Trinity Sunday Sermon
University Church of St Mary the Virgin, Oxford
Podcast for Trinity Sunday/7 June 2020
Revd Canon Dr Judith Maltby
Many years ago, before I took up my current post in Oxford, I was on the staff of the theological college in Salisbury, preparing women and men for ministry in the Church of England. This was so long ago, that throughout the six years I taught there, women could train only to be either authorized lay workers or deacons (not to disparage those ministries). Yes, the Church of England once did not ordain women to the priesthood or as bishops. No, really, it was like that.
The principal of the college back then was an impressive person I owe I great deal to in my own priestly formation, Philip Crowe. In the preaching course at the college, he used to say this to ordinands who were anxious about preaching on Trinity Sunday. He said something like this:
I’ve got some good news and some bad news for you. The good news is that every one of you has a Trinity Sunday sermon in you. You really do. It’s in there. The bad news is that Trinity Sunday comes around every year.
A root around my hard drive revealed to me that since I was ordained deacon in 1992, I have preached at least ten times on Trinity Sunday. Do I have another Trinity Sunday sermon in me, without retreating to cheap jokes about this being the Sunday on which more heresy is innocently preached than any other? And is there something different about a Trinity Sunday in Lockdown?
Maybe I have the advantage here of not being a theologian. By that, I mean I am not what is called a systematic theologian. (I remember the first time as a student I heard the term ‘systematic theology’ and it made me wonder what ‘unsystematic theology’ was – and I thought, well maybe, that’s what more theology is). Those of us in other disciplines of theology, like church history for me or New Testament for Will, are sometimes, well, not really considered quite the ‘real deal’ by our systematic colleagues, though they are often quite nice about it. Having to engage with evidence or contextualized texts can get in the way of pure thought unencumbered by things like, well, evidence or contextualized texts.
But it isn’t rocket science to note that the doctrine of the Trinity, or doctrines of the Trinity, go through fashions – I don’t use that word pejoratively – and have a historical context. What Christians wish to foreground about God at any one time, generally tells us more about ourselves, rather than God.
In the second half of the 20th century, the idea of the ‘Social Trinity’ became very popular in academic circles – though it has old roots in the tradition. It had the advantage too, that it was an idea seminarians and anxious ordinands could get a grip on it as they looked down that long, long tunnel of many, many Trinity Sundays stretching ahead of them.
What is it? The ‘Social Trinity’ emphasized that the Three Persons of Trinity, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, are in relationship to one another. The Three Persons are not ‘aspects’ of one God or God in different modes or jobs, not for example, like saying that God is like water, but can be liquid, steam or ice – always a popular heresy on Trinity Sunday in the desperate attempt to find a metaphor that works.
Rather, the Three Persons are in constant relationship with each other, that is, community is at the heart of God. To quote Karen Kilby, a leading British theologian:
… social theorists propose that Christians should not imagine God on the model of some individual person or thing that has three sides, aspects, dimensions or modes of being: God is instead to be thought of as a collective, a group, or a society, bound together by the mutual love, accord and self-giving of its members.
Jürgen Moltmann was one of the giants of the Social Trinity, who saw it as a blow against the excessive individualism of the post-war West. But both feminist theologians and Liberation theologians were drawn to this way of speaking of the Triune God: an antidote against hierarchy, patriarchy and model for mutuality.
I gather the Social Trinity, as I understand it (it’s not my field!) is going out of fashion among many leading systematic theologians. And maybe they are right. But I wonder whether, on this Lockdown Trinity Sunday with social distancing, and the hard reality that we cannot gather together to celebrate the Eucharist as we desire so much to do, the Social Trinity, might have something important to say to us, as it did, for example, to Liberation and Feminist theologians of the previous century – though one might think that their concerns haven’t gone away and are still very much on the table.
In other words, if loving relationship is at the heart of what God is, then it isn’t surprising that so many of us are finding ‘isolation’ and ‘social distancing’ so very hard.
I’m sure I speak for many people as one of a sizable minority of people in the UK who comprise a household of one. I haven’t eaten another meal with another person since mid-March. Yes, I am in touch with friends and relatives on Zoom and Teams both in the UK and abroad more than I ever was in pre-Covid times. And that’s a good thing but it isn’t the same.
As hard as the current context is, it reminds us that we are actually created to be social, that we are made for loving relationship, that we are made in the image of the triune God, the ‘Social Trinity’. If God is social, so are we.
One commentator I read in preparation for this sermon pointed out that the doctrine of the Trinity, should be preached as Good News, not a ‘problem’. Good News: for it affirms that the God who made us, is the God who redeems us, is the God who strengthens us. It affirms, that the relationality is core to God, we are given the grace to have it in our lives, with each other and with God.
The times compel us to social distancing. The Social Trinity, both reminds us not to get used to it and gives us the grace to bear it. That is Good News.