive-in church in the world. An enormous car park filled with motorised church goers who hitch up their car stereo system to outlet points in the parking area, rather like a caravan plugs into a powerpoint on a caravan site.
Very convenient! No problems like having to talk to your neighbour in church, or sharing the peace with that woman who always gets on your nerves, or sitting next to the rather shabby man who smells a bit, or having to listen to the views of those who are different from you.
But how far away from the vision of Jesus when he selected that rag-bag assortment of disciples to be his prototype church. 2000 years on, it is more important than ever for the church to reflect and model inclusivity and engagement between people of difference. That is a significant part of our raison d’etre in an increasingly tribal world.
2. To help build sustainable communities, to use regeneration-speak. Report after report is now recognising the huge influence of faith communities in their contribution to healthy community life. From being the only agency whose professionals still live in the local area, to the key significance of our buildings as a focus for community identity, to the pivotal role that church groups take in community development projects, to our contribution to art, culture, heritage and the environment, to the way we can hold important middle ground between opposing parties at a local level, we are making some tremendous contributions to dynamic communities. Hey, we might not be quite as marginal as we thought!
3. To continue to play a leading role in making connections across the international divide. Isn’t it great to see so many Christians at the forefront of programmes to reduce 3rd world debt, develop fairer trade arrangements, and increase understanding across international cultural divisions – in other words, to create global community.
In all of these initiatives we are being true to our calling because every attempt to develop, create, sustain or strengthen community reflects the very nature of God himself. It is a divine thing to create community.
Over the next few years the Cathedral has some significant new opportunities to improve facilities for visitors and worshippers alike. But you will I hope be glad to know that, while all of these plans are aimed at supporting sustainable community life, none of them involve turning Boley Hill into the carpark for the world’s first drive-in cathedral.........