The Bishop of London on the Holy Trinity

Address to the Star Course at St Andrew's Fulham Fields by Bp Richard Chartres.

Holy Holy Holy, Lord God Almighty
Heaven and Earth are full of thy Glory
Glory be to thee, O Lord Most High.

You have asked me to talk about the Holy Trinity, and with particular reference to the Holy Spirit.

One of the confessions of the Christian faith which we have preserved in the Church of England, but which isn't often used now, is the creed which says:

And the Catholic Faith is this, that we worship one God in Trinity, and Trinty in Unity, neither confounding the persons, nor dividing the substance.

I want to come back to that, because what sounds at first sight rather cerebral, rather baffling, is in fact a very precious glimpse and vision of the nature of the Christian God. 

The Way of Being

I remember going to tea, with a very elderly couple in Oxford, and the question was asked, over the scones, "what does the Holy Trinity mean to you?". And it is the sort of question that takes you right under the 5th rib. You gasp, I was already ordained, so I flannelled ... I felt I had to flannel ... and I flannelled about the Holy Trinity as an idea about God. I ventured one or two of those embarrassing similes that are the stock of Trinity Sunday sermons, you know the sort of thing, the Clover Leaf and that kind of little picture. It sounded even to me at that time rather flat, and I recognise now that I was entirely on the wrong track, and that the Holy Trinity is not so much an idea about God, which has to be in some way apologised for or explained away. The Holy Trinity is a way of being - It's a way of being and it is central to living the Christian Faith, although I am only just beginning my own entry into the Holy Trinity, and I'm somewhat wary this evening lest I seem to pose as someone who has plumbed the depths.

Let me try and explain what I mean by the Trinity as a way of BEING. I have come to realise also that being alive in the Holy Trinity is a life that you can't attain by an exercise of intellect or the will, but you can recognise this life of the Holy Trinity in our everyday circumstances and our worship. You can recognise the Trinity, you can contemplate, you can enter into the experience of God as Trinity by watchfulness and awareness, and when you enter the Holy Trinity this is the place where you experience enlightenment, but this enlightenment is not achieved, it is the gift of the Holy Trinity.

Now these things are not, any longer, theories as far as I am concerned, they correspond to realities too deep for words.

At some stage of course, any language about God breaks down. After he had composed his great work of Christian Theology, the Summa, St Thomas Aquinas received some sort of enlightenment in the Holy Eucharist. He didn't speak again - his work ends with the phrase exeunt omnium in mysterium - everything flows out into mystery. In the end, the living God cannot be seized as an object of our thought. We can struggle to express our thoughts about God in a more or less coherent and lucid way, but in the end God is beyond our categories and our capacities. The Holy Trinity is No Thing. The Holy Trinity is not nothing, but the Holy Trinity is No Thing. It is not, He is not, an object of our thought. The Holy Trinity cannot be brought within the categories of comprehension of our intellect. But you can recognise, this is the right word, you can recognise the presence of the Trinity, and encounter the mystery of God, but you can never adequately define God or treat God as an Object of your thought.

So, the mystery of God. I don't mean to take refuge in that discreditable parsonical trick, when you are confronted with a very difficult question. When somebody asks you a question about God and you say : "It's a mystery, old boy". That is not what I mean at all. The mystery of the Holy Trinity is not a mystery of the puzzle kind, which given more information or a greater endowment than I have got of M Hercule Poirot's little grey cells, we might at some point be in a position to work out. When you recognise the presence of God you encounter mystery for this reason: you discover that you are IN God. You discover that your mind is to small to comprehend God, and that we are dazzled by the light of the beyond all. The mystery is literally unfathomable because it embraces all of us. You can't get round to examine it from any other angle, because you are within the mystery.

Relating to God

You can be related to the true and living God. You can be related to God, but you can't possess God, even as an idea. You can be IN God, but you can't have anything but an Idol as a possession. You can't have a God. If you have, possess a God, if you talk about My God, my own little possession that helps me, my asset, then what you have is not the true and living God, father of our Lord Jesus Christ, but an Idol, a God made in our own image. And, brothers and sisters, much of the history of religion, even in the Christian Religion, is an attempt to make Gods of ourselves, by launching ego-projections into the middle distance - plop - and then having an affair with that ego-projection. That's what religion has been, so very often. Some of the religious experience of the pagan part of world in Jesus' day was clearly like this, a launching of an ego-projection with which you had an affair, a flirtation.

Who could fail to see, in the cult of Hercules (which has come back by the way, not only as a strip cartoon but in the person of Sylvester Stallone and many other people) the wish-fulfilment of pimply adolescent boys, a typical kind of ego projection with which you have a flirtation. These Gods do not exist, though the energies which are invested in them can sometimes lead to the kind of psychic phenomena which are not unknown where there are adolescent children and quantities of sexual energy in circulation. Psalm 115 says "wherefore shall the Heathen say, where is now their God". The Pagans were jeering, you see, they were saying, "You haven't got an image of your God, where's your God, what does he look like?" The answer for the Psalmist is: "Our God is in Heaven, He hath done whatsoever pleased him." No ego-projection of ours - here is the realm of radical and infinite possibility. "Their idols are silver and gold, even the work of men's hands." The true and living God has radical freedom, he is not our handiwork we are His people and the sheep of His pasture, and alone of all the great temples of the ancient world, the Temple of Jerusalem did not preserve a cult statue, or an object, in its Holy of Holies.

So we are dealing with the recognition of a way of being, an encounter with a presence, not with a difficult idea that we have somehow to domesticate in our sermons. The revelation of God's Trinity has unfolded and continues to unfold in history. Pentecost, when they were all together in one place, and there was the gift from on high of the Holy Spirit to the Church, it was a beginning, causing to spring up a river of life and energy, which sometimes has flown underground, as largely it does now, the river is at the moment the flowing mostly under ground, sometimes it flows on the surface, until we believe at the last day we believe we shall be caught up in a universal en-goded-ness, a transfiguration, a universal participation in the life of the Holy Trinity.

St Gregory Nazianzen describes this progressive revelation in this way: "The Old Testament has manifested the Father clearly, the Son only dimly. The New Testament has revealed the Son, and implied the divinity of the Holy Spirit. Today the holy Spirit lives among us, and makes himself more clearly known."

Recognition in the Scriptures

Now how do we recognise the presence of God as Trinity, in the holy Scriptures, and in the New Testament, and especially in the life of Jesus Christ? The truth is, in picture after picture, again and again and again. When he is born, there is the voice of God, Gabriel, visiting the Blessed Virgin Mary, the overshadowing of the Holy Spirit is what beings the child, Emanuel, God with us, to birth in her. So there is the experience of God as Trinity in the birth of Jesus Christ. His very name, Christos, which means anointed, that reveals the way of being of God as Trinity. St Basil of Ceasarea is his great book on the Holy Spirit, says this: To name Christos (which as you know means the anointed one) is to confess the whole, who it is to point to God the Father, the principle of the Godhead, who anoints the Son, and it is to point to the Son who has been anointed, and to the unction itself, which is the Spirit, and this accords with Peter's teaching in the Acts of the Apostles: "God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit".  So just the name Christ is another picture which reveals God's way of being, anointed: the one who anoints, there is the anointed one, there is the unction.

And then again the Baptism, there is the descent of the Dove, the voice, again we see the way of being of God, we see that way as God in Trinity.

And then the transfiguration, when our Lord is radiant on the mountain, there is cloud, always associated by the Holy Fathers with the work of the Spirit, and there is the voice of the Father, here is my beloved son, again the expression of the presence of God.

The Gift of Life and Love

Now this is not an occult and difficult mathematical idea caused by philosophical speculation, God's presence reveals itself in those stories from scripture again and again. and this is the crucial point, the structure of reality, of our daily lives, is Trinitarian. God is relatedness. The incarnation of the Son reveals the mystery of God which is yearning Love. The gift of life and love is an extension of a mysterious exchange at the heart of God Himself. In God Himself the one does not exclude the other, but includes it. The unity of God is so complete that it is not solitude enclosed in itself but rather fullness of communication and communion, and the source of relatedness. As it says in St. John's gospel, chapter 14 "I and the Father are One" - the one does not exclude the other "I am in the Father and the Father is in me."

So that is why, when we, who are followers of Jesus Christ, are told, at the end of St Matthew's Gospel, to go out into the world and make disciples of all nations, we are told that people are to be led into a participation in the life of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The task then, and still, is to immerse all in the life of the Holy Trinity, and this is the task which is still unfolding.

Now in John 14 also, Jesus says, "I will pray the Father, and he will give you another comforter, that He may be with you for ever, even the spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive for it beholdeth him not". You see the precision of the Holy Scriptures and the writing of St John. This is the right language. We are not talking about theoretical understanding, we are talking about that capacity to encounter presence and to perceive being.

The world cannot behold him, neither knows him. You know him, for he abideth with you and shall be in you. And so we come to dwell on the Spirit who is God in us.

Modes of Operation

The Spirit again. You might look at three grand modes in which the Spirit operates in Holy Scriptures.

Creative Healing Energy

There is the Spirit that is creative and healing energy, the Spirit brooding on the face of the deep at the beginning of all creation, the Spirit overshadowing the Virgin. I see, as I go around my everyday life, I see again and again the evidence of how creative it is when people live together in the Spirit, in the Spirit which brings one in the other, true attention, true goodwill, true seeing of the other person's uniqueness, true respect when you dwell in that spirit, I've seen it again and again.

I saw somebody recovering from drug addiction, in a residential hostel, he'd been there for 4 months, it is place of prayer, a place where the reality of the Spirit was there, and he said "I came in here thinking nothing of myself, but the way in which other people have listened to me, not been soft with me, but the way in which they have listened, and really paid attention to me, I now feel full up, and stronger." It is the spirit that created the healing.

Profound Communication

The Spirit that beings profound communication. On the day of Pentecost they were all together in one place, and the Spirit was given, and what was the result? What happened on the day of Pentecost? It was that people like you, from Russia and Verona and Fiji and Gibraltar and Sydney and Los Angeles, and even from Weston Super Mare, could understand one another, because the Spirit brings a network of communication that enables people to communicate heart to heart and not subject to object. Subject to object communication is the source of some of the greatest evils in the world, when people are overlooked, sized up, measured up, weighed up. It is in the Holy Sprit that we find a channel of communication that opens the way to communication heart to heart. That is another mode of the Spirit's work in the Holy Scriptures.

Leading into Truth

And then the third way, Jesus Christ says, I will send you the Spirit of truth, who will lead you into all truth. The Spirit is not, of course, an instructor in information. We don't go the Sprit to learn the sort of secrets that Bill Gates could impart to us this evening - well no on second thoughts there are such clued up people here on IT that I daresay even Bill Gates could not teach us very much on that subject! but the Spirit is the teacher of wisdom and truth, and equips us to look unafraid at the dark world inside us. Jesus Christ says: "you know the Holy Sprit, the Holy Sprit lives in you"

The Spirit in our Lives

Now I have been sketching the experience of the presence of God in Holy Scripture, the experience of the life of the Holy Sprit and how the Holy Spirit works. Lastly, I want to turn to our lives, as lives which are programmed to express themselves in a relating way, in a Trinitarian way.

In this 20th Century of ours, there has been a great divide: there have been many terrible wars between two opposing visions of human beings. One vision says this: the important thing is to be an individual. It is to individuals that rights belong. Individuals are empires in themselves. They are autonomous, they are independent. It is the Individual that must be at the centre.

And on the other hand, there has been another move in this Century which has said, it is the collective, the Individual has by themselves no meaning at all. This was the great heart of the social engineering project which was Nazism and Stalinism, which were remarkably like one another of course because they were fed from similar philosophical sources. No, the great thing is the Collective, and you must sink your individual identity in the service of this great collective.

The Trinitarian way, is neither of those things, a way of being in Trinity. Let's go back to our Creed: "Neither confounding the persons" so everybody is unique, is differentiated. There is differentiating at the very heart of God. Everyone is absolutely unique and precious. But - "Neither confounding the persons nor dividing the substance". We only come to our full stature, to our full spiritual beauty, to the Glory that God intends for us, to the extent to which the one can commit themselves to the other. "Neither confounding the persons nor dividing the substance" This is a different way of BEING, and living - do you see that? Here is this great conflict: either it is the individual and his rights or there is the collective, and there is the Trinitarian way: "Neither confounding the persons nor dividing the substance".

St Paul's Vision

St Paul, in his letter to the Christians of Ephesus, Ch 4 v 6, has this vision of God, which sums up a lot of what we have been saying. He talks about the one God and Father of us all, who is above all, and through all, and in all. The Father is beyond all, the origin of all that is, and as human beings we are created with a hunger and a thirst for the meaning, that comes with union with this realm of infinite possibility, the beyond-all. You created us for yourself and our hearts are restless until they repose in you. So we are Trinitarian beings, who must relate, if we are to satisfy our deepest hunger and thirst, with the God who is beyond all.

And then, there is God who is though all - the incarnate son Jesus Christ is God with us, Emanuel. We are to give shape and depth to our lives by our relations with Christ in one another. This is the second aspect of our Trinitarian being, as human beings. We are to relate to the Beyond All, we are to see Christ in one another, we are to relate to one another. Our spiritual life is in our relations with one another, not in our cultivation of ever more exquisite, narcissistic, interior states.

And then lastly St Paul says God who is in all, the Sprit as Jesus said in John 14, the Sprit is God in us, and to know that wellspring within us, but spiritual discipline, by attention to the holy scriptures, by watchfulness and awareness, is to know inexhaustible vitality and delight, and to have access to a network of communication and communion which reverberates through the Godhead. We are engodded, we are within God, but because God is Trinity and relatedness, we are not crushed, we are not absorbed, like a drop in the cosmic ocean, we live, we breathe, we grow and are transfigured IN God.

Now this vision of God, this understanding of God's way of being, and His presence, is called by the Holy Fathers the preichorses, the dynamic dance of the Holy Trinity, and this language of course is very useful. I mean one of the difficulties when you are trying to teach the Christian Faith is that people are still hung up, believe it or not, with the idea of God as an old man with a white beard, or some other gender-related vision. The language about the Holy Trinity of course does bring us into a vision of God's presence and activity into one which transcends all the recent arguments about gender of the Godhead.

The Dance of Godhead

But we have a most marvellous picture here of the divine being, and and very simply and briefly, and in conclusion, I'd just like to take you round the dance.

So here we have a painting by the Russian painter Rublev, painted at a time of terrible chaos in Russia, Tartar attacks, civil disturbance. This is a painting derived from Scripture, itís derived from the story of the visit of the three angels to Abraham and Sarah, and its called the Old Testament Trinity. Itís a glimpse, a vision, of God's way of being as Trinity, and you see the dance expressed in the tender regard, the attention, that the one casts on the other, in the lines of the clothes, and in the fact that if you put the centre of the compass in the centre of the table you could draw a circle, a perfect circle, which includes all those beings.

Now this figure (on the right) is identified with the Holy Spirit, the green and blue, the blue the common colour of these three characters, the blue of baptism and waters, the birth of the soul's journey, and again the Spirit's tender regard is cast on this figure, at the other extreme of the table on which the chalice rests.

The next figure is the figure of the incarnate son, with the imperial purple. He also casts a look of tender regard on this much more shadowy figure, the primordial Father, the principle of the godhead. And so it is an extraordinary vision of God's way of being, as dynamic, as a dance, "I am in the Father and the Father in me" overcoming duality, divorce, division, one in the other.

And there is a gap, this gap here, which has a rather crudely painted oblong here, there is virtually no other right angle in this icon, that gap of course is the invitation to us. The meaning of Christian life is not to think complicated and exquisite thoughts about God, it is quite simply to participate in the life of God, in His way of being as Holy Trinity, and that gap there is the invitation to us, through the Holy Eucharist, through our life in the Christian Body, through us coming to live as Trinitarian persons, related to the Beyond All, related to the incarnate son in our neighbours, relating to the Spirit which Jesus Christ says is within us, we grow as Trinitarian beings, and that empty gap is our invitation, The meaning of being a Christian is more and more to come to participate in the very being of God as Holy Trinity.
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