Jumble Sales of the apocalypse: What comedy has to teach us about the Trinity
In the movie Nuns on the Run, Robbie Coltrane and Eric Idle play two bank robbers dressed as nuns – Sisters Euphemia and Inviolata – hiding out in a convent to escape a spot of bother in gangland. They quickly realise they have to know something more than how to hold a crucifix the right way up if their disguise is going to work, and end up trying to get to grips with the doctrine of the Holy Trinity.
The crook posing as Sister Inviolata (Robbie Coltrane) had a Catholic upbringing, so he starts them off:
“You’ve got the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost. But the three are one – like a shamrock, my old priest used to say. Three leaves, but one leaf. Now, the Father sent down the Son, who was love, and then when he went away, he sent down the Holy Spirit, who came down in the form of a …”
Euphemia (Eric Idle) interrupts: “You told me already –
“No, a dove.”
“The dove was a ghost?”
“No, the ghost was a dove.”
“Let me try and summarise this: God is his son. And his son is God. But his son moonlights as a holy ghost, a holy spirit and a dove. And they all send each other, even though they’re all one and the same thing.”
“You’ve got it. You really could be a nun!”
It wouldn’t be much of a stretch to say that you might overhear exactly this conversation in a church near you this month. And that’s because the middle Sunday of June is Trinity Sunday. The very name stirs up fear in the bowels of even the most seasoned preacher.
One church minister told me the other day that everyone she knows avoids, almost to the point of death, preaching on Trinity Sunday – because whatever they say will leave the congregation more bug-eyed than ever about the subject. Ministers have been known to arrange their holidays across the dreaded Sunday, or failing that, to produce an implausible sick note, cite a distant relative’s funeral or claim that zombies are surrounding their house – anything, in other words, to make the sermon fall on someone else’s head. And that’s because the punishments for failing to take one of those courses of action can be severe.
When I was a child, congregations were still required to stand up and recite the tangled and tiresome Athanasian Creed, which requires you to say: “The Father incomprehensible, the Son incomprehensible and the Holy Ghost incomprehensible. And yet they are not three incomprehensibles, but one incomprehensible.” Which only goes to show how church can go way beyond films about nuns for comedy.
It wasn’t always like this, though. In the time when the doctrine of the Trinity was put together, way back in the Fourth Century, it aroused huge amounts of passion and debate.
Its chief opponent, the Egyptian presbyter Arius, turned his arguments against the Trinity into pop songs. His catchy “There Was a Time When the Son Was Not” was so infuriatingly hummable that the fathers of the Council of Nicea stuck their fingers in their ears rather than listen to its seductive words and sexy tune. Arius ended up being smacked in the face by St Nicholas (yes, that’s dear, loveable Santa Claus) and being labelled the worst heretic of all time.
So, if the mystery of the Trinity today arouses parody in movies, bewilderment in pews and truancy in pulpits, it’s worth remembering that it once had the power to enthral, divide and finally bring together the young church. And since “in the name of the Father…” is spoken in most churches each week, it’s something that’s worth trying to understand.
We could do worse than follow the splendid example of Sisters Euphemia and Inviolata in struggling with it, even if we end up with: “The dove was a ghost?”
This article was published in the June 2014 edition of Reform.