To Creed, or Not to Creed
An Episcopal priest wrestles with the ancient words he recites Sunday after Sunday.
By Puck Purnell
We believe in one God,
We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ,
Anybody who’s ever been to a Roman Catholic mass or the Holy Eucharist at an Episcopal Church will recognize these all-too-familiar opening lines of the Nicene Creed. Most people take them for granted, part of the Christian package deal. And, because in any package deal there’s always something you don’t want or can’t use, the creed often winds up in the intellectual trash can. People mouth the words without believing them, or they simply refuse to say the creed at all. Looking at the congregation on a typical Sunday from my handy vantage point next to the altar, I invariably notice that when we come to the creed, perhaps a third of my parishioners’ lips are locked.
Mine would be too, if I didn’t consider myself a “holder of tension,” the central force connecting the wide variety of beliefs in the Episcopal Church. I consider this one of my most important responsibilities as a priest, to welcome and encourage a diversity of ideas. Yet whenever people ask me about the creeds, I always squirm a little, feeling like a boy just caught in a lie.
Before seminary, I didn’t think much about the meaning of the words. Was I even supposed to, after all? They were something to be recited, not analyzed. You said them on cue, like lines in a play you’d been performing in for as long as you could talk, at which point they cease to be mere lines and instead become a part of you that you no longer even think about.
But when I began examining the creeds from an intellectual perspective, I came smack up against the wall of stark reality. These things aren’t literally true, I thought. They can’t be. Jesus came down from heaven, was born of a virgin, and ascended back up into heaven? Right—and I’m King Solomon.
Among the top three questions I’m asked by parishioners and seekers is “Do you believe in the creed, Father? Do you believe what it says?” My response to this is: I recite the Nicene Creed as an historic document but understand it only as metaphor. I don’t literally believe that Jesus came down from heaven, was born of a virgin, or ascended back up into heaven. If you consult your history, you find that these ideas were used by and for the church to establish Jesus’ divinity just as they had been used to make Caesar divine.
At the Council of Nicaea, in 325 C.E., bickering bishops gathered to settle once and for all the question of Jesus’ humanity versus his divinity. At that time, Jesus was considered the son of God and an extraordinary human being, but not part of the Godhead. An Egyptian priest named Arius articulated this view, and most bishops and priests agreed with him. However, another Egyptian, Athanasius, claimed that Jesus was divine, of the same substance and being as God. Christians fought about this for years, and eventually Bishop Athansius’ own creed proclaimed what orthodoxy should be. The Nicene Creed, a compromise creed, was first accepted at the Council of Nicaea but then rejected, only to be re-institutionalized by a later council in Constantinople in 381 C.E., which is when Jesus finally and officially became God.
So how do I reconcile my conscience with a religious ritual that I know was invented by flawed humans for largely political reasons, and that I do not think is at all useful today? How can I lead a congregation in reciting the creed Sunday after Sunday? The best answer I can give is that I do so because I honor and respect those for whom the creeds are meaningful. At the same time, wanting to accommodate the uncomfortable faithful who say, “The creed is dishonest,” I still find myself in a bind. Approaching the creed as metaphor seems like the best solution, a compromise that may inspire some, who might otherwise bolt from the church in protest, to continue standing in the tension between an outdated tradition and the future. On the other hand, I keep coming back to my belief that the creed has outlived its usefulness and we probably don’t need it at all.
To my way of thinking, the creed is an unfortunate liability for modern Christianity because it represents inertia, which is generally far more dangerous than change. In essence, the creed symbolizes the reluctance of the church to acknowledge the times we live in. Who in their right mind would not update their computer files on a regular basis? Who wouldn’t improve and upgrade their house after 20 or 30 years? Even the U.S. Constitution gets amended from time to time. Yet the church persists in refusing to seriously re-examine outmoded beliefs and practices that may have been relevant for a society of 2,000 years ago, but which are hardly meaningful to a world vastly advanced in information and intelligence.
What to do with the creed depends a lot on whether or not you’re committed to an old paradigm of the Church, faith, the Bible, God and Jesus, or an emerging paradigm espoused by theological scholars like John Shelby Spong, who argues for real systemic and institutional change in the Church, and the abolition of the creed as we know it. Should a new creed be written? Or should a personal creed, said silently, be substituted during mass? One of the most common workshop exercises for church people is to write a personal creed. Many of these are exceptional insights into where and how God is revealed in life, and they reflect a contemporary worldview.
Or, how about if we simply throw the creeds out altogether and return to the earliest days of Christianity, when the Way (as the first-century Church was known) was a dynamic, growing body; people were held together by the communion of bread and wine; and following Jesus meant not mouthing ancient, trite phrases but reaching out with compassion and justice to those in need?
Now that’s something I can say I believe in.
Puck Purnell is rector at Old St. Andrew’s Church in Bloomfield, CT. His last essay for SoMA was Gay Leaders in the Church.
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