A sermon preached on Trinity Sunday, 22 May 2016 by Canon Robert Titley, Treasurer
‘We are failing to pass on the gospel to younger generations.’ The Bishop of Salisbury was quoting Professor Linda Woodhead in his final Sarum Lecture last week. Bishop Nicholas had made a persuasive case for not swallowing whole the received story of decline in the Church of England, but there was no ducking the most recent figures when it came to younger people: 60% of over-sixties identified themselves as CofE; only 10% of those under thirty did so.
There are different theories about why this is happening. Here are two, pundits commenting on the religious bits of the 2011 Census, which presented a similar picture. First, Telegraph columnist Damian Thompson.
I took one look at the figures and thought: OMG. That’s short for ‘Oh My God’, in case you didn’t know. It’s an acronym popularised by young people on Twitter.
(This for any Telegraph readers not down with the kids.) The culprits? Damian’s choices were odd.
Take a bow, Anglican and Catholic bishops…I don’t know if the British Humanist Association hands out awards, but you certainly deserve one – a statuette of Polly Toynbee, say, for untiring efforts to water down the Christian message to the point where it’s not worth believing in.
Oh, and church schools. If RE lessons are all about turning kids into 'climate change ambassadors', he said, no wonder they find it so easy to brush aside the supernatural claims of faith when they grow up. Damian admits he can go over the top: his own Twitter account announces that Anglican paper The Church Times once called him a 'blood-crazed ferret'.
Now his Guardian opposite number, Andrew Brown. He too quoted Linda Woodhead in his claim that there was no national decline in religion, just a big gap 'between the values of the church and the values of the population'; or, more precisely, between 'clergy and lay ministers' and everyone else. Brown had in mind the positon we were then in over women bishops - now resolved - but it could as easily have been same-sex relationships - still unresolved - both of which have made the church look to outsiders (especially younger people) as mean and weird.
Both commentators note the shrinking numbers of younger people, both agree that the church seems irrelevant to most of that constituency, but one says we should solve the problem by getting more supernatural, while the other wants us to get more with the programme of modernity.
Today's festival of the Trinity is a good test for these two theories. The Christian belief that God is three in one, Father, Son and Spirit, could be an example of the distance between the management (who get hung up on this stuff) and everyone else (who doesn't); or it could be just the kind of supernatural belief that we need to be bolder about. On the face of it, it may seem an example of that knack the church has of making things more complicated and remote than they need to be. But how remote is it?
St Paul this morning writes about suffering, which is not remotely remote. It’s a melancholy truth that a preacher intending to talk about suffering can be pretty sure that the news will supply fresh examples - today it’s the loss of the EgyprAir flight - and that's before you think of the more intimate suffering (or own or that of those near to us) in the congregation’s hearts. It's good that we hear Paul's words in a service where we can each receive the ministry of laying on of hands and anointing.
Paul, as his letters show, is no stranger to suffering himself, and he can face it without despair because of what he knows of God. A faith that can withstand pain and ill treatment must have a strong picture of God, of God’s character and purpose, and for Paul that picture is Jesus: his suffering and death, his life.
Yet there is in a sense a certain pastness about Jesus. Paul is writing - what? - twenty-odd years after Jesus’ death, long after the intoxicating experiences of the first Easter. That opening chapter of the Christian story is closed. In this sense Paul is closer to us than he is to the disciples who knew Jesus ‘in the days of his flesh’ (Hebrew 5.7). Paul writes, though, not with wistfulness but with hope and thankfulness: he knows God now, within his own life, because (he says) his heart is filled with God’s Holy Spirit. For Paul, those words in John’s gospel about the Spirit of truth revealing all that Jesus shares with his Father - things that the disciples were not yet ready to receive - have now come true.
Paul has no theory of the Trinity. He simply knows he has met God three times: as the source of all that is, as the one whose love shines in the face of Jesus, as that presence in him which makes his life a conversation between the human and the divine. Paul is still Paul - yet he is conscious of being more than Paul: he says that when he does something it is Jesus the Son of God working through him; and when he prays, it’s the Spirit of God in his heart that prays, offering God back to God. (Galatians 2.20, Romans 8.15-16)
Have you never felt even a little like that? Think of a time when for no obvious reason you gave someone a ring - and it was exactly what they needed. Or when you were in an interview and you’re usually not good at interviews but on that occasion it all just - flowed. And you said to yourself, ‘It was me that did it, yet it wasn’t: it was - “given” to me to do. I said those things - yet the words were sort of spoken through me.’ Such moments are glimpses of what our lives are for. And where is God in such a moment? Up in heaven? In your mind? Somewhere between you and that person you helped by what you said? Or all three?
Trinity Sunday does not give us a Sunday supplement puzzle to solve about God (answer in next week's edition). It is a call to notice what is already true for you: to recognise that the love of God is the river that flows round you, the air that you breathe, the food that keeps your soul alive. And it’s an invitation to say Yes to all of that: to breathe more deeply, to eat rather than nibble, to dive in out of your depth.
Does this sound remote? Is it irrelevant if you're under thirty? There are things that get in the way of people - younger and older - becoming truly part of the People of God, and we need to find out what they are and change them. But the richness of the life of God isn't one of them.
There was a man once who met God. He would go on to be one of the great Christian thinkers. He would write a gigantic book on the Trinity, and people would still be writing books about him over 1500 years after his death (two have come out this month). Back in the year 386, though, all that lay ahead. Of that day when he met God he would write, 'Late, too late have I loved you, O Beauty so ancient and so new.' He was St Augustine, and he was 31 years old.