St Mary’s 16/6/19 Trinity Sunday 8am, 9.30am, 10.45am
(Proverbs 8.1-4,22-31) Romans 5.1-5 John 16.12-15
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Today is Trinity Sunday and for churches affiliated to the Royal School of Church Music, like us, it is Music Sunday. That’s a happy combination and it’s worth us reflecting on the music across all our morning services, including the choir, the 9.30 worship band and the 8 o’clock silence.
We may talk intelligently about music, how it is constructed and how it works, but ultimately, music has to be performed and listened to. It is a practice, and the words about it are never a substitute or an exhaustive account. As Rowan Williams once said, if someone were to ask what a piece of music means, in the end, all you can say is, ‘Listen to it again’.
It’s of the essence of music that it goes beyond words. Music is a sign that there is truth which our language and logic cannot grasp. Part of the point of church singing is that it’s a way of showing that the words themselves aren’t adequate. The practice of worship is something far more than rehearsing facts and propositions. It reaches down into the depths of our being and up towards the transcendence of God.
And when we think of the Holy Trinity, we acknowledge a truth which our words will always fail to grasp. What matters is the practice. The epistle describes our life in God: peace with the Father through our Lord Jesus Christ and hearts filled with the love of God by the Holy Spirit. In the Gospel, Jesus tells his disciples that everything belonging to the Father belongs to him, and that the Spirit will make all that known to us – not head knowledge as a set of facts, but knowledge in our lives as love and hope and peace.
The doctrine of the Holy Trinity is not a theory devised by theologians. The root of it is the experience of the first disciples of Jesus and of the early Church. They became new people. They were set free. They were gathered from all nations. They experienced now the future life of the kingdom.
This was salvation and they knew that only God could save. Therefore the action and being of Christ and of his Spirit must be nothing less than the action and being of God.
And so gradually over the couple of centuries after the New Testament books had been written, the Church found itself confessing that its faith is in God who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit. One God in three persons. And as Augustine wrote, we say ‘persons’, not because we know what we are saying, but in order not to remain silent. The Father, Son and Holy Spirit are not individual personalities. There are no parts in God. God is not composed of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. When we speak of the Father, we speak of all the fullness of God, God without remainder. Similarly, we say without qualification that the Son is God and the Spirit is God. But we also say that the Father is not the Son, and the Son is not the Spirit, and the Father is not the Spirit. Together this expresses that in God there is no division, confusion, hierarchy, or subordination, and that the very being of God is love – the love and grace and fellowship of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
We say all that, not pretending to understand or explain God but to hold in place some very practical truth about our faith and worship. That God is not an isolated individual, in any way distant or separated from us. But that in Jesus Christ we are by faith drawn into the life of God, standing in Christ’s place, indwelt by his Spirit, knowing his Father as our Father.
It’s therefore worth thinking about how our music helps us to draw near and be open to the divine life. Starting with the 8 o’clock service where there is no music. Or should I say that there are three pieces of music: before the service starts, at the offertory, and during the administration of communion. And each of these pieces is silence. The beginning and end of music.
I remember making a schoolboy error at theological college when I had to write an essay on worship in the book of Revelation. There’s a verse which says there was silence in heaven for the space of half an hour. And I described it as an absence of worship. It brought out the red pen.
Silence in public places can be hard to find nowadays but it’s where our worship must begin and end, and sometimes stay. If we believe that the triune God is the source and means and end of our worship, then we should trust that when we are silent and still, opening ourselves to God, using no words, then prayer is happening. Prayer is happening because God is happening, before we’ve actively done anything at all.
And our music ends in silence, often the most poignant moment. I sometimes think the quality of a piece at our lunchtime concerts is in proportion to the length of the silence between the music ending and the applause beginning. As long as the applause does eventually come. In our worship, the music stops, but God’s silent action goes on, and we go out to love and serve caught up in that divine life.
At 10.45 we have a mixture of congregational hymns and choir pieces. All is the worship of the whole body. When the choir sing an anthem it’s not just the choir’s worship. Their music enables our worship. That’s why we don’t applaud at the end. The focus is on God and the choir do us a wonderful service by enabling and lifting our devotion.
One of today’s hymns is an especially powerful example of how words and music may combine to give a sense of the awesome mystery of God. ‘How shall I sing that majesty which angels do admire?’ Written by John Mason, a seventeenth century Anglican clergyman, it begins by setting our worship firmly in the context of the ceaseless worship of heaven. We then pray that our hearts may be enlightened and enflamed with love that our humble worship may be treasured up by the Lord. And it ends with a verse of pure adoration which conveys a sense of the ineffability of God, with phrases like, ‘Thou art a sea without a shore, a sun without a sphere’.
And it has a 20th century tune of commensurate quality, Coe Fen by Kenneth Naylor. It is itself an example of the creativity of the Spirit, full of interest and feeling and surprise.
Mind you, the worship in John Mason’s parish of Water Stratford was probably nearer to our 9.30 service for being more directly in touch with the emotions. He had a huge following and there had built an expectation of the imminent return of Christ, with dancing and singing day and night. When he died in 1694 his parishioners thought he would rise again on the third day. His successor went to the extraordinary lengths of exhuming his body to show them he was still dead.
That reminds us that Anglican music and worship has never been uniform. It’s a great blessing that we cover a range of styles at St Mary’s, each having something unique. We may each naturally incline to one or another, but we should never dismiss anything we have not given time to experience on the inside.
One of the strengths of the music led by the 9.30 worship band is that it can more readily engage our feelings and create a mood. The final song today is ‘You are holy’. It simply and profoundly allows us to tell out both the names and glory of God and our response of love and commitment – all accompanied by a catchy, singable tune which divides into two parts with different words in the chorus, enhancing a sense of being immersed in worship.
And that is where we are this Trinity Sunday. God has poured his love into our hearts. We have been baptised into Christ. We are surrounded by the ceaseless worship of heaven. May we today be opened up to the eternal, glorious divine unity in which our daily lives are held.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.