Once again, the MCC Commission on the Statement of Faith has done the MCC as a church and movement a great service in its latest post about the Trinity.
Once again, the Commission poses three questions, seeking community feedback. And once again, I will answer all three questions–the first below, and the other two in subsequent entries.
Does your own religious experience place much emphasis on the Trinity?
I have to say an emphatic yes! to this.
I grew up in a denomination, the Christian and Missionary Alliance, that was proudly “middle of the road,” conservative Evangelical. We summarized our faith this way: “Christ our Saviour; Christ our Sanctifier; Christ our Healer; Christ our Coming King.” Though some theologians within the denomination worked to ensure that we did not confuse Christo-centrism with Christ-monism, it was very clear to me from a very early age that Father, Son, and Spirit were all God (though I didn’t always know how to talk about that intelligently!).
It was very difficult, as a teenager, to maintain an experience of the Trinity that didn’t feel almost schizophrenic. Jesus was Saviour and Lord, someone who befriended and defended me; I loved the Holy Spirit (having been immersed in Pentecostal circles from age 12). But God the Father was not safe to me–in fact, the Father felt a lot like my physically and verbally abusive step-father. Sometimes, God even sounded like my mother, especially when He would sit–in my imagination–on the top of the TV set frowning while I watched Star Trek: The Next Generation (which my mother barely tolerated).
Realising that I liked boys was terrifying to me, because those who used the word “gay” to describe themselves had accepted a severe form of demonization and made it central to their sense of self. Even if I was never taught this explicitly, that was the implication of the Pentecostal theology of my youth. I remember thanking God the Father for his patience with me whenever I came down from the temporary bliss of orgasmic fantasy about other boys because, I said, if I were Him, I would have killed me already.
When I entered training in prayer counselling taught by Charismatic teachers John and Paula Sandford, I quickly began to realise the extent to which I needed healing in my images of God and in my relationship with my step-father. One major healing change was that I started to call both the Father and my step-father “Papa”–a move which made the human one uncomfortable, though I never understood why. Unfortunately, the Sandfords taught that the whole LGBTQ+ liberation movement was a sign of the activity of the principalities and powers, rather than the Holy Spirit.
I learned the Apostles’ Creed for the first time in systematic theology class at 18 years old. I still can’t fully explain what happened in my spirit when I stood for the first time to say it as an individual. “I believe…” And I really *did* believe all these things. This was my story.
Life exploded a little over a year later, and I had to leave Bible College to sort out my sexuality. I remember sitting across from my “aunt”–a good friend of my mom’s–and telling her, “I don’t know if I’m loved by God.”
She said with all seriousness, “You know that’s not true. What are some Scriptures about the love of God?”
Not a single one rose up out of my heart. I actually noticed that my thoughts were blank. “I don’t know.”
Fortunately, that moment was probably the nadir of a long journey back to a healthier relationship with the Father. To this day, I contend that avoiding “God the Father” in the language of worship and theology is not a permanent solution to the damage that many queer Christians feel. Only by healing the image of Father and Mother will we gain the resources to go beyond damaged or strained parental relationships.
(I never could bring myself to say Creator, because that role belongs to all three Persons and not just the one. I do sometimes say “Source,” in deference to many Eastern Orthodox theologians who believe the Father is mysteriously the grounding of the other two Persons. I do remember that “God is not a boy’s name” and that “God is more than two men and a bird.”)
I entered the Anglican tradition in 2003, and all the nascent pentecostal passion I had about the Trinity gained some serious depth and rhetorical beauty. Collects would regularly end with, “through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with [the Father] and the Holy Spirit, One God, forever and ever!”
The epiclesis over the gifts was, in my heart, a huge and wild moment in every Eucharist. Anything can happen when you invoke the Holy Ghost, amen?!
Even saying the Nicene Creed was a “thin place” for me, a moment when I sensed the joy of “the communion of saints” in honour of the Triune God!
I name myself a Trinitarian mystic, not because I am anything special, but because the images and experiences that our tradition uses of the Trinity have become my own. My favourite mystic thus far is Julian of Norwich, who managed to perceive in her own way the central conviction and experience of my life: when we see Jesus, we see the fullness of the activity of the Godhead (not to mention that her emphasis on the blood of Christ prefigures the way Pentecostals tend to understand it–as an actual substance (though invisible) that has never lost any of its power to save, heal, and liberate).
Both the Father and the Spirit “smell like” Jesus and point to Jesus. I love the image of perichoreisis–the inner relationship of God with Godself is a dance of mutual joy and deference. The thing that gives me chills is that God invites me–and all of humanity–into the centre of that dance; we are capable of divinity by the gift of God’s grace in Christ by the power of the Spirit.
But if I lose that vision of the Holy One and Sacred Three–especially if, as some in MCC leadership are wont to do, by maintaining that low Christology is sufficient for good doctrine and pastoral care–than I feel I have no reason to be confident in the inclusive love of God. Maybe the conviction that “God is love” is a delusion, a psychological prop I use to remain sane in the middle of a difficult relationship with my body (as a man with a disability) and a world that looks decidedly fucked-up most of the time!
But Jesus has been raised bodily from the dead, the Body of Christ is empowered by the Spirit to bring God’s justice, and at the destination of all things, God shall be all in all. That’s a story worth shouting about, and holding in common!
In my next entry in the series, I will answer the second question: Does your MCC community use one or more of the historic creeds in worship?
In the third, I will answer the final prompt: How might thinking about the Trinity as a relational community help you see God?
I hope you’ll come back, and my thanks to the Commission for the opportunity to provide feedback!
Recently, a good friend asked on social media for comments about the basis of “a priestly class” in the Abrahamic religions. I told him I would take a stab at it, given my background. I am not yet an expert in Christian theology or history; I do have the Master of Divinity from Trinity College, Toronto (an Anglican seminary). I am pursuing a call to Anglican priesthood (the Holy Spirit seems to have a sense of humour); in the meantime, I am also working on a PhD in Theology and Religion focusing on dialogue about queerness within the Christian churches. I am quite willing to be corrected about anything I say here, especially from the perspectives of Jewish tradition; I am also fairly confident that I have a basic grasp of a good answer. What is the Scriptural basis for the emergence of a priestly class in Christianity? Not as much as some would like to think, I suspect.
In the Old Testament/Hebrew Bible, it is very clear that there is a group specifically called to be priests: the tribe of Levi. They do not inherit any land, but are supported by the people. The line of Aaron, Moses’ brother, inherits the priesthood from generation to generation, in order to offer animal (blood) sacrifices (and other offerings) and eventually to maintain the Temple and its worship. In the Greek translation of the OT called the Septuagint, the word “priest” is translated “sacerdos.”
In the New Testament, to me it is very unclear why there is justification for a priestly class. First, the word “priest” (sacerdos) only occurs once in Hebrews (chapter 7, I believe) and refers to Jesus Christ himself as the final sacrifice and therefore the final priest that needs to offer blood sacrifices. When the word “priesthood” is used in the NT, it appears to me to apply to all Christians as followers of Jesus, who offer “spiritual sacrifices of thanksgiving.” Christians are, in fact, a “Kingdom of priests.” (To my ear, this means that “priest” was originally, for Christians, a democratic term.)
So how did the catholic traditions develop a “priesthood”? The original friends of Jesus who spent time with him were called apostles, “sent ones.” When there was an early conflict about food distribution and racism in the community, the apostles laid hands on seven Greek (minority) men to become “deacons” – those who took care of practical needs to that the apostles could focus primarily on teaching ministry. But even there, it’s still not the same as a priesthood (though the Catholic traditions often say that the ordination of the deacons in Acts was the first instance of ‘apostolic succession’).
In the letters written earlier in the NT, though prophets and apostles, teachers etc are recognized (Romans 12, 1 Corinthians 12-14), there is no clear sense of hierarchy: everyone is gifted by the Spirit, so keep good order and everyone will have a chance to minister in his or her place. In the late letters, especially the Pastorals (1/2 Timothy, Titus) we have the emergence of three terms: deacon, presbyter (presbyteros), and overseer (episkopos). Still, it is agreed by many scholars of early Christianity that the terms presbyter and overseer probably meant the same thing in their original settings. In the second century CE, some church leaders began to make the distinction between presbyter and overseer, so that there emerged three orders with specific tasks, and overseers became known as bishops; this distinction was deemed useful to the Church’s work of spreading the Good News of Jesus.
As the Jesus-movement grew, up to and even after the Roman Empire made Christianity the state religion, it became important to have some sort of quality control mechanism, especially when teachings deemed inaccurate or deviant (heresies) were attempted to gain a wide hearing among catholic Christians. By restricting the teaching of Scripture and the Great Thanksgiving (Eucharist) to priests and bishops, catholic Christians still hope to safeguard the integrity of the teaching of Jesus. The three orders of ministry became the primary means of demonstrating the unity of Christians throughout the world, and the Latin translation of “presbyter” eventually leads us to the English word, “priest.” (Subsequent Christian history messes up this lovely theory rather decisively, but it’s a pretty theory, isn’t it?)
Of course, this post-canonical history demonstrates a seriously conservative institutional tendency that can only be maintained if Christians ignore or devalue passages throughout the Scriptures that speak of the Spirit as belonging to all people, regardless of class, gender, or other human distinctions. It also leads to forms of clericalism that often absolve church leaders from empowering their lay people or lay people of taking responsibility for developing their own understandings of the faith. This is still something that the broadly catholic churches are coming to terms with in the early 21st Century, especially since Roman Catholic lay Christians have only recently been encouraged to read the New Testament–since Vatican II!
I haven’t even mentioned other issues regarding the “spiritual gifts” allegedly given to the priestly class: for example, the ability to absolve people of sin, to pronounce God’s blessing on people and objects, and to consecrate the Eucharist and spaces used for worship. Those three things, it seems to me, are only derived from Tradition, and not from airtight arguments made from the multiple strands of Biblical thought. The “priestly class” is part of the sandbox I play in as an Anglican, but I do not believe that its existence is ontologically necessary for the integrity or functioning of the Christian faith. The power of these roles might not have to do with God mysteriously changing anything, but rather with the People of God recognizing that this person is fit for ministry and blessed by God. In other words, the priestly class is a strong form of social construction that God in God’s mercy deigns to use. (This belief is what makes me a “bad Anglican.”)
I do think it is important to recognize and designate leaders and those who have the time and patience to dig into the resources of Christian faith on behalf of those who have questions. But do I think recognizing the proficiency and calling of these people needs to create a “priestly class” that becomes distinct from the rest of the people (laos/laity)? No. The justification for this class is primarily not in the Bible itself, but rather in the subsequent development of the Christian tradition. Whether a “priestly class” is necessary or useful to the 21st Century churches should, I think, be a matter of discussion–whether it will become so is anyone’s guess.
I am a Christian.
My name is Rob Walker. I am 32 years old, and I live in Toronto, ON.
I have the MDiv from Trinity College, Toronto, and am pursuing a call to ordained ministry and to Christian scholarship. I have friends and family who love me, who challenge me, who walk with me.
I grew up in the Alliance Church, was discipled by Pentecostals and the Vineyard, and find myself at home, spiritually and theologically, in the Anglican Church of Canada. I love the folks of the Metropolitan Community Churches.
Two friends of mine, respected voices in their denominations, have called me an “Evangelical progressive.”
I am a gay man.
Did I mention that I love Jesus?
I keep mentioning these two facts to people, because it usually causes what my generation and younger calls a WTF! moment (but I’ll leave the acronym unparsed, thanks!).
Recently, The Episcopal Church (TEC), the Anglican church body in the United States, approved the blessing of intended lifelong same-sex unions with official liturgical resources. They also removed any grounds for discrimination in lay positions or the process of ordination for transgender individuals. Lastly, they initiated a Church-wide study of marriage.
I have to say: I approve whole-heartedly and without reservations. This is because I believe these actions, though they are not approved of in the wider Anglican Church, are not contrary to solid Evangelical readings of Scripture; in fact, they allow people who have been unjustly persecuted and dismissed to stand on their own two feet, with the dignity that was always theirs as human beings made in the image of God. They can stand with the rest of us who have sinned, who need Jesus’ liberation, who have received the transforming Holy Spirit, and who expect with all creation the renewal of all things in Christ at the Last Day and the Resurrection of the Body.
But most people in the Anglican Communion, indeed the Christian tradition, don’t see it this way. Hence the statement of deputies from somewhere like South Carolina, who believe that TEC’s decisions are “unbiblical, unchristian, unanglican, and unseemly.” Hence the WTF moment for conservatiives. And there’s a WTF moment for my secular friends, too: “Why do you stay in a tradition that fights so hard against your recognition?”
Did I mention I love Jesus? Did I mention I want to love Jesus? Did I mention he’s the most beautiful Man I’ve ever known? He is the truest and most faithful joy of my life. None like him; no one at all.
My confidence in Jesus doesn’t mean I have no questions. It bothers me a lot that much of my tradition doesn’t have obvious and positive things to say about my life. I have the same doubts and fears about vocation and ordinary Christian living as everyone else, perhaps exacerbated, a little bit, by my anticipation of an unfair level of scrutiny whenever I speak as a gay man and a Christian at the same time. When “wrestling” with the voices around me, some of them divine, some of them human, some of them demonic, I remember the words of Martin Luther during his times of trial: “I have been baptised!”
Please, gentle reader, don’t think I write this smile-less-ly, or without any joy. But sometimes I get tired. Sometimes, it’s all I can do to stand. With Jesus, I think. Right here.
Martin Luther, again: “Here I stand; I can do no other. God help me! Amen.”