by the Very Revd Dr David Ison, Dean of St Paul’s
Above the great west door of St Paul’s, on the inside, is a huge stone-carved open book. It’s mirrored in the many books, open and closed, carved and scattered through the decorations inside and outside the cathedral, and in the library spaces above the side aisles. There are plenty of cherubs, but no saints, in Christopher Wren’s decorative scheme: but running throughout, the emphasis on this being a cathedral of the Word, the country’s first purpose-built Protestant mega-cathedral.
We’re coming up to Trinity Sunday, that challenge to preachers and believers, where words and doctrine and mystery meet. Often there’s a reading from John’s Gospel, in which Jesus prays for his disciples, as those who have kept the Father’s word that they have heard from the lips of Jesus, and seen in the life of Jesus, the Word which was from the beginning, who send to us the Comforter, the Spirit. But John’s Gospel is more than words, more than teachings and stories and descriptions: it’s a haunting mixture of down to earth eyewitness testimony and deep, so deep poetic reflection, a gospel which is about the union of human and divine: it is about the God who stoops down to earth to scoop us up, with the two arms of the Son and the Spirit, as the second century writer Irenaeus put it, picking up our limping humanity and healing us by incorporation into the infinity of divine love.
So often in the history of religion we’ve made the mistake of thinking that words are the answer: that we can outline and describe what God is like and what God requires of us, that we can make religious laws and creeds that define God and ourselves, and put our limitations within safe boundaries. When words become poetry, we begin to know otherwise. And when poetry becomes music, we begin to understand, not with our heads alone, but with all of who we are. That’s why music in worship is so important, and why people who hold to the word alone thought, and still think, that music is a dangerous and subversive activity that obscures the clarity of God: when music is quite the reverse – it’s the clarity that makes the mystery of God visible.
I was sitting down with my colleagues a while ago assessing our Holy Week and Easter services. A key theme was whether or not the music had worked with or against the worship – it had gone both ways at different times. One of those discordant French organ voluntaries had sent people home depressed after a happy Matins; musical settings of John Donne’s poetry had spoken profoundly of God’s mystery and love; the international and the regular congregation had been completely flummoxed at the main Easter Day Eucharist by a hymn (‘Hail thee festival day’) which has three different tunes; and hearts had been broken kneeling by the cross on Good Friday as the choir sang so simply: ‘Were you there when they crucified my Lord?’
The word alone is not enough. The word needs to become enfleshed, incarnate, poetic, mysterious, if it’s to point towards the God who is beyond our understanding and ability to describe. And music is a way to take up words and go beyond words into the heart of the God who beckons us beyond, the God who in Jesus Christ stands within and without the boundaries of the world. You know those tea towels and quotation sites on the web that can give you a Chinese proverb for every occasion? The Christian equivalent is St Augustine, who has quotes for most things, whether or not he actually said them. And one of the quotes I haven’t been able to track down, yet, is this: ‘Dogma is a fence around a mystery’.
In other words – for words is all I have right now – doctrines about God, such as the Trinity, are there to act as boundary posts. They show you whereabouts truth is to be found, they point you in the right direction. But the doctrine is not the reality itself.
I’m sure that any music can open our hearts and understanding to God. But I wonder if God has a particular liking for jazz. With any music, you can read notes on the page, but it’s not until it’s performed that it comes alive. The music of Bach or Beethoven can be played to sound the same each time – though every piece of music needs interpretation. But jazz you can’t simply write down and expect to be the same every time it’s played. Ordinary music is interpreted by the performer; jazz music is created by the performer – even though its form is similar, its reality every time is a bit different.
So it is with the words of Christian truth. Creeds and doctrines are words on a page – there to help you begin to have an experience, a true experience, of the true God. ‘Your word is truth’ prays Jesus to his Father in heaven. But you don’t know anything of the Trinity until you’ve experienced it in your own life. If the Trinity is simply words on a page, then it’s without reality.
That’s why the New Testament has no statement of doctrine about Trinity. In the scriptures we get glimpses of how Father, Son and Spirit are united together as one triune God. But the early Christians didn’t sit down and invent a new doctrine about God – they encountered God in new ways, in Jesus of Nazareth and the Holy Spirit working among them, and their experience drove them to the realisation that only a doctrine of the Trinity made sense of that experience.
So the doctrine of the Trinity is a fence around a mystery: it shows you the form God takes, but it doesn’t tie God down. Just like jazz has a certain type of sound even though its notes differ, so the doctrine of the Trinity says that God will have this kind of threefold way of relating to us and the world, but not that God will always do just this or just that.
God’s enduring theme, throughout the changing rhythms of history, is the saving love of God for the world he’s made. But the way God plays that theme changes according to circumstances. God hasn’t written down the whole history of the world from beginning to end, like the script of a play in which all of us have our predetermined parts. God improvises, God creates, God has infinite variations on a theme; and the way God plays this theme as Father, Son and Spirit will be different in your life from how it’s played in mine – but the theme will still be recognisable.
The Encyclopedia Britannica entry on jazz says: ‘A customer unable to get hold of the recording of Brahms’s Fourth Symphony conducted by Herbert von Karajan would probably settle for someone else’s recording of that work. But the buyer thwarted in his attempt to buy the jazz musician Duke Ellington’s version of “Caravan” might well accept as a substitute anything else played by Ellington. That’s why, in jazz, there’s at least one truism that’s always applied: the performer playing a theme always tries to make it sound not like itself but like him or herself.’
And so with God. So many of us want to hear the final word, to get God off the shelf, like buying a record which gives the definitive recording of what God sounds like. But it isn’t like that. God can’t be recorded or defined; God is a mystery. God doesn’t tell us exactly how life is and how to live it – God invites us to join the band of believers and improvise together, along with him.
Jesus prayed for his disciples: ‘I speak these things in the world so that they may have my joy made complete in themselves’ (John 17.13). And so in Christ we pursue that joy of words and music and silence as we journey through the world and beyond it, as we enter through Augustine’s fence of doctrine and go further into the mystery: as John Donne put it so eloquently, that God may bring us ‘into the house and gate of heaven, to enter into that gate and dwell in that house, where there shall be no darkness nor dazzling, but one equal light; no noise nor silence, but one equal music; no fears nor hopes, but one equal possession; no ends nor beginnings, but one equal eternity’.