In this final installment, I’ll respond to the third question posed in this article posted by the Commission on the MCC (Metropolitan Community Churches) Statement of Faith.
How might thinking about the Trinity as a relational community help you see God?
The first time I understood that the doctrine of the Trinity had practical consequences for my Christian imagination, I was reading about “God is Love.” In order for that to be true, this theologian was saying (though I can’t remember his name), God would need to have a communal relationship with Godself, if God was also self-sufficient (a conviction shared across Judaism, Islam, and Christianity). Because God is One but not Three in Judaism or Islam, our sibling faiths could say that God is “loving,” but not that God is Love, because love is relationship of dependence at some level. I grasped with deep satisfaction that God does not have an ego problem that temporarily subsides when I sing my favourite worship song. In fact, I have learned over the years that because the Godhead is truly love and truly free, I have tremendous, joyful responsibility–and even authority–in the Earth, because this amazing God, known especially in the face of Jesus, has called me ‘friend’ rather than ‘slave.’ Trying to think about the grandeur of that calling makes my skin crawl. I believe it, and yet I can barely lean in to it–it is too wonderful for me.
I’ve always been comfortable with Father, Son, and Spirit as the names for the hypostases of God. But thanks to some very careful thinking by progressive Anglican theologians (and to a lesser extent, Evangelical feminists), I realised I needed to expand the names I give the Sacred Three. Why? Not only because Christians could understand the Persons as a patriarchal hierarchy (which I believe goes against the grain of the Scriptural witnesses taken together), but because given that the Spirit is fully God, I need names that express “her” relationships to the other two persons! We call the first person Father and the second Son, but what name do we give the relationship between the Father and the Spirit, or the Son and the Spirit? Personally, one of my favourite names for the Trinity is “My Most Wild Lover” (which paradoxically implies a polyamorous and faithful relationship), and one of my favourite names for the Holy Spirit in particular is (along with St Francis of Assisi), my Little Sister. I have been experimenting lately with calling the Persons Lover, Beloved, and Witness.
When we expand the names and potential genders of the Sacred Three, however, I think there are two models that we should likely avoid: the Trinity as a nuclear family (sometimes common among evangelical feminists who want to exclude queer experience from serious theological reflection) and the Trinity as incestuous menage-a-trois (suggested, not-quite-in-jest, by Stephen Moore in his book God’s Beauty Parlor. (Though fantasy and role-play in many queer subcultures does not really have serious incestuous overtones, I think it is well-established in the helping professions that the vast majority of incestuous relationships within families of origin cause deep harm to the participants, especially because there is usually a victimizing power differential, and also the tendency to confuse or stunt the safety, guidance, and friendship necessary for a holistic sense of self and good personal boundaries to emerge or heal–even well into adulthood.)
I look forward to expanding my language around the Trinity and the persons, but I also want to caution against what the ancient Church called modalism. (If I am guilty of modalism, I hope someone will gently point it out to me!) For example: to invoke “Creator, Christ, and Holy Spirit,” for example, is proper for the latter two persons; Creator, however, is a role that belongs properly to all three (and tends to imply, when used interchangeably for Father, that the other two persons are not Creator). Likewise with Creator, Redeemer, and Sanctifier: The Sacred Three are all involved in these processes as the One God.
It continues to move me more than I can say that by offering the Church (and me!) theosis or divinization, we are invited to be surrounded by and to participate (in) God’s own life! (Think about that for a moment. What if that’s not a weak metaphor? What if that’s going to happen when we are raised from the dead?)
The power of this God in the Church today is the source of establishing, maintaining, and repairing just relationships; when all things are made new, our relationships with ourselves, others, creation, and God will receive depth, healing, and permanence the likes of which I can barely understand. And if the Godhead is paradoxically a community, and I am the image of that God, I need community in order to be fully human (which is what Genesis 2 says anyway). Perhaps it’s even more accurate, in the biblical context, to say that my individuality emerges from the community. Allegedly Enlightened modernity gave us the opposite conception, which might give us the opportunity to resist certain kinds of oppression, but also bequeaths to us the assumption that even something as central to God’s plans as the Body of Christ is, at rock bottom, only (!) a voluntary association of which we can opt in or out at will.
I am not the first Christian mystic to wonder that if grounded and loving orgasm with other human beings can open us up powerfully to the action of God in this life, what will the intimacy of the next life be, especially if, according to Jesus in Matthew, in the Kingdom there will be no marrying or giving in marriage? Personally, I don’t think there will be any loss, but only strong gains: lacking patriarchal marriage does not mean lacking deep and provocative intimacy with others. (Theologian Elizabeth Stuart even has the courage to ask, “Is there sex in heaven?” in one of her excellent essays.)
If the Triune God represents perfect mutuality and intimacy into which I’m invited, I also understand that all hierarchies in this world (even if they appear long-standing) are ad hoc. They are not ontological, but functional. And I dare to speculate even further, though I don’t know whether I have a firm opinion about the following: Even though I am a creature, distinct not only in grade but in kind from the Creator (take that, Duns Scotus!), eventually the distinction may not matter in any functional sense. Meister Eckhardt and several other Christian mystics seem to suggest that if all of humanity is in perfect communion with God, one can easily imagine that though there will be “self,” and resurrected bodies, do we need to make sure we know where I stop and God begins?
This concludes my reflections (for now!) on the three questions put to interested parties by the Commission on the Statement of Faith. I hope some folks will find it useful and life-giving. I offer the paragraph below as one summary of “where my heart is” as I try to answer these questions (and to deliberately, and gently, call those with deeply problematic views of the Trinity into loving conversation (and perhaps mutual understanding, if not agreement!).
The doctrine of the Trinity, which shapes and even explains much of my own life and testimony, has a kind of bizarre and explosive beauty about it, which touches almost every aspect of my Christian experience (and that of the Church throughout the ages). Making it optional, or discounting it altogether–as some are in the habit of doing, even among ordained leadership!–will cause the MCC to lose most of the truly queer imaginative resources available within the Christian tradition. In a phrase: How boring. How much better, I think, to find ways of leaning into a relational understanding of the one God, who makes humankind in the Divine image (without, it should be noted, making humans inherently divine, but only by gift) and calls us, in Christ by the Spirit’s power, to clear the way for the fully realised and present Commonwealth of God. That amazing biblical and theological vision–should we tune our hearts to it–is the truest substance of calling ourselves a Human Rights Church; but calling ourselves such a Church without Trinitarian resources risks capitulation to ill-thought-out political fads and anemic Western liberal responses to the deep human needs to which MCC feels the call to respond.
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!
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!