Thursday, 11 February 2016

Living Out the Trinity in the Church of England

Living Out is co-ordinated by "three Christian leaders who experience same sex attraction", namely Sam Allberry, Sean Doherty and Ed Shaw, who were all elected to the General Synod of the Church of England in 2015, for the first time. Their website exists "to help Christian brothers and sisters who experience same-sex attraction", while teaching that "sex must be between a man and a woman".

Here I wish to consider one of the arguments on the website in support of this teaching, which is drawn from "the relationship between the persons of the Trinity":
"The difference between women and men is the way humanity reflects or represents God. The Father and the Son and the Spirit are all fundamentally different to one another, and yet fundamentally united to one another. God is not a solitary individual, but a relational, interdependent being. And at our most fundamental level, we reflect that." 
Sam Allberry makes the same point in his book Is God anti-gay?:
"Marriage is a wonderful God-given way for humanity to reflect the unity and diversity that is seen in the Trinity. God’s oneness is not sameness, as though the three persons of the Trinity were identical to one another. It is unity in difference, not uniformity. And the same is true of the union of a man and a woman." (Kindle Locations 171-172)
Sean Doherty (Lecturer in Ethics at St Mellitus College) develops the argument more fully in his book The Only Way is Ethics - QUILTBAG: Jesus and Sexuality:
"What is the most important thing about God? When I teach on sexuality, I usually start with this question… Sooner or later, we hit the answer. Here it is. The most important thing about God is: God is ‘Triune’." (Kindle Locations 114-117)
"So, being male and female, being sexual, is how we are like God, because God is fundamentally different persons in fundamental unity. Similarly, women and men are fundamentally different, yet fundamentally the same." (Kindle Locations 126-128)
"But in the Trinity, and in Genesis, difference does not hinder union, but enables it. It is precisely the difference between Father and Son which makes their relationship one of perfect fatherhood and sonship. And it is precisely the difference between women and men, including the physical genital difference, that enables them to be truly physically united into ‘one flesh’ through sexual intercourse (Genesis 2:18)." (Kindle Locations 135-137)
"If sexual difference is not relevant for sexual union, even our account of God as Trinity, real difference within perfect union, is affected. If we keep pulling the thread, we may be shocked at how long it is, and how much of the jumper ends up coming out with it." (Kindle Locations 309-310)
How does this measure against classical Trinitarian theology?

The central point made above is that "God is fundamentally different persons". It is true that the Father is not the Son, and the Son is not the Spirit, and the Father is not the Spirit. It may also be said that this distinction is fundamental to God, simply because there is nothing that is true of God’s nature that is not fundamental to God. Everything that God is, he essentially is.

However, it is also true that the Father is God, the Son is God, and the Spirit is God. As the Nicene Creed says of the Son, "God of God... Being of one substance with the Father". When this homoousios (of one substance) is considered, a proscription against homosexual relations hardly follows. While expounding Aquinas, Herbert McCabe made it especially clear: "The only thing that distinguishes them [Father and Son] is that they are at opposite ends of a relationship" (Silence and the Word, p. 89).

A case for same sex relationships cannot be read directly from the Trinity either. The deeper problem here is at the level of method. Social Trinitarianism, which seeks to draw parallels between the life of the Trinity and the ideal shape of human community, was developed in the 20th century and became popular, but there is now increasing awareness of its problems (Sarah Coakley, Karen Kilby and Rowan Williams have all expressed concerns. to name a few).

As illustrated above, it is possible to derive contradictory conclusions from Trinitarian doctrine, depending on where you start (and end). It is a feature of this approach that there is remarkable agreement between the predisposition of the theologian and the social model observed.

It is necessary to be clear about the purpose of Trinitarian formulae. Karen Kilby helpfully says that the doctrine serves not to diminish our incomprehension, but to intensify it. The doctrine is not an analysis of God. It is a way of holding certain beliefs together, yet through their apparent contradictions, the inadequacy of all our language and categories of thought is manifested.

God cannot be an item for our inspection, not because he is too distant, but because he is too close. The Holy Trinity is the context and ground of our being, the life in which we are immersed and with which we are filled. "His everlasting act is as little capable of being a determinate object to our minds as the wind in our faces and lungs can be held still and distant in front of our eyes" (Rowan Williams, Arius, p. 242).

Gradually the early Church found that Trinitarian language was necessary to do justice to God’s action which had been experienced in Jesus Christ. The priority of that experience is significant. Through the Spirit, they found themselves living as a new community, with a radical social order. The new life led to the embryonic language of the New Testament (and later the more developed language of the Creeds), not vice versa.

The Spirit draws us first to contemplation of God (rather different from study of a doctrine about God) and attentiveness to each other. Rowan Williams explains in some recently published lectures how Paul, in relation to both prayer and ethics, is "a ‘Trinitarian’ thinker, even though he does not use this vocabulary". Paul’s approach is a challenge to the self-centred ways of "careful rigorism" or "adventurous liberalism". His ethics starts from "the vision of Spirit-led mutuality, working out how the body is built up and the life of God made manifest". (Meeting God in Paul, pp. 69,74-76).

That is Trinitarian ethics - not using a doctrine of God (or a written law, or an individual experience) to make a shortcut, but discerning together, in the Spirit, as a body, what serves the common life.

How does this help with the question addressed by Living Out? In an interview on ethics in 2013, Rowan Williams outlined the same reading of Paul and applied it to sexuality:
"I think the real argument, the really interesting and important argument, is about whether it’s possible for people with same sex attraction to lead lives that show the same kind of selfless valuing of the other, the same kind of costly fidelity, as heterosexual relationships do. That’s the really interesting question."*
Just three months earlier, in a BBC interview made immediately prior to his enthronement at Canterbury, Justin Welby contributed towards an answer:
"You see gay relationships that are just stunning in the quality of the relationship."
*Interview by Anthony D Baker and Scott Bader-Saye for the Theology Studio website, 24 June 2013, at one time available here.


  1. Thank you for this article, Mark - thought provoking.

    It seem to me that the 'hinge' of your argument (following McCabe) is the idea that Father and Son, both being God, are effectively interchangeable as Persons. To my (admittedly non scholarly) mind that sounds quite a stretch. Father, Son and Holy Spirit are all God, but different Persons. It wasn't the Father who came to Earth; the Holy Spirit, not Jesus, came at Pentecost; and so on.

    Given that humanity is made in the image of God, and Gen 1:27 strongly implies that the male-female diversity is integral to that, isn't it reasonable to say that a male-female relationship best captures the dynamic we're looking for? A man and a woman - both human in the way that Father, Son and Spirit are all God; but also different - if you like, a '2D' representation of different Personhood we see within the Godhead.

    What are your thoughts?

    1. Thanks for the response, Peter.
      Interestingly, Aquinas considered the question of whether any one of the persons of the Trinity could have been made incarnate and concluded that they could but that it was "fitting" for the Son to be incarnate.
      It is easy to slip into thinking of the Trinity as there being three parts to God, or three individual persons. God is "without parts" (Article 1) and while the Son became incarnate, he was fully God, and it was the whole of God active and present in his life.
      Augustine said that we use the word "person" not because we know what we are saying but in order not to be reduced to silence.
      I think the more we grasp that God is not a thing, not an instance of deity, not three instances of deity, not a member of any category, not conceivable as a community of persons, then the more "using" the infinite Trinity as a direct model for human society feels like idolatry.

      I think it's pushing it to say Gen 1.27 strongly implies that the male-female diversity is integral to being made in the image of God. The text doesn't directly make the link at all. It may be part of it but not the whole image.

      Your 2D representation is interesting because if you consider most 3D bodies, they can be projected into 2D in many different ways. Add lots - infinite - dimensions - and the variety is endless. Not to say that anything goes, but an illustration of the flawed method.

  2. Thanks Mark - I think that some of the aspects you've touched on show how theology can lead us into worship and awe. I really must read some serious theology this Lent, with serious worship resulting!

    No I accept that there's no direct link in the text between the statements of mankind being made in God's image (which from my rusty biblical studies I remember is a chiasm, so our being made in God's image is very much emphasised) - and the subsequent statement of God making humans male and female and the subsequent blessing and instruction to be fruitful and increase in number. There is a sense of tension (perhaps 'space' is the better word) that means we should be cautious about rather wooden one-to-one correlations. Nevertheless, of all the comments that the author could have chosen to follow on, it is interesting and surely significant that they choose that particular one. Of course the writer wasn't thinking of same-sex marriage or the issues that we wrestle with today, but there is a sense that these few verses form a lot of our theological landscape, and give a strong connection between the physical and heavenly worlds.

    I suppose I'm a rather suspicious of arguments that connect God's infinite nature (not to say His grace and love) with what seem to me like a dilution of our physical masculinity and femininity and call to use those for (pro)creative purposes. Yes there are infinite perspectives but let's not draw too far away from the one the Lord has actually given us here.

  3. A perceptive and helpful analysis of the Living Out argument, Mark: thank you. To my mind, the concept of the Trinity is simply a model for our understanding: it's the best explanation the church has been able to come up with for a God revealed and experienced as Father, Son and Holy Spirit; but I'm in no doubt that it falls far short of the transcendent reality.

    It's a holding place that works for our limited minds and any attempts to draw from it must be provisional at best: to use it as Living Out have tried to is folly.