The strangest moment in worship happens in the middle. For many of us it is sitting right in the center of our worship. And everything around it is far more worshipful and embodies the people at prayer.
We open in prayer and we read scripture and we sing and pray a psalm and we proclaim the gospel and we unpack the Word. And the second half we pray and confess, are absolved and reconcile. Then we go to the table together. It is a powerful, worshipful experience.
And for some reason, right in the middle of that, we recite a theological statement. One that, for many of the people, is anything but worshipful.
In practice, we stand and together, recite the Nicene Creed as “an affirmation of faith.” It serves many purposes which most life-long Christians can recite as easily as they do the Creed.
- It is a theological statement
- It is what we believe about the Trinity
- It is unifying
- It is traditional
- It is what connects all Christians throughout the world
- It teaches orthodox Christian belief
- We’ve always done it that way
- Our ancestors fought and died to create it and the unity it inspired
- The church might not exist without it
- It is how we connect our congregations to the Church.
All this is true. More or less. But it remains a strange element for us in worship. And its troubled history makes it doubly significant.
It isn’t prayerful
As a preacher, I am challenged with a variety of needs every week. The variety in the pews and the variety of needs in each of the persons in the pews.
I am constantly needing to deal with wants and needs. It sometimes feels as if many of the people participating in worship want ice cream for lunch every week, but I really need to make sure they have some protein and vegetables too. That they need actual lunch every time and dessert on occasion. What people need is more important than what they want.
For the preacher, this often means dealing with what the gospel actually says rather than what we want it to say. And this can be awfully troubling. In those times we have a serious sermon, some good silence and then we stand and recite the Creed together in humility.
And sometimes, we get a rousing gospel of grace and power and full of the Holy Spirit and we are up and we are excited and ready to storm the doors and change everything and so what are we going to do?
“I know everybody’s ready to go out and serve and praise Jesus, but hold on a second, lets say an arcane theological text in unison.”
You might disagree with me. You might love the Creed. But as the preacher, I hear your enthusiasm (or lack of enthusiasm). This often feels more like eating our peas than anything I serve in the sermon. Because there is no getting around that it is neither a story nor a prayer, but a statement. And that is different from everything around it.
How we practice it
For some of us, we try to soak those peas in butter.
In seminary we did a sung Creed paraphrase that was OK at best, but I didn’t care for the setting and the paraphrase was weird.
The version I preferred was the one we did at Holy Family in Midland, Michigan. It was set to a beat and led by percussion, so it was driving and catchy
in God the Father…
That felt worshipful. Or closer to it.
I’ve also experienced the polar opposite, in which we make it far from prayer. Instead we make it symbolically different from everything else we do.
Rather than having the worship leaders and the choir and all the attendants complete the circle, facing into the assembly, or toward the pews, we all turn in lockstep toward the cross, focusing upon it like a flag, ready to march in unison like an army. I find that practice alarming and remarkably inconsistent with the rest of our form of worship.
And by changing our posture here, what are we in fact saying? Not only that this moment is special, but… that the rest isn’t like this? Our obedience comes in this statement and our worship in prayer? The feeling of this posture, so different from the rest of worship, it becomes apart from worship; an intrusion on worship.
The Nicene Creed is not our marching orders, our sign or complete system of belief, or our truly great symbol of unity, because it has nothing to say about what it means to be a Christian.
Breaking it open
The Creed as we know it has a really long history fraught with great conflict and difference of opinion. And it remains today as one of the great lightning rods for the church.
Every word I write about the Creed is accompanied with the feeling that someone is going to take issue with it. Every one. And this is not only essentially true today, but that it is in the very DNA of the Creed.
Much of this series, especially in these later parts, which I think are tackling more of the controversial and difficult aspect of the church, have dealt with many of the fault lines in our tradition. I have also tried extremely hard to balance and respect history, theology, tradition, and experience in these pieces, also balancing the experience of clergy and laity, Episcopalians and non-Episcopalians, and those in the Christian camp and those outside it. But this is the one I’ve both feared and relished.
With that said, let’s dig in a little deeper.
Where it came from
I certainly can’t give a full synopsis of the history of the Creed in 250 words or less, but I will hazard to give some essential bits.
The church before 325 CE was not a singular thing. Like now, it was many churches with tons of different beliefs. And this seemed fine for the first 275 years. Mostly because these early Christians were in the minority and had little influence.
Then Constantine changed it all and Christianity not only came out of the shadows, but became, like, everywhere. It was the thing. So this change is hugely significant.
Another thing was happening, and it was that Christians in several parts of the world were then starting to talk to each other more and share their scripture and their beliefs with each other more and they were finding that not everybody believed the same things.
Their great concern was not that every Christian needed to believe identical things, of course. They took cultural differences as normal. What they were concerned with were the metaphysical questions: who is Jesus to GOD? That’s what they cared about. And there were some popular bishops pushing the limits of theological inquiry. So Constantine wanted the church to address this difference.
Christians gathered twice in the 4th Century: in 325 and 381 in the first two great councils of the church. And there, they hammered out what we know as the Nicene Creed. Over the next several centuries, they met several more times to address similar questions about the nature of Jesus, the trinity, and effectiveness of sacraments.
It tells us what we are not to believe
This raises the concern I’ve always had about that first council in Nicaea and all its successors, because they gathered to not only determine a statement of belief, but to draw a firm line in the sand of the beach of belief. Everybody inside the circle is cool. All you outside the circle, come inside or die.
This may sound stark and unreasonable, but these councils were literally violent and led to the murder and outcasting of faithful Christians. So my words are not as glib as they seem.
They also were intentionally drawing a line to say what would be acceptable to the community specifically so that they could name what was unacceptable. And they did so because there were people they wanted to push out of the faith. In this way, I see this as very different from some of our more modern squabbles where people say “I didn’t leave the church, the church left me.” This first council was gathered specifically to discredit a bishop named Arius.
This may be po-tay’-to / po-tah’-to to you, but it is deeply significant that when they gathered, they had a face of a bishop they planned to exclude and they drew the circle as wide as they could, but to make sure that he was on the other side of it. This was at least as intentionally exclusive as it was as painstakingly inclusive as possible. More like “how many alliances can we make so we can have the supermajority and we’ll write the bill together.”
Because of this and the big questions about the nature of Jesus, the Creed is almost entirely a metaphysical statement about Jesus, rather than who Jesus actually is or what GOD is in the business of doing or how we might actually experience the Holy Spirit. None of that is found in the text.
What is missing from the Creed
Those pieces that are missing from the Nicene Creed are all the things that I believe define people’s actual faith: both our lived faith and the faith we share with one another. That’s why I struggle to call the Nicene Creed an affirmation of faith. It is more like a statement of doctrine.
When I say that my faith is important to me, I think of the parable of the Prodigal Son(s) and how much fun we have in church and those moments of incredible connection when we are wrestling with our hardships and our joys. I think of sitting in the back of All Saints’, East Lansing and hearing the New Zealand Prayer Book for the first time, the heaviness of the hands at my ordination, and the touch of the Holy Spirit when I finally trusted in her. When talking about faith, we don’t go anywhere near the metaphysical stuff at all!
And when we do go there, we wrestle, not with the what, but with the why?! When people are wrestling with the nature of Jesus, they ask “why did he have to die?” not “who is he within the Trinity?” Is he number 2 or 3?
In this way, for as much as the Nicene Creed has to say about Jesus, it doesn’t say anything about Jesus. Not who he is. Just where he came from and then where he went. If that’s our statement of faith, why read gospels? Why feed the hungry or clothe the naked?
I’m starting to wonder if the Nicene Creed is just not that relevant anymore. It had a pretty good run. It was essential for a millennium. Of course, stuff got weird in the Enlightenment. And Modernism has made the Nicene Creed seem cute. But today? The need is different. We don’t to know what to believe. We need to know why.
A symbol of disunity
The Nicene Creed itself is a statement which limits belief. But it was a statement that the vast majority of Christian Bishops assented to. So in some important ways, we can say that it became the basic rules, the by-laws, the law of the land. So the church came to see it as normative.
There are two very important notes to make about this, however, which tarnish this view of universal acceptance. The first is that many times, first in the 4th Century and then again in the next three, those excluded by the original council grew dramatically in numbers and nearly won the debate several times, once in 381 and again in the 5th, 6th, and 7th Centuries. In each case, it was strategic alliances, conversions, and bald politics which won the day, not superior theology.
The second is that around that later time, in the midst of the collapse of the Roman Empire, and the declining power of Alexandria and Antioch, we had the Roman Church add a phrase to the Creed they knew would deeply offend the church in Constantinople.
They added a single word to the Creed, altering its entire theological underpinnings. The word seems small enough: filioque (and the Son). But for the Romans and Constantinople, this was everything. During the Great Schism in the 11th Century, the filioque was cited as evidence that the Roman Church was not playing well with others.
What does the filioque do?
The last stanza of the Creed, after discussing the first part of the Trinity (the Father) and then the next part (The Son), describes the nature of the Holy Spirit. There it says in our Prayer Book:
We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life,
who proceeds from the Father and the Son.
With the Father and the Son he is worshiped and glorified.
He has spoken through the Prophets.
We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church.
We acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins.
We look for the resurrection of the dead,
and the life of the world to come. Amen.
Of course, that “and the Son” in the second line was the part that was added. This has the small impact of changing the entire nature of the Trinity.
How it changes it is that it makes the Spirit dependent on the other two persons of the Trinity and not a wholly equal member of the trinity as the Eastern Church (and many European churches) believed and still believe. The Rev. Dr. C. Eric Funston described it well on Facebook the other day:
The Son does not ‘proceed’ from the Father; the Son is ‘begotten’ of the Father. The Spirit is not ‘begotten,’ the Spirit ‘proceeds’. Each has a full relationship with the Father and with each other, but those relationships are different and unique. The addition of the filioque (‘and the Son’) by the Council of Toledo (in which no representatives of the Eastern churches took part) to the words ‘[the Holy Spirit] proceeds from the Father’ confuses the relationships HS-Father and HS-Son and obscures the uniqueness of each. Removing the filioque will not lessen the honor given the HS nor render the Trinity ‘lopsided’ or ‘unequal.’ Instead, it will strengthen our understanding of the unique relationships within the Trinitarian economy.
This change in theology is important because it was both the theology and the process that led to the greatest split in the church’s history.
It is for both of those reasons that the church is rethinking the filioque’s use. Much of the West took the Roman practice and the East and Coptic Churches maintained the pre-Toledo formulation. That is why the World Council of Churches pushed for its removal in 1987 and the Episcopal Church in 1994 agreed to remove the filioque in the next Prayer Book revision. Then earlier this year, a joint commission of the Anglican Communion and the Oriental Orthodox Church encouraged both churches to remove the filioque from worship.
These moves to restore an earlier understanding of the Creed, I believe, are driven by both the profound sense of mutual respect and out of new regard for the theology. The mutual respect should be enough, but I believe a big part of the reason we’re doing this now is because of the theology.
The Creed itself, as I’ve described above is a theologically limited statement of faith. I personally struggle to call it an affirmation of faith. It seems the Nicene Creed is not an affirmation of a faith but of a metaphysic.
But the theology it originally reinforced, which is championed by the Eastern Church and was so similar to Celtic Christianity, is an embodied faith of relationship and mutuality. It expresses deep hope for the future as we become respectful, rather than submissive to one another. It is less like a democratic approach and more like consensus.
There is also growing interest in reforming the way we interact with our Creed. That perhaps we think about using it less, or find other ways to express our orthodox belief which bring a more worshipful or poetic approach.
Or perhaps we think about an even more traditional affirmation of faith:
“Hear, O Israel: the LORD is our God, the LORD is One.”
Or does that not give us enough to fight over?
How do we use the Nicene Creed in our worship? Does it enhance our faithfulness? If I am not one who feels the need to cross my fingers behind my back while reciting it, how might I help include those who do feel this way? How might we understand how our practice interacts with our belief?
What does the Nicene Creed provide for us? Can those things be gained in another way? Can they still be gained if we use the Creed less frequently than every Sunday and every principal feast? What if we only used it at the Feasts? Would it be effective?
How might variations of the Creed work? How might we include other creedal forms? How might we involve affirmations of faith which more closely match the concerns of not only 21st Century Christians, but the questions Christians have been asking about the Creed for the last thousand years?
Can we talk about the Creed without people running away from the table screaming? Can this great symbol of unity effect, not only coercive unity, but actual reconciliation among the faithful? Can we have the Nicene Creed and true unity?