Support the Café

Search our Site



by Donald Schell

Our oldest grandchild is three, or more accurately three and a third. Many readers won’t be surprised to learn that his word of the day (and week and month) is

– Why?

When our own youngest was this age, I discovered that if I didn’t try to respond his questions with answers, but paused


and then asked,

– What do you think?

He’d often have an answer that he was glad to offer. And sometimes that answer told me that the answer I was ready to give wouldn’t have actually addressed his wondering. I’m making that my default response with the grandson and finding again that a child (maybe our inner child too) asking “why” frequently wants to talk and think aloud.

My wife teases me when I slip into being a pedagogical and theological Piaget, and yes, I do think of Jean Piaget as I notice what startlingly fertile reflection on human learning and our insatiable drive to find meaning in our experience I witness in our grandson’s learning process.

His three year old answers to his own questions of why (and how) move freely among Aristotle’s four kinds of causation –

Material cause (“when ice melts it becomes water”)

Formal cause (“because she’s your mother and parents make those decisions”)

Efficient cause (“it fell because you dropped it”)


Final cause (“because saying ‘thank you’ makes you and the person you’re thanking happy”)

(I’m happy for comments or refinements to this sketch of the four causes from any philosophers or Aristotle scholars who’d like to offer them as a comment here.)

What I often notice in conversation with my grandson is that my adult default answer (the “because…” that often gets left unsaid when he supplies us with a more satisfactory answer) tends to be an efficient cause, the “what started it all” in a chain of cause and effect. My grandson’s “why” is a richer question than we adults usually let ourselves ask so nakedly. He’s asking for (and often offering) an answer that’s part of a whole spectrum of meaning, how things fit together, how they work, why we care about them, what we’re committed to.

Aristotle’s cluster of possible answers may hint what our own internal three year old is looking for as s/he keeps asking “why.” We’re not actually hoping for “The Answer.” There are all kinds of answers, many of which we can frame for ourselves. Maybe we want to tell our answer. Maybe hearing someone else’s question prompts us to discover an answer we hadn’t yet framed. What we’re looking for is the pleasure of engaging with someone we’d like to talk with about what it all means and how.

In Sunday by Sunday church practice in the Episcopal church, are we in danger of rushing to offer and assert “the answer.” I fear that partisans of the Nicene Creed in the liturgy have lost sight of the process that runs through the historic liturgical action, inviting the Spirit to come among us as we become and partake of the Body of Christ. We come to the point in the service where we all articulate our faith in ancient words (not a story, not a prayer, a series of finely tuned philosophical and Biblical points). We’ve unconsciously shifted the public work of liturgy to deliverables (proclaiming the Word, defining the faith, receiving the sacrament).

Was the liturgy of the first five centuries in the East and the first eleven centuries in the West defective for not having its moment of reciting the answer? What does it tell us that the liturgical use of the creed began when Monophysites in the East introduced it as a protest against the Council of Chalcedon? Why did the West resist using it liturgically for half a millennium? And what about finally introducing it in the West with the filioque added in (“who proceeds from the Father AND THE SON”) so that the recitation of the Symbol of Christian Unity cemented the division between Eastern and Western Christians. Is the creed like answering my grandson’s question when he wants to talk? What I notice talking with him is that the faster I offer answers, the more “why” he throws back. Answers aren’t giving him what he wants or needs.

Let me rush to add that the content of the creed makes sense to me. All I’m questioning is its liturgical use. When I’m in a congregation that uses it, I do say (or more happily sing) the creed. As a text and theological formulation, I welcome what it adds to our understanding of (and wonder at) our faith in Christ.

But I think the “why” question we’ve been asking since we were three years old and are all still asking, our craving to get closer to “what it ALL means” and to get closer to that meaning in the company of people we’re also learning to love and may be better “answered” by the Prayers of the People (where prayer and the action that flows from it are our shared response to what God is doing), or the Peace (our physical celebration and enactment of God’s reconciling work), or the Eucharistic Prayer (that tells the same story as the creed but does so as a prayer in, to and with our loving God).

I also suspect that what a Godly Play “I wonder” session or an EFM theological reflection conversation touches is truer to our ceaseless why than something that thinks we’re looking for “the answer.”

My grandson is asking me to join him discovering and reflecting on what the world and everything in it means. Whether I’m preaching and presiding or happily attending and sitting in the congregation to pray and sing and listen and share, what I find enlivening, satisfying, and sustaining is feeling and knowing that we’re plunged into that discovery together. Prayers and intimations are truer to our discovery and fit the richness of our “why” better than anything that presents itself as “the answer.”

The Rev. Donald Schell, founder of St. Gregory of Nyssa Church in San Francisco, is President of All Saints Company.


Café Comments?

Our comment policy requires that you use your real first and last names and provide an email address (your email will not be published). Comments that use non-PG rated language, include personal attacks, that are not provable as fact or that we deem in any way to be counter to our mission of fostering respectful dialogue will not be posted.

Oldest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
barbara snyder

(And personally, I find the Book of Common Prayer to be an absolute treasure, and I count myself fortunate to have such a splendid system available to me to help order my faith life – and thus my entire life. I now attend a parish that uses it to the fullest – as it comes, without tinkering with it – and often uses some of the many and various prayers found throughout the book and the other approved liturgical books, to mark events and passages in peoples’ lives and in the world as a whole. The more I learn what the book contains, the more impressed I am; I appreciate it more and more with each passing year.

The Daily Office always gets short shrift in these discussions – probably because it’s the layperson’s service, one that doesn’t require attendance at church or a priest – but the Apostles’ Creed gets said every time we say Morning and Evening Prayer, too.

That seems to be the system – so taking the Creed out of the Eucharist would, I’d say, unbalance something that’s currently balanced.)

barbara snyder

Actually the Creed has been the proof positive that gay people and our supporters were NOT, in fact, “heretics” at all – but exactly as “orthodox” as the people who wanted to claim that mantle for themselves alone and point accusing fingers at us to keep us out.

The Creed has been our best argument all along. We could point to it and say: Hey, we believe this stuff, exactly the same as you do; what’s the problem? I did that numerous times myself during the course of that past 8 years or so.

And I completely understand, and agree with, the reason those parishioners like saying the Confession and the Creed; saying (or singing) these things confirms that the faith is actually about something – and that it can mean something to us personally and have something real to do with our lives. We are addressing ourselves to God in both cases (and perhaps to the world also), finding a few minutes to put our own lives in context with our faith, and saying ancient words along with billions of other people both living and dead – which rather argues against the action being “individualistic.” (In any case, how can something everybody says together be “individualistic”? It’s precisely the opposite, in fact.)


Thank you, Donald. I am always a bit richer for reading your reflections.

Matt Marino


This is why I was kicked out of your Episcopal Church. I don’t understand how a priest like yourself would want to remove the Nicene Creed rather than standing by the Creed and telling his congregation “Ok let me teach you why this is important”. Are you a priest ready to speak God’s Word and Jesus’ love or are you there for the country club friendliness? As for your “symptom of individualism” I suggest you look at society. Collectivists have made major inroads (Obamacare, Welfare, the public education system and of course the Episcopal Church). The Nicene Creed brings home what God means to that person sitting in the pew. There is nothing wrong with a person having a personal and individual relationship with Jesus.

[Editor’s note: Thanks for the comment. Please sign your full name next time.]

Donald Schell


Thanks for picking up the question of what we are doing and what we’re learning (which I think is more enlightening and accurate than what we’re teaching). We’re both asking how we find God present and active in the community’s life and how the community lives in the presence of God bringing people’s real experience to our gathering.


I think singing the creed is a qualitatvely different act from saying it literally because we’re doing something different when we listen to one another to make common music than when we’re only listening to pacing to keep reading/speaking together. Who WE are in the presence of the story we’re celebrating is unique every time we DO this. It’s what Olivia is pointing to in her note when she says, “The presence of others is what brings me back Sunday after Sunday- others beside me, other behind and in front of me as we process, other voices pushing against my voice as we sing, someone’s hand on my shoulder as I place a hand on someone else’s shoulder.”


I’m with you. I don’t stake my life on my religious opinions. Faith is trusting relationship. It’s not what we believe but who (and the story we remember and celebrate in the Eucharist points to both answers of that “who” – God in Christ, and the community that incarnates Christ.


Fair enough. I know you’re not a “partisan” of the creed, and know that part of your faith and practice of community is observing the rubrics carefully. And you know, I think, that I am grateful that our tradition has John and Charles Wesley, John Mason Neale, Li Tim Oi and others on our calendar whose ministry unfolded in faithful disobedience to the rubrics. So, my word doesn’t fit you, whom I respect and appreciate. And I think the question of rubrical obedience is a separate question from asking what we’re doing when we do say the creed.


The placement of the creed directly after the sermon only dates from the latest reform (that gave us the 1979 book). It was originally introduced immediately before communion as a kind of loyalty-oath test by a monophysite bishop to drive home the point that he was a Real Nicaean Christian (not one of those terrible Chalcedonian innovators). It comes into the liturgy to specifically to divide, the impulse of personal/individual choice and self-definition that we’ve come to name “heretic” from assessment of that impulse.


I agree with you about the distortions individualistic preferences bring, but come to an opposite liturgical opinion as a result. The history of the Christians defining ourselves and the church defining itself by a consensus of religious opinions is a line of intellectual development that leads to Enlightenment individualism. I think I can frame that as a plausible historical argument (the church’s almost 1500 year history of gradually substituting My Promise for the church’s blessing in a whole series of sacraments is another glimpse of that historical arc).

In 1976 mandated by my bishop with introducing the Proposed Book of Common Prayer to the small town congregation in Idaho that I was serving, a congregation where my predecessor had refused to lead them in any process of Trial Use or other reflection on liturgical practice, I did a survey to get people talking about how the liturgy spoke to them and what mattered about it. Overwhelmingly people said that the two parts of the 1928 BCP liturgy that were MOST important to them were the confession of sin and the creed.

I’d already heard the same people chuckling about calling themselves “miserable offenders” and protesting various phrases in the creed that they had difficulty with or didn’t believe, so in the gathering to discuss that survey, I said, “I don’t get this.” Someone spoke up almost immediately (and many heads nodded as he spoke), “The confession and the creed are the two parts of the liturgy where we get to talk about ourselves.” Coming at the reform with some sense of historical perspective, it startled me that my friends’ two favorite parts of the liturgy were liturgical innovations, one from the 11th century and the other from the 16th. How could they be essential. But what mattered to them was neither the meaning of the words they were saying about themselves, nor their actual identification with the words they were saying – it was the “I” and “we” of those words. The liturgy mattered most to them when it gave them an opportunity to speak those pronouns. I think that’s a decent symptom of the individualism that’s pervasive in our culture.

And thanks to all of you for interesting, useful response. Donald

Support the Café
Past Posts

The Episcopal Café seeks to be an independent voice, reporting and reflecting on the Episcopal Church and the Anglican tradition.  The Café is not a platform of advocacy, but it does aim to tell the story of the church from the perspective of Progressive Christianity.  Our collective sympathy, as the Café, lies with the project of widening the circle of inclusion within the church and empowering all the baptized for the role to which they have been called as followers of Christ.

The opinions expressed at the Café are those of individual contributors, and, unless otherwise noted, should not be interpreted as official statements of a parish, diocese or other organization. The art and articles that appear here remain the property of their creators.

All Content  © 2017 Episcopal Café