Category Archives: Belief

The Trinity

Clergy usually dread Trinity Sunday – it is said that it is the day on which most heresy is preached – most of it accidentally.  So why am I voluntarily writing about it?

In my exploration of doctrine I feel that I need to start with God, and the choice seems to me to start with God, or with the Trinity.  Starting with the Trinity perhaps says something about my own theology, but I haven’t worked out what it might be yet.

Stated simply the Trinity is the belief that:

There is One God, who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

as soon as I try to say more than that there is a danger that I will fall into heresy!

You may recall in an earlier post I wrote that:

in my theology lectures and essays I learnt that the “answer” to the Trinity, how Jesus was fully human and fully divine, the problem of suffering and so much else was “I don’t know”.

If you want to know more about the Trinity you can read the Athanasian Creed (official belief in the Trinity), Wikipedia (quite complicated), the BBC (simpler, but still good), or Lutheran Satire (fun, though it may help to have read one of the others first to fully get it).

Alternatively you can accept that you haven’t got a clue how it works, but that it has been a tenet of Christian Faith for a good few hundred years!

Alan

What is Faith?

For me faith is what you get to when, after many iterations, you can no longer answer the question “why”.  Parents will know that eventually they will resort to “because I say so”, but how do adults deal with this?  “Turtles all the way down” doesn’t work in real life and at some point we have to have an initial assumption – whatever that assumption is is God for us.  If we do not believe in a God of faith we believe in something else.

For example, Richard Dawkins is famous for writing to his daughter, about how to test assumptions:

‘Is this the kind of thing that people probably know because of evidence? Or is it the kind of thing that people only believe because of tradition, authority or revelation?’

but everything is based on some assumptions, otherwise we are back to “Turtles all the way down”, and in this case he produces no evidence to prove it, but treats it as an initial assumption.

This makes the test of faith how you behave – different faiths will lead to different behaviours – the God you believe in affects your day to day living.

So, that is where I am, but there are a variety of views; some will believe that faith is the assent to a number of different propositions, for example the UCCF.

There will of course be a number of positions between the two.  Where are you?

Alan

Where do I stand

Before continuing with this series I think, having said that the Church of England is a broad church, that I need to explain where I am coming from.  Although I am trying to give a fair picture of the breadth of the Church of England, I obviously understand my own position better than those of others, and so it is only fair that you should know where that is!

I am going to do this by telling some of my story, and mentioning my most significant influences.

I grew up being taken to church by my parents and never left.  In my early teens I attended a CofE Sunday School run by a Quaker, and as I grew out of that started serving at the local church, which was a town centre low church (with an Anglo Catholic church on the edge of town), but with a new, high church, young incumbent.  This continued until I went to university.  During this time I was aware of an influenced by Hugh Montefiore (and here) and was also aware of Michael Ramsey, although I would have been quite young when he was in office.

At university I found myself struggling with what I thought of as the beliefs of the church, and might have left (I sometimes wonder if it might have been a good thing if I had, to allow me to return with my own thought through faith) if it hadn’t been for John Robinson who was Dean of Chapel, and one of the Chaplains, Bob Reiss, who recently published Sceptical Christianity.

After university, I joined a discussion group with the curate and other people in their early twenties, and we discussed Philosophy of Religion and The Myth of God Incarnate.  I liked these, but was struggling to believe that they fell within the bounds of faith.

A little later I moved to Chelmsford and attended the Cathedral, where Wesley Carr‘s sermons were always a highlight.  At this time I started to take my faith more seriously, and went to an evening prayer meeting at which, on confessing to doubts, I was told to believe or get out, the church was better off without people like me (not I hasten to add by any of the clergy).  This caused me to shut my thoughts away for the next 15 years, not examining them myself, and certainly not sharing them.

15 years later, having moved home and church, I was asked to contribute to a Good Friday 3 hours service answering the question “What does the Cross mean to you”.  This caused me to poke around among my thoughts, and I determined that above all I had to be honest, so I spoke of my doubts in a lot of doctrines (probably making the same mistakes that the speakers made on Sunday), but that during my self imposed silence it was the two great commandments:

“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.”

that had kept me coming to church.  That and a sense that there was something important that others had got that I couldn’t quite grasp, but which I wanted to.

In the run up to this talk I feared that once I had had my say that would be it, I would be drummed out of church and never able to go back.  I was therefore surprised when the vicar introduced me by saying that I was a typical Anglican (he knew what I was going to say), and even more surprised at the end of the service to be greeted effusively by lots of people who said that that is where they were, and it was so great to hear someone speaking it out loud.

As a thank you for doing this I was given a book token, and thought I would buy a religious book with it; the only book that fitted the criteria in the bookshop was Doubts and Loves, by Richard Holloway.  This reawakened my faith and I embarked on a reading frenzy, covering many authors I can’t remember, but also including Brian McLaren, particularly the New Kind of Christian, and William Barclay, particularly The New Daily Study Bible.

To cut a long story short, I then found myself training for ordination, and lots of things happened, but the most significant was that I realised that it was alright not to know the answer!  I think that in much religion people want to know the definitive answer – across all traditions – but in my theology lectures and essays I learnt that the “answer” to the Trinity, how Jesus was fully human and fully divine, the problem of suffering and so much else was “I don’t know”.  That we have to belief, but we cannot know, and indeed that every time we try to explain we are in danger of falling into heresy.

I trained on a course rather than at a college, and this meant that I met lots of God centred people who thought differently (sometimes very) to me.

As the years have passed I have also enjoyed reading Peter RollinsNadia Bolz-Weber and Dave Tomlinson.

I do not know how to categorise myself these days!  In my youth I would have identified as a liberal, but would now perhaps use post modern, although I am not necessarily sure what it means; I might be tempted by post evangelical, though feel reluctant to use it as I would never have identified as evangelical – perhaps the best thing to say is that I am me!

Alan

Source of Faith

After yesterdays post in which I set out why the Church of England is different from most other denominations, today I want to look at where the Church of England gets its beliefs from.

The Elizabethan settlement was intended to damp down religious divisions and created a Church of England in which a variety of beliefs could be accommodated.  It has been thought that Richard Hooker did much to introduce the Anglican via media so that the Church of England is often referred to as Catholic and Reformed.

Hooker formulated the Church of England’s sources of authority as coming from Scripture, Tradition and Reason, sometimes known as the “three legged stool”.

Wesley taught similarly, but introduced a fourth “leg” of Christian Experience (although it was previously  included under Reason).

The introduction of the four sources of authority, rather than the Protestant sola scriptura, meant that people could disagree by giving different weight to the different elements.  This leaves the question of how doctrine is formulated in the Church of England.  Instead of defining the answer, Anglicanism defines the method.  When a new question arises we do not believe that we have to have an answer now!  Instead different people will hold different views (legitimately) within the church, and will debate them until consensus is (or isn’t) achieved.

Sometimes this is formalised, as for example with Marriage after Divorce, where clergy are allowed to Marry a couple after divorce, but are not constrained to do so, and may refuse to do so on grounds of conscience, but often it is not and people are allowed to hold contradictory beliefs.

This provisionality of belief creates gentler boundaries to the church than those denominations which have a firm list of beliefs to be affirmed.  It is also more in keeping with an apophatic faith which accepts that there is a lot that we cannot know.

Alan

The Church of England

So today starts my writing about faith matters, and where to start?

I thought I would start with the Church of England, as that is the Church to which I have belonged all my life, and in which I now serve.  It may seem a strange place to start, but the Church of England is a church unlike any other.  Many churches will have statements of faith, often called catechisms, with which you have to agree before you can belong; for example the Westminster Catechism.  Others have a highly hierarchical structure, for example Roman Catholics with the Pope at the head.

In the Church of England we have a much looser definition of membership; for example there is at least an argument that everyone who lives in the Parish is a member of the Church of England, as they certainly have the right to a vote for Churchwardens, even if they espouse a different religion (The Churchwardens measure).  Another possible definition is membership of the electoral roll, though here the only requirements are:

(2)  A lay person shall be entitled to have his name entered on the roll of a parish if he is baptised, of sixteen years or upwards, has signed an application form for enrolment set out in Appendix I of these rules and declares himself either –

(a)  to be a member of the Church of England or of a Church in communion therewith resident in the parish; or

(b)  to be such a member and, not being resident in the parish, to have habitually attended public worship in the parish during a period of six months prior to enrolment; or

(c)  to be a member in good standing of a Church which subscribes to the doctrine of the Holy Trinity (not being a Church in communion with the Church of England) and also prepared to declare himself to be a member of the Church of England having habitually attended public worship in the parish during a period of six months prior to enrolment.

Church Representation Rules

which only objectively require someone to be 16 and baptized.

Finally there are those who regularly attend services and those who carry out God’s mission.

Unlike those churches with a very clear membership, the Church of England is as clear as mud on this!

When it comes to a hierarchy we have the Archbishops of Canterbury and York and Bishops, but they have limited power over anyone.  At ordination and licensings clergy swear:

I, NN, do swear by almighty God that I will pay true and canonical obedience to the lord bishop of DDD, [the area bishop of X] and his/their successors, in all things lawful and honest: so help me God.

Incumbent clergy can only be removed from their post for gross misconduct, not because the Bishop would like to move them on, and under the clergy discipline measure clergy cannot be disciplined for “doctrine, ritual or ceremonial“.

Why have I spent so long explaining all this?  Because it gives the Church of England its uniqueness.  A wide variety of (incompatible) views can (and are) be held by those who consider themselves members of the Church of England and that is alright – in fact in my view it is more than alright, it is essential, for if it is not the case then a church either has very strict criteria for who is in and who is out, or a hierarchy who decide this.

In the former case when people disagree the church schisms – as demonstrated by this joke, which won Ship of Fools religious joke competition a few years ago.

Alan

What do you believe?

During our services in Lent I have asked a number of people to talk about how their faith informs their work.  As I say in my introductions, a number of them have asked if they can say something slightly different, so I now have no idea who is saying what!

I have two main reasons for doing this (in no particular order):

  • I believe that most people think that others faith is stronger than their own – by persuading people to share where they are honestly it helps others in owning where they are with their own faith, and helps them feel less guilty.
  • Some people don’t actually know what they think about something until they express it (I’m one of those!), so by asking them to talk about something means that they have to think about it and discover what they really do think.

This isn’t the first time that we have done something like this, and we usually find that at the end people are saying things like “I’m so glad you said that”, or “that is what I think”.

One of the things that often comes out of these talks is how people feel free enough to question some doctrines – and the funny thing is that often the doctrines they are questioning aren’t doctrines at all, but instead things which those outside the church think are key, but which are not.  Today someone felt it necessary to say that they did not believe that the Bible was literally true – apart from Richard Dawkins and fundamentalists (who form a small proportion of the church – 5% in Europe if this reports (pdf) definition is used) this is not an issue.

A couple of thoughts come out of this for me:

  • Where does their information come from?
  • What can I do to change this?

I suspect that the information comes from the media – one of the problems is that the media likes controversy, so people saying extreme things are more interesting than those saying sensible things.  This leads to the media giving excessive attention to minority rather than mainstream views.  For example, many people will know about Westboro Baptist Church with their perverse message, but far fewer will know about the Metropolitan Community Churches with their more inclusive message.

What can I do?  It looks like I have at last found a theme for my blogging for the rest of Lent (or not!  lets see how it goes).

Alan