WHEN I listened as a schoolboy in the early 1980s to a recording of Winston Churchill’s ‘Be ye men of valour’ speech on the BBC, I was mystified by his reference to Trinity Sunday.
‘Today is Trinity Sunday,’ he said in his first broadcast to the nation as Prime Minister on May 19, 1940, a few weeks before Nazi Germany conquered France. He then quoted his own version of a text from the First Book of Maccabees in the Old Testament Apocrypha: ‘Centuries ago words were written to be a call and a spur to the faithful servants of Truth and Justice: “Arm yourselves, and be ye men of valour, and be in readiness for the conflict; for it is better for us to perish in battle than to look upon the outrage of our nation and our altar. As the Will of God is in Heaven, even so let it be”.’
I could not understand why the man I was coming to revere as Britain’s war leader would mention ‘Trinity Sunday’. Wasn’t that something to do with the Church and Christianity and the manifestly underpaid vicar occasionally to be seen plodding the pavements of North Sheen?
I later learned from reading Churchill’s 1930 memoir, My Early Life, how important Christianity was in shaping his spiritual and moral outlook under the influence of his evangelical Christian nanny, Elizabeth Everest.
Today is Trinity Sunday. The Anglican Book of Common Prayer directs that on this festival of the Church ‘shall be sung or said at Morning Prayer, instead of the Apostles’ Creed, this Confession of our Christian Faith, commonly called the Creed of Saint Athanasius, by the Minister and people standing’.
The theologian Athanasius of Alexandria (c297-373) was central in enabling the Church to formulate clearly its belief, grounded in the Holy Scriptures, in the divinity of Jesus Christ as the eternal Son of the one true God. Athanasius led the orthodox Christian resistance to the then culturally alluring heresy of the Arians who taught that the Son of God was a created being. Athanasius taught the Church to understand that unless Jesus was God Incarnate, he could not have saved us from our sins, because only God has the goodness and the power to save sinners.
The mid-5th century creed which bears St Athanasius’s name is, to put it mildly, a doctrinally robust document. Churchill would have heard it recited on Trinity Sundays before the theological liberals who took over the Church of England after World War II put it into disuse.
Under its Latin title in the Prayer Book, Quicunque Vult, the Athanasian Creed states: ‘Whosoever will be saved: before all things it is necessary that he hold the Catholick Faith. Which Faith except everyone do keep whole and undefiled: without doubt he shall perish everlastingly. And the Catholick Faith is this: That we worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity; Neither Confounding the Persons; nor dividing the Substance.
‘For there is one Person of the Father, another of the Son: and another of the Holy Ghost. But the Godhead of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, is all one: the Glory equal, the Majesty co-eternal.’
This creed insists that the God Christians worship is one supernatural Being in three Persons, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. It insists that this is the universal (catholic) faith of Christians the world over and that any professing Christian who wilfully denies the doctrine of the Trinity forfeits his or her eternal salvation.
The Prayer Book Collect for Trinity Sunday expresses this catholic faith with beautiful clarity:
‘Almighty and everlasting God, who hast given unto us thy servants grace, by the confession of a true faith, to acknowledge the glory of the eternal Trinity, and in the power of the Divine Majesty to worship the Unity: We beseech thee, that thou wouldest keep us stedfast in this faith, and evermore defend us from all adversities, who livest and reignest, one God, world without end.’