Updated: Aug 1
"If this turns out to be part of what the Bishops wish to say, the Communion is in deep trouble." A serious comment on a different Lambeth Call.
Even before the Lambeth Conference 2022 has begun, the ‘Lambeth Calls’ are proving controversial.
Issues of human sexuality, and the unwillingness of various Western Bishops to reaffirm biblical teaching contained in Lambeth 1998 Resolution 1:10, have already been the focus of multiple press-releases. So far so dreary and predictable. However, important as issues of human sexuality are in our day and age, buried within Lambeth Call: Reconciliation, at the start of the ‘Declaration’, is a sentence that is far more troubling: ‘We believe in God who is both three and one, who holds difference and unity in the heart of God’s being, as Father, Son and Holy Spirit’.
The Call begins with the summary statement that, ‘God’s reconciling mission is central to the ministry of the Church today. We live with difference, and it is difficult and demanding.’ There is no need to rehash the principled differences, and the ensuing difficulties, that have roiled the Communion for more than two decades. Given these sharp divisions, and Archbishop Welby’s own oft-stated commitment to reconciliation, it is unsurprising that those organising the Conference should wish to address the question.
Reconciliation, as the Call frames it, is about living with difference. At its heart is the belief that the differences experienced in the Communion ‘both challenge and deepen our experience of God in the other’, and are to be ‘celebrated and redeemed’. For, precisely in the ‘diverse whole’ of the Communion in its ‘difficult and demanding’ differences, ‘we more fully reflect the image of God’.
Thus, difference, and the ability to live with sometimes deep and pain difference, is celebrated: this is what reconciliation is. This is what it means more fully to reflect the image of God.
The Call seeks to ground its understanding of the Church’s ministry of reconciliation in God’s reconciling mission in Christ. This is described as God reaching out in the Son and taking on human flesh, and thus ‘embodying and reconciling with humanity in a unique way’. It is startling that there is no mention here, or elsewhere in the Call, of the cross of Christ by which our sins are forgiven and we are reconciled to God, and in Christ to one another (Rom 5:1f; Eph 2:14-16). It is also noteworthy that the Holy Spirit is mentioned as empowering the Church’s ministry of reconciliation, but not in relation to God’s work of uniting us to Christ and so reconciling us to himself and one another (Eph 2:19). Similarly, in terms of the application of this reconciling work, there is silence on the need for preaching the message of reconciliation (2 Cor 5:18-21; Eph 2:17). Rather, what is urged is the ‘reconciling habits’ of ‘being curious, being present, and reimagining’. In this focus on human habits, we are a long way from that central passage on reconciliation, Ephesians 2:11-22. And a long way from the reconciling gospel of God’s grace in Christ crucified, which we find in the teaching of 1 Peter (e.g., 2:24-25; 3:18), which the Calls purport to apply.
We are also a long way from what ‘the Christian Church has always taught about these matters’, despite the claim that this is what the ‘Declaration’ sections of the Lambeth Calls are for.
However, as weak as this section is, it is not the deepest problem with the Declaration. For, in its first sentence, the Declaration seeks to ground the Church’s ministry of reconciliation in the inner life of the God whose image we are more fully to reflect: ‘We believe in God who is both three and one, who holds difference and unity in the heart of God’s being, as Father, Son and Holy Spirit.’
Let’s consider for a moment a series of questions raised by this sentence.
First, what is meant here by ‘difference’? In what way(s) do the Father, Son and Holy Spirit differ from one another? At best this needs to be specified far more carefully. Are they three distinct people who somehow come together to make up a united whole? Is there even a difference that somehow needs to be overcome, or maintained, such that it is ‘held’ in the heart of God’s being. Do the persons of the Trinity somehow maintain, or need to maintain, a reconciled unity? This question is all the more pressing when the way God holds ‘unity’ and ‘difference’ in the heart of his being is viewed as the paradigm for the Communion’s experience of holding together and redeeming ‘difficult’ and ‘demanding’ differences, by which we are enriched, and in which ‘we more fully reflect the image of God’.
Secondly, given this sense of difference, what kind of ‘unity’ is in view when we consider the unity of God? Is the unity of Father, Son and Holy Spirit in any way in tension with God’s difference, so that they must be ‘held’ together in God’s being?
And thirdly, how do these attributes of ‘unity’ and difference’ relate to God’s being itself? This is not at all clear. But it is at least possible to understand that the ‘unity’ and ‘difference’ of Father, Son and Spirit are somehow extrinsic or non-essential to God’s being, needing as they do to be ‘held’ in its ‘heart’. If this is not what is meant, the relationship urgently needs to be clarified.
One, significant, problem is that this sentence, which concerns the heart of our faith, the identity of God himself, is so vague it could mean a range of things. Of itself, this is not an encouraging observation about teaching on the Trinity in an official Church document. But it seems to follow a familiar pattern in late-twentieth and early-twenty-first centuries when speaking of the Trinity. Rather than carefully and modestly articulating the doctrine as ‘the Christian Church has always taught about these matters’ as a description of the identity of the God we trust and worship—the doctrine has often been deployed as a buttress for an ethical or social programme. This has taken many forms (which of itself should alert us that something has gone astray).
Surveying much trinitarian theology of the past 50 years, it’s almost like you can say anything about the Trinity, as long as it supports the social outcome you want. Sadly, this has been true of evangelicals as well as revisionists. Do you think hierarchy is always bad? I have good news for you: the Father, Son and Spirit are a happy community of equals. Or do you think that wives should submit to their husbands? Well, I have good news for you: in the same way wives are to submit to their husbands, God the Son eternally submits to the God the Father, and yet is his equal. Or maybe you think relationships are important, and often missing in our contemporary individualistic world? Good news! The Father, Son and Spirit are a very loving community. Or perhaps, in our fragmented Church and world you think reconciliation is important? Great! The Trinity is all about unspecified unity in difference, held in the heart of God’s being as Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
But this way of formulating the doctrine of the Trinity, and using God to support a social programme, is a long way from what ‘the Christian Church has always taught about these matters’.
The Church has always taught that God is an end in himself, indeed, the chief and highest end of humanity, to be known and loved, trusted and worshipped simply for himself. And this true God is one substance existing in three persons.
Article I of the Church of England’s XXXIX Articles captures well what ‘the Christian Church has always taught about these matters’: ‘There is but one living and true God, everlasting, without body, parts, or passions; of infinite power, wisdom, and goodness; the Maker, and Preserver of all things both visible and invisible. And in unity of this Godhead there be three Persons, of one substance, power, and eternity; the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost.’
Similarly, following the Nicene Creed, Article II states that the Son is ‘the very and eternal God and of one substance with the Father’, and Article V affirms that the Holy Spirit is also ‘of one substance, majesty, and glory, with the Father and the Son, very and eternal God.’
Thus, the Articles teach the Holy Trinity’s consubstantial (one substance) unity and simplicity (God is not composed of parts). The only distinctions within the Godhead are the relational distinctions of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. In keeping with orthodox trinitarian theology, Articles II and V describe these distinctions solely in terms of what are called the relations of origin. The Son is defined by being ‘eternally begotten of the Father’, the Spirit is defined by the fact that he ‘proceeds’ eternally from the Father and the Son. It is not stated explicitly in the Articles, but, it can reasonably be inferred (as we shall see) that the Father is defined by being unoriginate, of no one.
The catholicity of Anglicanism’s historic teaching on the Trinity can be further seen from the place accorded to the Nicene Creed, in Article VIII, and by being said or sung at Holy Communion in the Book of Common Prayer (and in other Anglican liturgies).
More striking still, however, is the honoured place given to the so-called Athanasian Creed (a.k.a., the Quicunque Vult, after the first two words of the Creed in Latin). This, we are instructed, alongside the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds ‘ought thoroughly to be received and believed: for they may be proved by most certain warrants of holy Scripture.’ (Article VIII). This respect for the Athanasian is no dead letter: the BCP requires that ‘this confession of our Christian faith’ be sung or said at Morning Prayer thirteen times during the year (Upon these Feasts; Christmas Day, the Epiphany, Saint Matthias, Easter Day, Ascension Day, Whitsunday, Saint John Baptist, Saint James, Saint Bartholomew, Saint Matthew, Saint Simon and Saint Jude, Saint Andrew, and upon Trinity Sunday). This means that roughly every month, loyal Anglicans should confess their faith in these words. And we should do so understanding that it is thoroughly biblical, for, as Article VIII teaches, it ‘may be proved by most certain warrants of Holy Scripture’.
Right out of the gate, as in the Articles, the Creed of Athanasius emphasises the consubstantiality (oneness of substance) of Father, Son and Holy Spirit:
‘And the Catholick Faith is this: That we worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity;
Neither confounding the Persons: nor dividing the Substance.’
This unity of substance means that:
‘Such as the Father is, such is the Son: and such is the Holy Ghost.
The Father uncreate, the Son uncreate: and the Holy Ghost uncreate.
The Father incomprehensible, the Son incomprehensible: and the Holy Ghost incomprehensible.
The Father eternal, the Son eternal: and the Holy Ghost eternal.
And yet they are not three eternals: but one eternal.
And yet they are not three eternals: but one eternal.
As also there are not three incomprehensibles, nor three uncreated: but one uncreated, and one incomprehensible.’
In contrast to ‘Lambeth Call: Reconciliation’, there is no difference here that needs to be held together within the being of God. Because God is simple (not composed of parts, not a lego-block God), all that is in God just is the being of the One God. He is one eternal, one incomprehensible, one uncreated. Similarly, ‘there are not three Almighties, but one, not three Gods but one God, not three Lords but one Lord.’
This means that within the unity of the Godhead there is but one life, one will, one power, one wisdom. To affirm otherwise would be to divide the Substance, and so either to deny the divinity of the Son and the Spirit, or to fall (inadvertently, perhaps, but nevertheless to fall) into tritheism.
This does not mean that there is absolutely no differentiation within the being of the One God. No! We do not divide the Substance. But neither do we confound the Persons. And so the Athanasian Creed, having emphasised the ineffable unity of Father, Son and Holy Spirit in the one being of God, then likewise emphasises their relational distinction. But it does so by describing the relations of origin. This, and this alone, is what distinguishes for us the three Persons of the Holy Trinity in the eternal being of God:
‘The Father is made of none: neither created, nor begotten.
The Son is of the Father alone: not made, nor created, but begotten.
The Holy Ghost is of the Father and of the Son: neither made, nor created, nor begotten, but proceeding.
So there is one Father, not three Fathers; one Son, not three Sons: one Holy Ghost, not three Holy Ghosts.
And in this Trinity none is afore, or after other: none is greater, or less than another;
But the whole three Persons are co-eternal together: and co-equal.’
There is no hint here of a balancing act between ‘difference’ and ‘unity’ in the One Being of the Triune God. There is nothing that needs to be held together in ‘the heart of his being’. There just is the One God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, the Father eternally begetting the Son, the Son eternally begotten; the Spirit proceeding eternally from Father and Son.
In the words of the Lambeth Calls, this is what ‘the Christian Church has always taught about these matters’. Or, in the words of the Athanasian Creed itself, this is the ‘Catholick [i.e., universal] faith’ of the Christian Church. Further, as the Articles instruct us, this is true biblical teaching. It would therefore be no small thing for the Bishops of the Church, who are called under Christ to be our chief teachers and shepherds, carelessly to depart from it.
The Calls are described as ‘What the Bishops of the Anglican Communion at Lambeth Conference 2022 will want to say about a key issue for the Church and the world.’ If this turns out to be part of what the Bishops wish to say, the Communion is in deep trouble. One of the mythologies that has grown among some of the orthodox within the Church of England is that, although the Church of England is far more divided that ever before over issues of sexuality, and the House of Bishops less reliable in defending the truth of Scripture on this issue, it is also far more creedally orthodox than would have been the case in the 1960s. At first glance, this little sentence we have been considering may seem like a small thing. But if it is accepted by the Bishops at Lambeth 2022, this one sentence would explode that claim to orthodoxy. It would suggest that the Bishops of the Communion are either not competent to teach and defend the faith, because they cannot spot so serious an error, or that they could do so if they wished, but choose not to.
Perhaps someone might object that this is just one sentence, perhaps carelessly drafted, in just one Call. Surely to fuss about it is to strain at gnats, to promote yet more difficulty and division rather than peace and reconciliation?
To which I reply: such a response would be one more piece of evidence that we are in dire straits indeed.
In the words of the theologian David Wells, in our day, God has become weightless. The greatness, majesty, goodness, holiness, righteousness, glory and love of the Holy Trinity, which so captivated our Christian forebears, does not bear down upon our thoughts and desires and loves with the weight that is rightfully his and his alone.
In comparison with the identity of the Triune God, the weighty and vital, Communion-straining and -shattering, issues of fidelity to Scriptural teaching on human sexuality, are light indeed. For, as the Athanasian Creed warns us at the beginning:
‘Whoseoever will be saved: before all things it is necessary that he hold the Catholick Faith.
Which Faith except every one do keep whole and undefiled: without doubt he shall perish everlastingly.’
And, again, at the end:
‘This is the Catholick Faith: which except a man believe faithfully, he cannot be saved.’
If the Bishops of the Anglican Communion—if even the orthodox Bishops of the Anglican Communion—are unwilling or unable to teach and defend this faith, our problems run far deeper than many fear.
In the words of the Collect for Trinity Sunday, we would do well to pray for the Bishops of the Anglican Communion, those at Lambeth 2022 and those absent:
Almighty and everlasting God, who hast given unto us thy servants grace, by the confession of a true faith to acknowledge the glory of the eternal Trinity, and in the power of the Divine Majesty to worship the Unity: We beseech thee, that thou wouldest keep us stedfast in this faith, and evermore defend us from all adversities, who livest and reignest, one God, world without end. Amen.