This is the second of three sermons in response to questions raised by members of our church community in relation to worship at St Mark’s. I offer them, however, not simply as a response, but also as an invitation for us all to engage in further reflection and discernment as, together, we seek to enable the worship of this church to evolve organically and fruitfully, within the Anglican way.
‘Why don’t we regularly recite the creed?’ is our focus this morning and to ensure that we all have at least one experience of this rare phenomenon at the 10 o’clock service in recent years (although it is recited each Sunday at 8.00 am), I thought it would be helpful to include the so-called Nicene Creed in its customary BCP position between Gospel and sermon.
I wonder how many of us felt able to join in or what was going through your minds when you said, for instance, ‘For us and for our salvation he came down from heaven, was incarnate from the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary and was made man’ or what you experienced when you heard, ‘For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate; he suffered death and was buried. On the third day he rose again in accordance with the Scriptures; he ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father. He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end’?
It is here, I think, that we encounter our first difficulty, namely that although the creeds are intended to be ecumenical – instruments of unity and coherence – in the context of this congregation they would almost certainly have precisely the opposite effect. Paradoxically, the inclusion of the Nicene or one of the other authorized ecumenical creeds would prove to be a source of disharmony, exclusion and, quite possibly, departure.
In the light of this, what pastoral expedient could there be for following such a course of action, thereby placing the expectation on everyone to conform by uttering words they either don’t understand (after all, most of the ancient creeds grew out of controversies many of us would now struggle to relate to and are couched in the language and mind set of worldview different from our own, unless you happen to be a middle-Platonist) or, comprehending, are unable to identify with, let alone affirm?
Equally, I would wish to acknowledge those of us who miss not being able to recite familiar words or affirm their beliefs in a formal manner or participate in this substantial component of Christian tradition and inheritance. To these I would say, thank you for your forbearance and for doing without that we may try to accommodate within our number more than would otherwise be the case.
But, you know, our difficulties with the creeds extend beyond pastoral concerns. There are, I think, a number of other problems of a more fundamental nature.
For one thing, creeds are misleading in that they convey the impression that Christianity is principally a matter of orthodoxy – of right belief – of being able to affirm tightly formulated propositions about the nature of God, the identity of Jesus, the human condition and the origin of the universe, which are intentionally prescriptive and excluding of alternatives. Propositions claiming a great deal on behalf of God and yet which can be assented to in the mind without having any impact whatsoever upon attitudes, behaviour or commitments.
According to the Nicene Creed, to be Christian is to ‘believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, of one Being with the Father; through him all things were made.’ But is that really the case? Who is in a position to know or has authority to make such a pronouncement? And where does it leave followers of Jesus committed to his kingdom vision who either can’t make head nor tail of such a formulation or, comprehending, are unable to accept it? Is their faith inadequate or misguided?
For another, creeds give the impression that Christians from ancient times have accepted their contents, acknowledged their mandate and drawn on their teaching to inform worship and shape practice.
Both of these impressions are demonstrably wrong. Unless our earliest sources completely misrepresent him, according to Jesus, as our readings this morning emphasise, faith is a way of life much more than a set of beliefs. Now, of course, this way of life is informed by key insights, convictions and commitments, but they are not those articulated within the catholic creeds.
For Jesus, God isn’t a distant reality who has to contrive a costly rescue mission in order to enter space-time and save us from sin and its enduring consequences thereby drawing us into an heavenly eternity in the fellowship of the holy and undivided Trinity.
Rather, the sacred life of God’s presence and reign is woven within the fabric of our being, waiting to be awakened by gifts of grace and forgiveness – liberating us from all that diminishes and oppresses, releasing within us a passion for justice and peace, drawing us into covenant and collaboration with the Ground of Being and with all who are animated by the breath of life.
Furthermore, it is simply unsustainable to maintain that the creeds represent the distillation of early Christian belief and the consensus of believers.
From the very beginning, diversity characterized Christianity – acrimony too. The New Testament bears witness to both. For example, there are four gospel accounts and not one. And with the discovery, especially in the middle of last century, of other Gospels and early Christian literature we are able to gain a much fuller appreciation of just how diverse and nuanced Christian belief was from the outset. The only common denominator was Jesus and his living memory.
Nor should we be naïve about the circumstances giving rise to the creeds which were the products of councils attended by bishops. Think for a moment about the Government’s recent consultation on gay marriage to which the House of Bishops made a submission, apparently, on behalf of the Church of England. Was General Synod consulted or were the Dioceses or the parishes? Not that I’m aware of. In truth, it was a submission expressing the views of the bishops, but not mine nor those of many other members of the Church of England.
There is little reason to think the situation was significantly different at, say, the Council of Nicaea in 325 – a gathering convened by Emperor Constantine at which he or his ecclesiastical adviser (Bishop Ossius of Cordova) presided when, from what we can gather, the doors were pretty much locked until a set of beliefs that the 300 or so assembled bishops were willing to sign to up had been agreed. The political motivation behind this concerted attempt to impose uniformity upon an inherently diverse phenomenon is beyond reasonable doubt After all, it is difficult to unite an empire around a religion that cannot be defined, controlled or mediated through establishment figures.
And even if the assembled bishops did all believe that the Son was homoousios (‘of one substance,’ a word proposed by Constantine to break the episcopal stalemate) with the Father, we can be confident (as the following Arian controversy attests) that many, many Christians did not and still don’t.
Creeds are misleading because they distract us from the heart of our faith which is not a set of beliefs, not even a book, but a person – Jesus of Nazareth. And you cannot define any person definitively, less still the person of Jesus. Someone who from the outset engendered speculation and innovation as followers struggled to account for this extraordinary, inexhaustible life, generating a spectrum of interpretations – rabbi, prophet, healer, sage, high-priest, suffering servant, sacrificial offering, Lord, messiah, saviour, king, archetypal human, son of God, God’s embodied word, to name but some of those included in the New Testament.
To insist that one of these must be correct at the exclusion of others is a bit like protesting that if I am husband to Liz I can’t also be a son to my father or a priest to a community or a companion to my friends. These are not necessarily incompatible and nor are different testimonies to Jesus’ identity and significance, whether in creedal form or any form, because in the end they are personal affirmations not ontological truths. They express how Jesus is appreciated by particular persons at particular times. We can learn from them and may choose to adopt them, but they shouldn’t be imposed upon us.
And to prioritize one particular affirmation such as the Nicene Creed is to diminish the testimonies of others as well as to discourage the rest of us from discovering who Jesus is for ourselves in our own experience.
What is more, for all its elevated Christology, the Nicene Creed (and to a lesser extent the other ecumenical creeds), actually diminishes Jesus by transforming him into a divine messenger on a mercy mission whose only notable accomplishment was to die. What does that say about his life, his ministry, his humanity; and, by implication, what does it say about ours? After all, if there was nothing noteworthy about Jesus apart from a miraculous birth and sacrificial death, there is little hope for the rest of us!
No, to my mind, what is urgently needed is a church willing to release Jesus from a theological straightjacket that has reduced his humanity to little more than a brief excursion within the story of salvation. We need to find both the courage and the wherewithal to risk bringing the Galilean into focus once more, embracing all the challenges and contingencies this entails – so that his human being is, once again, able to inform, inspire and, yes, interrogate ours.
For Jesus and his undying life is the heart of Christianity and his ministry is the only authentic measure of our faith. Surely, it is time for orthodoxy, right-belief, to give way to orthopraxy, right-practice, that followers of Jesus may be defined not so much by their creeds, but by their actions and find a common cause in the service Christ.