Sermon preached at Evensong on Trinity Sunday (27 May 2018) by the Very Revd Dr David Ison, Dean

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12:00pm Doors open for sightseeing
12:30pm Eucharist
4:00pm Last entry for sightseeing
5:00pm Evening Prayer
5:30pm Cathedral closes

Sermon preached at Evensong on Trinity Sunday (27 May 2018) by the Very Revd Dr David Ison, Dean

The Dean formally welcomes Carris, the first female Vicar Choral in St Paul's Choir, as she is installed at Evensong. In the context of Trinity Sunday, the Dean reflects on the role of the choir in helping us "encounter God through Jesus Christ in awe, love and praise, beyond all words and wonder".

We’re delighted this afternoon to formally welcome Carris as the first female Vicar Choral in St Paul’s choir. It is in its way a historic moment for St Paul’s, a Cathedral which has seen many historic moments and will again.

The choir here has been through many ups and downs in its thousand-year history. When my predecessor Robert Gregory arrived here as a Canon in 1868 with a vision for making St Paul’s a living and lively cathedral, he described the badly-organised choir as ‘wretched, consisting of six or eight boys and two, three or four men, just as they happened to turn up; the appointed music sometimes had to be changed because there were not men of the right voice to sing what was appointed’; the choir was ‘disgraceful in attendance’ and ‘sang miserable services’. 

One of the best things Gregory did was to make the appointment of the very gifted John Stainer as Organist and Master of the Choristers in 1872. The choir has just sung his anthem for Trinity Sunday, I saw the Lord, which Stainer wrote at the age of 19: he’d been a boy chorister here, became University Organist at Oxford, and returned to St Paul’s at the age of 32 with the task of sorting out the choir, which he did by increasing the number of adult men from a notional to an actual 18, and the number of boys from 12 to 35, and getting the adults to actually rehearse and learn new music instead of just singing the same music over and over again – I’m sure from what she and her colleagues do that Carris and our current adult choir are assiduous at rehearsals, as are our hard-working choristers.

John Stainer died, worn out by hard work, at the age of 60, and has a monument in this cathedral – you can see it after the service, on the wall over there just round the corner from the north Quire gates, in between the statue of Samuel Johnson and the stairs going down into the Crypt. 

Henry Pegram, the sculptor of Stainer’s memorial, described what he carved as a picture: ‘The prophet Isaiah, with outstretched arms, kneels near an altar, from the smoke of which arises the vision — Christ enthroned and encircled by Seraphim.’ And carved on the monument are the opening words of Stainer’s anthem: I saw the Lord, words from Isaiah chapter 6.

Today is Trinity Sunday, and Isaiah’s vision is a reading often used on this day. Pegram’s visual representation on Stainer’s memorial of Isaiah’s vision of God as an appearance of Jesus Christ paradoxically shows how trying to be definite and clear about the Trinity actually obscures its truth.

What do I mean? Well, if you look at the two bible readings for this afternoon, visions of God from Ezekiel and Revelation, the most common phrases you’ll see are ‘something like’, ‘the appearance of’, ‘looks like’ – all these are the acknowledgement that we can’t describe or understand God, whether in words or sculptures, but we can only suggest analogies and experiences and hints of what God is like – not what God is in – well, in what you might call Godself – we can't even speak of God as him or her, He or She, as God includes both and is beyond both.

St Augustine, the great early church theologian from North Africa, said: ‘when you ask, what is trinity, human speech suffers from a great lack of power.  Nevertheless, we say ‘3 persons’, not in order that we should say that this is how it is, but in order that we should not be silent.’ In other words, we can say that God is like three persons in one substance, but not that God is that; we can worship and experience God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit, but how this actually works is beyond what we can understand.

The difficulty of understanding the Trinity has long been used as a reason to deny its truth. From Jews and heretics to Muslims and atheists, people have described the idea that God is Trinity as illogical, blasphemous, and many other things. But Christians want to say, not only that if God is truly God then God should be beyond our understanding, but also that paradox and mystery will better represent the reality of God as we experience God in Jesus. The Nicene Creed of the 4th century says that God is defined, not in words, but by God’s work in the history of Jesus Christ; a view disputed at the time and since, and yet a unique insight into the true nature of the God who loves us and is intimately involved with our lives.  

As you can see from the advert at the back of your service booklet, next Sunday 3rd June our lunchtime Forum talk is Dr Krish Kandiah talking about ‘Paradoxology’: that only in paradox, in working to hold together two different truths, can we get deeper into the nature of true reality. And that’s an insight which science is aware of too.

The 18th century scientist Isaac Newton had sorted out the universe with an explanation of gravity that made sense, so that we thought we knew how it worked. There were a few problems however, where the universe didn't quite seem to fit with what Newton's theory expected, and there were increasing efforts made to refine his system and adjust it. One key example was the nature of light: was it a wave, or a set of particles? Different experiments at the beginning of the 20th century suggested different conclusions – now light behaved like a wave, now like a particle. There had to be a better way of understanding what light was. 

But for 25 years there was a situation where people could see that reality could be understood in different ways, but couldn't work out how to hold them together. It wasn’t till the mid-1920s that scientists developed quantum mechanics as a way of understanding reality, which was hotly disputed – Albert Einstein himself wouldn’t accept it – and it’s still being proved, yet it has borne much fruit in technology and further understanding of the world. In quantum mechanics you can have something which is two different things at the same time – it doesn’t seem to make sense, and yet it works. Until someone discovers a great unifying theory, even science has to live with paradox. So why not theology: what’s wrong with God’s truth being paradoxical, being bigger than we are? With God being three in one?

I started this sermon talking about music, and I want to end with it too. For music is another way of engaging with paradox, with deeper truth, a way that’s about analogy and feeling and experience. The doctrine of the Trinity began, not in speculation about God, but in the experience that the first disciples had of Jesus Christ and the power of God’s Spirit. And music gives us the experience of analogies, hints, longings and wonderings; music reconciles disharmony and order, it both calms and unsettles us, it reminds us that prosaic everyday life is not our ultimate reality, and that there is no last word on anything, but only music and silence. 

The main reason that Robert Gregory wanted a good choir at St Paul’s was because of a high vision of Cathedral worship, expressed in the words of his contemporary, Edward Benson the Bishop of Truro, as ‘the ceaseless supplication for grace, the perpetual intercession, the endless praise – unbroken yet ever new, like Nature herself with daily-varying, never-changing majesty’ - a vision like Isaiah’s of God touching the world, a vision to which John Stainer aspired in his music and his reforms, and to which we aspire today.

The role of the choir is to help us to encounter God through Jesus Christ in awe, love and praise, beyond all words and wonder; and we pray for Carris and her colleagues, that with them we may experience and be transformed by the loving and unknowable grace of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.