Trinity Sunday: "The Living Faith of the Dead"

The Revd Brutus Green

North of Swansea is a beautiful valley full of waterfalls, which my friends and I used to drive up to when we were teenagers in search of adventure. It’s hard to believe but when I was a teenager I wasn’t the hard-headed practical man of action I am now, but was metaphorically, and - to my present chagrin - literally, a lot more blonde, with my golden locks mostly in the clouds. On the most memorable of these trips I was walking out with a cheese sandwich, lovingly made by mother, along the top of a particularly large waterfall. The water flowed gently, but dropped away thirty feet onto a narrow shelf before descending a further thirty feet on to rocks. It was a particularly attractive vista and I have always had a somewhat insouciant, comfortable indifference to heights so I benignly wandered along the edge eating my delicious sandwich. Waterfalls being what they are, the rocks were wet and rather slippery from having been worn down for thousands of years. Naturally, being clumsy, I lost my footing and shot into the air, arms flailing wildly. By some miracle I landed in a crouch not three inches from the edge, beloved cheese sandwich still firmly gripped in my hand. Being seventeen I was actually rather pleased with myself and rather than learning from the experience grew none the wiser. Such fantasies of immortality only belong to youth. This airheadedness though was fairly characteristic behaviour for me at the time. At school I was considered most likely to be run over walking home from school in my own little world, and I frequently turned up to hockey games without shorts, shin pads or once a hockey stick. You might well say that I was lacking in practical reason, in wisdom.

Wisdom, as endorsed by our Old Testament lesson, hardly sounds relevant today; It’s a bit old-wives-talesy - if you remember Blackadder, being wise is one of the “two things you should know about the wise woman” (I’ll leave you to guess the other); equally wisdom sounds a little bit “Game of Thrones” where the wise king is the one who is a slightly less homicidal maniac than the other ones and talks in impressive pseudo-Shakespearean english. As Blackadder corrects the old crone though: ‘yes it is, not “that it be”’. In any case, as a concept, wisdom feels a little dated.

Wisdom, though, understood as practical reason, is as important a value as ever. How often does the lament go up about our culture, our politics, our religion, our ways of thinking, especially laws and regulations that they lack common sense? Political correctness, legalism, bureaucracy gone mad. Well I want to suggest two ways in which our practical wisdom can fail; where we are either too fearful to step into the waterfall to behold the panorama, or too reckless and find ourselves close to destruction. These relate to how we understand the past and our traditions; are we frozen by them - or do we think we can leave them behind altogether?

The first way involves being tied down by the immovable weight of the past. The dead weight of tradition is a continual burden to those who seek reform. There is nothing so exasperating when you’re trying to do something new and exciting as someone trumpeting “well this is the way we’ve always done it” - as though that is a justification in itself. Fear of change is hard wired into human nature and nowhere is it more felt than in churches. Especially to those who feel insecure in a world that is constantly changing, having a good set of Victorian pews, a complete set of ‘thee’s and ‘thou’s, and above all a man in front of the altar, preferably with a quiver full of children, is an anchor in a sea of uncertainty.

The second way, equally disastrous, is to suppose we are riding the crest of a wave, with a perspective so much brighter than all that have gone before. This attractive position of arrogance and ignorance, masquerading as freedom and innovation, usually only ends in short-lived moments that quickly evaporate through lack of roots and depth. A former archbishop of York, who described himself as a ‘Conservative liberal’ quoted G.K. Chesterton on this issue: ‘If democracy means that I give a man a vote despite the fact that he is my chauffeur, tradition means that I give a man a vote despite the that fact that he is my great-great-grandfather’. Presumably in Chesterton’s day only men could be chauffeurs.

One can see these threats of the past, both as a deadweight or as an irrelevance, in his well known expression: ‘Tradition is the living faith of the dead; traditionalism is the dead faith of the living’. In many respects the debates of today in church and society, over sexuality and marriage, women bishops - which reopened yesterday - and even the welfare state - all are contested within a framework of tradition against reform, the fear of change against the betrayal of the past.

Christianity actually encapsulates this position. What could seem more reactionary and paternalistic than calling God “Our Father”? And yet in today’s Gospel the Spirit is defined as the divine person who ‘declares to you the things that are to come’, the guide for the present; a tacit acknowledgment that the Church must rediscover the gospel in every generation, as T. S. Eliot put it, the Church must be ‘forever building, for it is forever decaying within and attacked from without.’ Christ here might be thought of as standing between the two: ‘This is he who was from the beginning, who appeared new and was found to be old, and is ever born young in the hearts of the saints’. That’s from the second-century Epistle to Diognetus; Christ is new and old, both a conservative and a reformer.

Traditionally Christ has been associated with the figure of Wisdom in the Old Testament. We can hear echoes of John 1, ‘In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God’ in the Old Testament lesson, where wisdom calls from the beginning of creation before the springs and mountains and fields, with God like a master worker, delighting in the human race’. Wisdom, then, might be thought of like Christ, as that which stands between tradition and reform, conservatism and radicalism. Wisdom might be thought of as the ability to discern against the weight of tradition and the levity of reform, the path for church and society.

Now you might be thinking this is all very well, but I come to church once a year on Trinity Sunday to hear and learn about the Trinity and so far you’ve barely mentioned it. Give me more of that three in one, one and three stuff. I hear you clamour. What I’ve been trying to articulate, though, is intended as a sort of picture of the Trinity. The Church has throughout the ages come up with various metaphors to communicate how we might think about God as eternal and yet involved, still and still moving. If we think of the Triune God as that which is eternal and unchanging, but also that which is new and entirely unexpected, and revealed in the present moment of where we are as both continuous with that weight of tradition and yet fresh and dynamic, we have a picture of it.

Essentially the eternal nature of God is unfathomable, God is quite literally beyond us, uncreated. Our traditions of speaking about God, the Christian faith, represents thousands of years of accumulated wisdom, which in different ways attempt to approach it. Each generation discovers this afresh drawing on what has gone before but equally needing to discover who Christ is today in a world that has changed out of the imagination of the first Christians.

People of other faiths sometimes think that the doctrine of the Trinity is either nonsensical or polytheistic, but really it’s a limited attempt to grasp this God who is both eternal and unchanging and yet dynamically involved, transcendent and utterly different to all of creation, and yet bound up with it in a relation of love as its creator, sustainer and redeemer. When it comes down to it how can you apply the concept of number to that which is beyond time and space anyway?

But at the heart of this doctrine is the principle that God is involved in creation from the beginning as wisdom. Which is to say that life is meaningful. It is an adventure to discover this meaning and often in the midst of life, with its suffering, its tragedies and its losses, the meaning can seem obscured or ridiculous. Wisdom, as the truth and the good life, must be sought and are only to be discovered between the riches of the past and our present experiences. If we let either dominate we risk not having faced up to reality, or a shallow, modish engagement in the Now; like only listening to classical music through P. Diddy remixes. To achieve wisdom, to try and come to terms with the Triune God, means stepping into the waterfall to behold the view, but without allowing ourselves to be swept onto the rocks below. Being part of the tradition while looking beyond it.

Now, as the Bishop of London would say, I have many more things to say to you but you cannot bear them now. When the vicar comes, he will probably go on a bit about all the things that are happening in our church. Some will seem prosaic, some exciting, some challenging, but this is a place which seeks to be dynamic without losing hold of our tradition, and as long as we hold on to this balance, moving forward with the riches of our traditions, we will continue to worship and share in the life and wisdom of the triune God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  Amen.