Tuesday, June 14, 2011

How to celebrate a Doctrine?

Next Sunday is Trinity Sunday--the only holy day in the Christian year that celebrates a doctrine....

Other holy days celebrate events--Pentecost, Christmas, Good Friday--and most of them celebrate people, the holy men and holy women of our faith.

But a doctrine?

It is roughly akin to throwing a party for hydrogen or a right triangle or Newton's Third Law.

Actually, I could get more excited about The Feast of Calcium or the Holy Day of Geology than I do about Trinity Sunday.

I just googled "Doctrine of the Trinity" and got 1,320,000 hits. So if you are interested in the concept and doctrine, you might check out the internet.

(An aside: today in the class I'm leading at UConn, Waterbury in the Christian Gnostic Literature, someone asked a question about something or another that was even more obscure than the obscure, arcane things I know about Christian Gnostics. So, I told them to 'google' it. Then I reflected with the class about the time, not so long ago, when people pondered and wondered and reflected about things they didn't know. Now we just google them. I've lived too long. I long for the 'good ol' days' when you had to go to a library to find out about things you didn't know and look through the card catalog. There are no card catalogs anymore. At the library in Cheshire you use a computer to find books. I miss card catalogs...the physicality of them, the thumbing through cards...the surprises you could find there--books you didn't even know you wanted to read until you happened across them in the card catalog. You don't 'happen across' things in the library computer. In fact, you have to be pretty sure what you're looking for to have a chance in hell of finding it. Like I said, I've lived too long. This Brave New Technological World isn't what I was hoping would happen next.)

A 'doctrine' is one of those things the church tells us we need to 'believe' whether it makes sense or not.

Did you know the concept of the 'Trinity' was proposed by Tertullian in the beginning of the third century? Oh, I know Jesus says Father, Son and Holy Spirit in some of the Ascension stories, but the 'doctrine' was a long time coming. Three in One and One in Three as something Christians' had to believe was finally nailed down in the Nicene Creed in the third decade of the fourth century.

Another way to look at 'doctrines' is to think of them as stuff the church 'made up' to fill in the blanks and make the faith uniform. Lots of Christians in the 4th century didn't think much of the Trinity as a doctrine. That's why it is enshrined in the Creed--to get rid of that set of heretics....The Christian Gnostics, among others, didn't buy Trinitarian thought. But after Nicea, they were on the outside looking in. Christian Gnostics weren't big on 'uniformity'. They thought you could believe all manner of things and still be in the big tent called Christianity. Gnostics were the Episcopalians of the Early Church....or, probably more accurately, the Unitarians. I spent time at the workshop I led with a Unitarian minister. Episcopalians, I used to think, were Unitarians with fancy vestments and liturgy.

It's interesting to me that we're at Nicaea again. There is a document called The Anglican Covenant that each of the 39 independent churches that make up the Anglican Communion are supposed to 'sign on to...." The Anglican Covenant would transform the Anglican Church from a church that defines itself by the way we worship into a church that defines itself doctrinally.

I want no part of it.

There's a story about a new Archbishop of Scotland back in the Middle Ages, who was informed that there was a monastery up in the Hebrides that hadn't had a bishop visit for decades. So he got on a ship and sailed up to meet them.

The monks were delighted to see him, but when he tried to lead them in the Lord's Prayer, none of them seemed to know it.

So he asked them what the four gospels were....They got John and Mark but couldn't quite hone in on Luke and Matthew.

He decided to celebrate Mass with them and they had misplaced the Altar book. When they shared bread and wine, they told him, a bit embarrassed, they simply made up the words.

The Archbishop was horrified. He taught them the Lord's Prayer, gave them a new Missal and a new Bible and instructed them to study both and he'd be back in six months to see how they were doing.

The Archbishop's ship was about a mile off shore when the monks came running out, running on the water, to talk to him.

"That prayer you taught us," one of them said, "we've already got it all muddled. Can you teach it to us again?"

The Archbishop looked down from the deck at the dozen monks standing on 200 foot deep water.

"Go back," he said. "Forget everything I told you. Just keep doing what you've been doing...."

Would that the Early Church Fathers had said that to the Gnostic Christians.

Would that the leaders of the Anglican Communion would say that to all sorts and conditions of Anglicans today.

Would that we judged folks on their fruits and not on their adherence to doctrine.

That is devoutly to be wished....

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some ponderings by an aging white man who is an Episcopal priest in Connecticut. Now retired but still working and still wondering what it all means...all of it.