Bishop Donal McKeown: 'We want to get back to gathering our parishes around the Table of the Lord'
As churches look towards the resumption of public worship, they face the major challenge of showing they can be the 'safest places in town' while showing love to the community, says Bishop of Derry Donal McKeown
THE liturgical year of the Church keeps throwing one feast after another at us. Since this lockdown began, we have gone on a rollercoaster through most of Lent, Holy Week, Easter, Ascension and then Pentecost.
On Sunday we celebrated the feast of the Blessed Trinity - the Father, Son and Holy Spirit - and it does two things.
First, it puts before us a summary of the God who has been involved in all the events we have remembered.
And second, it reminds us that God is not a puzzle to be solved or accepted but a mystery to be savoured.
We do not have language to adequately talk about God; and we cannot not talk about God. God is beyond us - and calling us far beyond ourselves.
A God that we have tamed by our words is not the God of the unimaginable immensity of the Cosmos. Thus, understandably, we do struggle to talk about the Trinity.
My favourite portrayal of the Trinity is the well-known icon by the Russian artist Andrei Rublev (c.1360-1430).
It shows three heavenly figures around a four-sided table. The Trinity is a relationship which is open to include others.
It is a relationship that overflows outward. There is always a place for you at the heavenly table.
The invitation is there with your name on it. You have to choose whether to sit down and believe that you welcome.
To what does this feast open us up? What can the peaceful heavenly Trinity possibly have to say to our frightened and angry earthly reality?
Firstly, it speaks of a harmonious set of complementary relationships. Community is possible.
We are ultimately facing two narratives. One says that racism or sectarianism or snobbery are unavoidable. We have to fight our corner and defend our privilege. Otherwise we are nobody.
Our interests, right or wrong, is not a Gospel value. Life is a matter of doing unto others before they do unto you. We have worked hard to get to this point - and nobody is going to take our resources from us.
The alternative narrative says that love can change everything, that there is enough for everybody's need, but not for everybody's greed. We don't have to amass goods and power and educational opportunities in case somebody else would deprive us of them.
The Trinity is a call to believe that we can be re-made in the image and likeness of God. From the Garden of Eden to the present day, the Christian vision tells us that wisdom is not to be found in the apple, the Big Apple or your computer.
Any allegedly Christian vision that promotes division, blame, privilege or revenge has missed the point of the Trinity.
Christians believe that God's dream has to be our inspiration, and not our narrow defensive agendas.
We are ultimately facing two narratives. One says that racism or sectarianism or snobbery are unavoidable... The alternative says that love can change everything, that there is enough for everybody's need, but not for everybody's greed...
Secondly, in these strange times, we have discovered that we have lost, at least temporarily, so many of our little communities.
For lots of people their sense of belonging was focused on a hobby, a style of music or a sport team - or a Church community.
Most of the opportunities to celebrate those identities have vanished or lived in virtual form. And we face the challenge of building and rebuilding our Church communities.
I know that great work has been done by so many parishes - and that Church services online are remarkably popular.
Belonging and reassurance - especially for the weary and the frightened - are a core part of the Trinity's message.
Thus, we want to be able to get back to gathering our parish congregations around the Table of the Lord.
But, as churches, we have to balance two values.
On the one hand, there is the right to practise your faith that is a core value at the heart of most societies.
But there are also the responsibilities that come with rights. We know what happens when I insist on my rights, whatever the cost to someone else.
Followers of the Holy Trinity look out for the needs of others and not just rights for themselves.
Furthermore, our challenge is so show that our churches are able to be as safe as any other place where people gather.
If we show we can't be trusted to have consistently good practice, who can blame others for not taking us seriously?
As churches, we have to balance two values. On the one hand, there is the right to practise your faith that is a core value at the heart of most societies. But there are also the responsibilities that come with rights...
If we can't be seen to deal appropriately with the small numbers that are currently allowed to attend funerals, who will trust us with larger numbers for other services and sacraments?
There will be a major need for teams of parishioners who will look after our buildings, if we want make churches the safest places in town.
There will be an ongoing need for webcams so that those who wish to take part in, for example funeral services, can do so.
Maintaining limited numbers at church services requires alternative access for people.
We cannot complain about large numbers wishing to get inside if we offer no other options to those who desperately want to take some part.
Thirdly, Saint Paul wants us to not just know about the Trinity but to experience that Trinity of three-in-one.
Paul prays that the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all.
He personally knew the grace, the free gift of Christ's forgiveness. It is something we don't have to earn.
In an unforgiving world, it is as necessary as ever. Paul wants people to know the love of God.
In a world with impossible and constantly changing standards of perfection, so many people need to believe that they are loved and lovable, however scarred they may feel.
And Paul knows that fellowship in the Holy Spirit is both possible and liberating. The community of the Trinity is a call to build loving, welcoming, forgiving congregations where hearts can be touched by warm hearted believers.
Over 3,000 years ago, Moses knew that God was a God of tenderness and compassion, slow to anger, rich in kindness and faithfulness.
That was not a theological puzzle but a lived experience. Our communities are called to be nothing less than places where anyone can experience that tenderness in Word, Sacrament and the community.
The Trinitarian God calls us to great things and never to be satisfied with the basic or the banal.
We are called to speak of the Trinity and not just to be hawkers of trite religious words that lack depth or nourishment.
People still want to know the God who so loved the world that He sent His only Son. When we invite people to return to Church practice, we have to be clear that we are opening the doors to the mystery of God and not just to the trinkets that make life easy for us.
The feast of the Holy Trinity is a call to mission, so that hurting people can believe that there is a place for them at the Divine table.