By Torey Lightcap
Sunday after Sunday, presiders at Holy Eucharist rise following the sermon and try to say something pithy about what is immediately to follow. Too often, this introduction to the recitation of a creed – generally the Nicene Creed – misses the mark by a mile or two, betraying potential discomfort. For as well all know, being pithy and being liturgical don’t necessarily go hand-in-hand; the words of the liturgy stand on their own even if they’re not complete until spoken.
Among the many ways of mishandling this moment, my favorite is this: “And now let us stand and affirm our faith in the words of the Nicene Creed.” (Wait … you want me to affirm my faith in what, now?) I enjoy this moment not only because it makes me cringe (as indeed I am a fan of the awkward), but more to the point, because it accidentally shows how unsure of the content of the Nicene Creed we can be. (If we affirm our faith in the words themselves, perhaps we needn’t affirm much else besides!)
As one who presides (and as a stickler for liturgy), I suffer likewise, having attempted lots of workarounds to what often feels like a ham-fisted half-attempt at leading a community at prayer:
• Lofty: “Let us rise in historic witness to our faith and say together the words of the Nicene Creed.”
• Unapologetic: “Turning to page 358 in the Prayer Book, (pause) we say together (pause): ‘We believe in one God…’”
• Invitational: “Would you stand, please, and join me in saying together the Creed.”
• Or I say nothing at all: pausing, standing, and starting the recitation.
In truth, in their execution not a single one of these ideas improves on the situation in the slightest, and we all know it. By allowing us to over-announce the obvious, they simply reveal our sometime dis-ease with what is about to happen.
The simple fact is that for many, the content of the creeds these days provides a stumbling block where once, and in many times, it was foundational to faith. It feels like a stumbling block, perhaps, because it seems to sound tinny and unenlightened in the ears of moderns, who busily ask themselves, Does this statement reflect reality? rather than the postmodern question, Is it lovely enough to be true? (So perhaps it’s not even a question not worth flagging – something generational due to pass its own way after a few decades of “parallel development”!)
But then, what other foundational statement invites any higher level of agreement? A friend relates that the originators of an emergent project to construct a contemporary-language version of the Bible required assent to the Nicene Creed among collaborators; he writes that it “was the linchpin that we could all assent to – liberals and conservatives, Catholics and Protestants, evangelicals, progressives, denominational and non-denominational.” Yet for all the consensus it generates, the Creed’s placement within Sundays, for me, has always felt like something of a sore thumb – the thing we do because “it’s what we’ve always done.”
I most assuredly speak out of both sides of my mouth, for I say all this as someone who is relieved that the Creed follows the sermon. If my homiletical foot has slipped out of place, or if I have broken a boundary on the way to making some point, I take great comfort that the Creed is there to suggest what is normative. In that moment, the Creed is the remembering of a grace-giving Law.
Still, to any parish priest with an open office door and a confirmation class to teach, these tensions aren’t new. Something better is longed for; nothing better is advanced; we fall back into what we know; and omitting the element from worship only makes things stranger because we miss it so. Meanwhile, we’ve been hearing these complaints for years about the longsuffering Nicene Creed. You know:
• it reflects a cosmology whose structure is not supported by science (i.e., heaven is “up” and death is “down” and “we” are somewhere in between);
• it holds the value of baptism as being salvific for Heaven only, having little or nothing to do with entering into earthly communities of believers;
• it allows only for the bodily resurrection of Christ;
• it turns the prophets into predictors of the future only, and takes away their function as critics of the society, religion, and government to which they were contemporaneous; and
• it envisages God, in both God’s one-ness and three-ness, as being strictly male.
If it wasn’t meant to do these things, we certainly have not been careful to point that out. That would be an equal failing of seminaries and priests.
Whoever’s at fault, in other words, the Nicene Creed can at times feel like a limited and limiting instrument of faith – proscribed, dogmatic positions rather than the kind of lively thing we hope for, and know, our worship can be.
Even so, when it comes right down to it, we tend to grit and stand and recite with everyone else. The instinct to do so is practically reptilian. It’s just written on our liturgical DNA.
We tell ourselves,
• “This is all just one big metaphor, one approach to a larger and ineffable truth, which I can ‘believe’ because I can spiritualize it; I don’t need it to really be true.”
• “It’s beautiful and poetic.”
• “I’ll say this part but not that part” or “I can cross my fingers for the next three lines” or “I shall stand, but I shall not speak.”
• “Maybe if I do this I’ll be a better Christian. After all, everyone has to have a place to stand.”
• “Saying the Creed puts me in line with history.”
• “The sermon was so heretical, we have to have something to get us back on track.”
• “If this thing has been around as long as they say, it must be worth something, so I’ll give it a shot.”
• “I dare not leave the crowd.”
• “Thank God for the communion of saints. If I can’t say this Creed with a straight face, perhaps my neighbor will do it for the both of us.”
We negotiate the creeds, wrestle with them; revere their supposed historical capacity for creating compromise; use them as personal theological counterbalance to weigh and sift belief. But too often – or perhaps this is only one priest’s imagining – we do not employ them in the actual worship of God. And all this interior negotiation is happening (must this really be said?) in the supposed context of the worship of God.
Talk about awkward.
A few congregations have elected to deal with this situation by simply setting the Nicene Creed aside, not saying it at all, or saying it only sporadically when it suits them (say, when the sermon is shorter, or when voices clamor for it), or not saying it when it doesn’t suit them. You can never tell which way that wind is going to blow. But really, that’s just the exception proving the rule.
Others have tried to write new creeds, but their chief characteristics are not primarily credal; that is, their first goal is not to set out the scope of believing, but rather to react: to not offend, or to pack it all in, or to correct the theology and language of existing creeds. These artifacts, such as Jim Rigby’s “A New Creed,” aren’t so much creeds as they are alternative creeds (heavy on the alternative):
I trust in God, universal parent, source of all power and being;
And in Jesus Christ, a unique expression of God and our guide for living:
conceived by the spirit of love,
born of Mary’s pure trust,
suffered under political oppression….
The fact remains that for most of us, the Nicene Creed is not a commodity up for editing: it’s part of what makes worship essential and whole. Even if our understanding of it is less than complete – even if its recitation is like swallowing medicine drawn from an unlabeled bottle – nevertheless we need it (or should we say the collective mood or feeling requires it) to make the worship experience seem complete. For most, it must be like the blessing or the Gospel reading or the Peace: the air we breathe at worship, the ground on which we stand.
Only the air and the ground are so common that we forget they’re even there. No wonder it seems so awkward: certainly we need air to breathe, but in this case that air consists of the recitation of the terms of a theological deal struck nearly 17 centuries ago in a vain attempt at unifying a religion that was being fitted for servanthood to the Romans. That could be some pretty stuffy air.
The Nicene Creed may have settled the collective hash of the Arian camp, but those who study history know that the Creed came with its own ultimatum: endorse it or be exiled.
If any of this seems oddly familiar, it’s because we are currently standing upon the crust of exactly the same precarious moment in which propositions are being thrust upon us with the demand of assent or exile. In the propounding of an Anglican Covenant, Anglicans have been asked worldwide to state, codify, and commit to a set of beliefs and the practices that inhere in such behaviors so as to determine who is and who is not Anglican, and that’s just not how Anglicanism works.
A powerless and hollow citizenship in the Anglican tribe may be offered to those who cannot sign the Covenant in good conscience, yet who hold the common purse, and that might make them out to be Judas when all they ever wanted was to state with clarity what Christian justice looked like within their own province.
Who among us would imagine that a few hundred years hence, Anglican catechesis (if such a thing there be) would include the memorization of a binding juridical formula for the purposes of recitation in worship? Will it be set to music?
Of course not. This Anglican Covenant – so long as it is primarily concerned with discrimination – would have about as much flavor and pith as last week’s gum. It would be made into footnotes and studied by those with specializations in history and theology, and it would be remembered not as compromise, but as con. It would be novel in the worst sense.
In short, it would reflect its own limited worldview, proscribe rather than describe Anglicanism, and be largely misunderstood. It would certainly not be used in the actions of praise. Really: under what circumstances would it become an instrument of faith and evangelism, or further clarify the meaning and intention of Christ?
All of which returns us to the Nicene Creed, with its limitations and imperfections and our great, inexplicable, and admittedly rote need for it.
Whether and how we handle particular articles of faith says a lot about us. Sometimes, in a sense, they say more about us than they say about God. And yet here is this thing that provokes both theological anxiety when it is present, and personal anxiety when it is absent. What more can be said of it, than that it has held us together as much as it has pricked at our ideologies and politics.
May we handle with great care not just what is already in print and has been recited for generations, but what has been set before us to shape for the generations that follow.