Reciting Creeds

 

A question came up as to whether it would be a good thing or a bad thing to recite the Nicene Creed at Grace Unlimited's ecumenical worship service. Some strong feelings, all of them understandable, were expressed on both sides. 

This is my initial response. It's not the last word by any means!

Because I started out Southern Baptist, at first I found the practice of reciting creeds repugnant. Now I find it immeasurably valuable in the right sort of setting.

I do not believe that reciting a traditional or updated creed is intrinsically exclusive. It all depends on what people think they are being asked to do when they recite something. Reciting is never the same as 100% agreement. In fact, when it's about God, it can't mean 100% agreement, because all words fall short. 

When I recite the Nicene Creed in the Episcopal Church, or in the ELCA, I don't feel excluded, because I know that I am being invited to enter into critical conversation with that creed even as I recite it. I know I'm part of a community that values a questioning faith. I find immeasurable value in entering into the thought worlds of earlier generations, seeking to understand what they were trying to say and discovering much in common. 

Yes, the people who framed this creed were often petty and vindictive. In other words, they were human. The process was politicized, but what group process isn't? Here's an interesting comparison: When the American Psychological Association declared that homosexuality was not a mental disorder, traditionalists complained that the process had been politicized. One of them even compared it (unfavorably) to the Council of Nicea! They were right to notice that politics was involved. They were wrong in failing to notice that politics had been involved in their earlier assumptions. Politics is involved in any human endeavor, even in the sciences, not just in theology. That doesn't mean that resulting conclusions are automatically invalid or unsound.

I believe that many of the fundamental concepts reflected in the Nicene Creed run deeper than the bishops' predictable pettiness. (One of those concepts, which I find liberating, is that ultimate reality is unity-in-diversity and diversity-in-unity.) I believe God spoke through this creed and still speaks through it, despite its many, evident flaws. (More here: http://www.graceunlimitedin.org/collected/2015/8/18/a-brief-commentary-on-the-nicene-creed.) That is what reciting the Nicene Creed means for an Episcopalian. It's challenging but not exclusive. It's a conversation starter, not a conversation stopper.

The same goes for the affirmation of faith that we use in Common Worship. That's really intended to be a commentary on the Apostles Creed.   We're not asked to agree with it 100% but to open ourselves "to what we may hear in it for the moment." It can also be challenging, especially to conservatives, but it need not be exclusive.

I would not feel excluded if another faith community invited me to recite a different affirmation with them—AS LONG AS I felt encouraged to question what I was saying the way I feel encouraged to question what I say in the Episcopal Church. I would feel excluded if I felt pressured to take any human affirmation about God as the final word on the subject. 

I experienced that Sort of inclusion when I attended a Unity Church meeting with a dear friend. I recited their Five Principles (http://unityvacaville.net/unitys-5-basic-principles/), even though I did not agree with several crucial points. (Examples: "There is only one Power, which is omnipotent"; or their embrace of the victim-blaming Law of Attraction.) I did not feel excluded. If anything, I was more concerned that I might be closing myself off to what they were trying to say, even though I was a bit repulsed by their terminology. It helped, to know that Unity Churches actually encouraged questions even about their Five Principles. 

I was somewhat amused, incidentally, that they claimed not to have a creed and yet put such great stock in these Five Principles, which looked to me very much like a creed. That's a common phenomenon among religious communities that claim not to have creeds—they actually do, without admitting it. (Another example: Buddhism's Four Noble Truths amount to a creed, even though some Buddhists claim that they have no creeds. They do have a creed, and it's one well worth exploring. They shouldn't apologize for that. It's not a bad thing.)

Reciting any creed, however vague or open-ended, can make some people feel excluded. Or it can make them feel invited to an invigorating, if challenging, conversation. It all depends on how that creed functions in the community. 

On the other hand, when a community claims not to have a creed (that is, a fundamental set of core values), it's either being dishonest or unreflective. All communities have creeds. Some of them are reflective enough to try to spell them out. An even smaller number are self-critical enough to encourage questioning, once a creed has been spelled out. I hope that Grace Unlimited can be counted among that number.

Fr. Charles