In my last entry, I answered the first of three questions that the MCC Commission on the Statement of Faith posed in a recent article: Does your own religious experience place much emphasis on the Trinity? It would not surprise anyone who knows me well that my answer was an emphatic yes!
In this entry, I turn to the Commission’s second of three questions, namely: Does your MCC community use one or more of the historic creeds in worship?
The short answer is: No, and I wish we did! Fortunately, for those with ears to hear, Jesus the Christ and the Holy Spirit are “one with God,” (which should, or might, imply the Trinity for those with decent Christian formation). But only once in nearly five years have I ever heard any preaching on the Trinity at MCC Toronto (MCCT). I suspect there are two interlocking reasons why the Trinity is not a central way of framing the spirituality of MCCT on the whole.
First, lay people don’t understand the content of the Creeds (especially the Nicene) and/or have been taught sloppy, allegedly “progressive Christian” ways of dismissing the Creeds (a la John Shelby Spong and the Center for Progressive Christianity and/or the Living the Questions curriculum. (The video material, in my opinion, is usually much stronger than the written.) Though there is some truth to the notion that the Creeds became an instrument of institutional control, I rather think the authors of the recent article have the emphasis right when they note,
One function of our life together in the church is to share our common Christian faith with newcomers to our communities. The historic creeds preserve a shorthand account of the many questions that arose in the early church and the responses worked out through examination of the scriptures and reflecting on the experiences of early followers of Jesus. [emphasis mine]
Many laypeople I encounter at MCCT (and in the Anglican Church of Canada–ACC) believe simplistic accounts of the politics surrounding the Nicene controversy. “The emperor needed to maintain control, so he got the bishops together in a room and told them to behave themselves.” There is partial truth to this, of course. The thing that most people miss is that, in spite of the Emperor’s rather indifferent attitude to the Christological controversies of the time, the bishops said, “No, this matters. This goes to the heart of the Christian faith, because we need to tell the truth about Jesus.” There are so many people who think that doctrine is what happens when a living experience becomes dead letter (and thus a stick with which institutions beat their adherents–or their prisoners).
I propose confidently another view: In my life, and in the lives of the biblical writers and in the lives of contemporary apprentices of Jesus, doctrine arises as part of the ongoing experience of God–it is the hearth that gives a home to the flame of the Spirit. Doctrine is a buoy on a rough and mysterious sea so that ships coming into port will find home, rather than go wandering into dangerous waters or run aground. Doctrine is considered orthodox not just because the institutional powers-that-be say it shall be ever thus, but because the people of God to the present day find their worship of God and their understanding of Jesus’ Gospel enhanced and deepened when they take the time to understand it in its own context and to translate it into theirs. (I am in full agreement with the Commission’s approach as stated in the article.)
Second, even when the people of God (including theologians and clergy of my acquaintance, in both the MCC and the ACC) understand the content of the Creeds, many of them can’t (or won’t) say them. Sometimes, I suspect hyper-literalism is the problem (there is room for multiple, serious interpretations of “born of the Virgin Mary,” “descended into hell,” or “ascended to the right hand of the Father,”–isn’t there?). Much more seriously, some don’t say the Creeds because they disbelieve that God is Jesus.
I want to be clear before I continue: questioning everything, arguing about everything, is part of what the Body of Christ needs to recover (perhaps from our Jewish friends and lovers!). We could use some robust argument up in here! I am always amazing at the willingness and curiosity of lay Christians to engage this way. Of course, some are completely disinclined, and that’s OK too. Church history is replete with examples of “little old ladies” who, without a day of theology, are better Christians than some of the best theological minds of their times.)
Having said that, I want to turn to what I sense is becoming a large problem in the MCC and ACC both: clergy or theologians who are agnostic about the Godhood of Messiah Jesus, or who (even worse!) deny it, claiming either that low Christology (Jesus is a prophet or good human teacher) or a New-Age/Gnostic/New-Thought perspective (all humans are divine, and Jesus was a particularly bright example) is sufficient for good Christian formation. I must admit I’ve never seen good Christian formation from either perspective. What happens to prayer? Was Jesus raised from the dead, and what does it mean for my life? What did he do for us on the cross, and was God paying attention? Is the Gospel of John (and passages in the synoptics and Paul that imply identification with the God of Israel, including every time people call him Lord) wrong in their assessment of Jesus? And if so, why did they get it so wrong? Is God going to bring the cosmos to an “omega point” (de Chardin), and if so, how? Low Christology might get us fabulous humanistic or interfaith formation, but I wonder if there’s anything distinctively Christian about it. I want to say with the St. Athanasius of the preacher’s story to clergy and theologians who cannot affirm God as Jesus: “I beseech you, as from the bowels of Christ: Think that you may be wrong!” I also wonder if I, and the Body of Christ, need repent with ash in our hair for such sub-par “Christian” formation that they could not access what the “orthodox” and “mystics” among us claim is normal. I admire the intellectual and emotional integrity of theologians and pastors who, after long years, realise they no longer believe that God is Jesus, and they retire their vocations (sometimes with great struggle–what do you do if you’ve only served a religious community, with no other skill-set?).
I don’t understand younger clergy who disbelieve the central story of the Creeds (or comparable biblical study) and yet pursue ordination. Why would one want to become part of an organization that does not require its workers to buy in to the core aspects of the vision and mission? I once spoke with a young clergywoman of my acquaintance: “My own belief is almost Unitarian, but I don’t leave because MCC is my family.” That’s fair. But if my friend cannot model the experience of Christ to which we are supposedly bearing witness, perhaps a vocation as clergy is not the best fit? Was the disjunct discerned but ignored during the process of clergy formation? Would this not be another symptom of the belief that doctrine and experience are completely separable? (This is one of Spong’s favourite hobby-horses, and it makes me want to pull my hair out every time, because to my ear, his brand of “progressive” Christianity–which is really American, modernist liberalism warmed over–has increasing influence within MCC as a movement. May God save me now!)
One of the constant fears I hear at MCC Toronto and in Anglican circles is the constant fear of group-think and dogmatism. Since it’s been used to damage so many of us, we don’t want to be perceived as rigid in our own beliefs and values. I fear that for many people, confidently speaking of God as Jesus conjures up associations with the worst kinds of assertions and behaviours–if I don’t trust in Jesus, I’ll burn in literal hellfire; if I believe God is Jesus, that will put me in conflict with my neighbours in other faiths; and so on.I’ve even heard comments that MCC should drop affirmation of the Trinity in order to keep the Fellowship together–focus on the ethics and justice-doing, say some, and that is how we will prove our distinctiveness, our holiness. May we never accept such a wrong-headed approach! A church community that doesn’t do robust theology together will not be a community nor holy/radical/distinct for very long. We need common language and common affirmations as the spinal column that will both protect and enable the cord that keeps the body lively and moving.
Are there solutions? Indeed, I am hopeful! I would like to be part of a new generation of MCCers and Anglicans that returns to the Scriptures and to the most ancient doctrines of our faith to articulate them for today–I thought this was what theology was for! I would like MCC churches in general to maintain the Creeds as a cornerstone understanding of the faith so that we remain in ecumenical contact with the majority of Christians in the world–most of whom are still fighting about gender, sexuality, and sexual ethics. I would like MCC Toronto–and MCC more generally–to start teaching the distinctive doctrines of the faith in fresh ways, grounding them in the persons of the Godhead and most especially in the life of Jesus. That scandalous first century Jew is the one who has decisively shown the world that all are welcome to the Feast, all are beloved, and all are called to be whole and free. I’ll say it again as I have in so many conversations around this subject: If we lose the conviction and experience of God as Jesus, we have no living anchor for our perception of the character of God. And if presenting the Trinity as crucial to our faith will lead to a schism within the MCC, perhaps we deserve it–not because God is out to get us, but because we as a church family have not given the living and faithful Triune God the honour due the same.
Join me next time as I answer the Commission third and final question: How might thinking about the Trinity as a relational community help you see God?
“One function of our life together in the church is to share our common Christian faith with newcomers to our communities,” says the Commission. I wonder how much this statement describes the MCC as a whole; I am somewhat doubtful this is as much the case as it should be at MCC Toronto. It is a holy aspiration and a great adventure, and pray that it continues to be–or to become again–the reality in MCC Toronto and throughout our movement. May the Holy Trinity defend us on every side as we go, and grant us the joy of Christ, that it may be so!