Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Letting Go of the Creed

You never know what you’ll find when you read an issue of Episcopal Life. I learned that when I came across an ad in the April 2008 edition inviting Episcopal congregations to leave our Church for the Roman Catholic Church. (Interestingly, there are no letters printed in the May or June 2008 issues about that, even though one of my clergy colleagues submitted one.)

In the June 2008 issue of Episcopal Life, we find a striking instance of what I call anomic Anglicanism. In a letter written by the Rev. John Beverley Butcher of Pescadero, CA, priests across our Church are encouraged to let go of the Nicene Creed in the Sunday Eucharistic liturgy. Fr. Butcher calls the Creed “a speed bump” that impedes the “natural flow from the ministry of the word into prayer.” And he notes (citing Marion Hatchett’s excellent Commentary on the American Prayer Book) that the Nicene Creed did not become a regular part of Eucharistic liturgy until the 11th Century. He concludes that the Creed "is not an essential part of the shape of the liturgy.” And he goes on to say:

Since 1979, I have quietly resumed the natural flow of worship by omitting the creed; none of the members of my congregations have missed it. I would encourage others to let go of the creed and feel the freedom.

In response, I want to make the following points.

First of all, contrary to what Fr. Butcher asserts, the Nicene Creed is, indeed, an essential part of our Sunday liturgy. Here is what the rubric says immediately prior to the Nicene Creed in the Rite for Holy Eucharist:

On Sundays and other Major Feasts there follows, all standing (BCP, p. 358)

This is hardly a permissive rubric. On the contrary, it is a directive rubric. The Prayer Book expects that reciting the Creed is what shall happen on Sundays and other Major Feasts (the individual’s desire to “feel the freedom” is utterly irrelevant).

There are sound reasons for this directive rubric. I’ll mention just two. First, insisting that the Nicene Creed be recited on Sundays and other Major Feasts underscores that, as Episcopalians who are heirs of the Anglican tradition, our faith as Christians is communal before it is individual. It’s not about me and my faith, as though we're singing out of a Tom T. Hall hymnal:

Me and Jesus got our own thing going
Me and Jesus got it all worked out
Me and Jesus go our own thing going
We don’t need anybody to tell us what it’s all about

Quite the contrary, as heirs of the Anglican tradition, the faith is about we and Jesus. It’s about common prayer. It’s about all of us – the communion of the saints past, present, and future. It's about accountability to persons and things beyond the individual. That communal emphasis gets thrown out when individual clergy decide to usurp the authority of General Convention by revising the liturgy on their own "authority."

Here's another reason for this directive rubric: in case the sermon strays beyond the boundaries of the faith we have inherited as Anglicans, the Creed acts as a corrective by putting us back on track. Like a compass that always points north, the Creed points us in the right direction. The Creed thereby serves as an important counterbalance to the preacher’s tendencies or temptations to chart a different course by letting subjective preferences and opinions override the faith of the Church.

A final point: since the Prayer Book rubric about the use of the Nicene Creed is a directive rather than a permissive rubric for Sundays and other Major Feasts, failure to use the Creed in the liturgy on those days constitutes a violation of ordination vows. In the ordination rites, Episcopal clergy solemnly swear before God, the bishop, and the gathered assembly “to conform to the doctrine discipline, and worship of the Episcopal Church” (BCP, pp. 513, 526, & 538). That includes conforming to the rubrics and words of the Prayer Book liturgies since, if anything expresses the doctrine, discipline, and worship of the Episcopal Church, they do.

We clergy have promised to be conformists. We have voluntarily relinquished all rights to ecclesial (and thus liturgical) disobedience. And when we willfully break that solemn vow, we should be held accountable by the Church. If there was accountability in our Church with this sort of thing, then priests who drop the Creed from the Sunday liturgy and commend doing so to others would be disciplined.


thomas bushnell, bsg said...

I'd add another point (though less important than yours!)...his assumption that "nobody misses it" is unlikely to be true. Surely many have noticed. Did any ask? And what did he say?

I'm going to guess he simply said, "It's optional" in some form. I doubt he said, "The rubrics require it, but I'm overruling them."

Bryan Owen said...

Excellent point, Thomas!

My experience as a priest suggests that even small changes in the Church have ripple effects that get people's attention, even if some folks can't or don't put the reasons why they find it unsettling into theologically profound terms. Sometimes the response to changes (whether those changes are legitmate or illegimate) can be irritating to clergy. But I think such reponses are a good thing. We who are ordained need the laity to give us that kind of feedback, and especially so when we've crossed over the line.

Peter Carey said...

I heard someone say recently, only partially tongue-in-cheek that it is a very good thing to say the Nicene Creed after the sermon because if the preaching was subpar, if it wasn't Biblical, or was lacking in a robust theology, at least we all can affirm our Faith in the words of the Nicene Creed.

For me, as a priest (and a somewhat newly ordained one) feels a sense that the Creed offers a kind of a net of Orthodoxy to help me if I do stray or am ineffective ...

Another interesting thought I had is that maybe we DO need to have things in our liturgy which cause an interruption in the "flow" so that people are challenged, and it doesn't all just wash over them without any demands...

Thanks for the post, I appreciated it...


Bryan Owen said...

And thank you for your comments, Peter. I agree with you wholeheartedly.

Anonymous said...

and what will happen to Father Butcher for this willful violation of his ordination vows? Not a damn thing...and that, sir, is the problem. However, what if Father Butcher was a dreaded orthodox conservative(with devil horns and all) who sought refuge under a more like minded Bishop/jurisdiction? You know the answer.

Great post, Father.

BigTex AC

Rufus Ward said...

As a lay person and cradle Episcopalian, I have a very real problem with a priest who is uncomfortable with and so does not include the Nicene or our other early Creeds in the liturgy. I believe that Christ is the same yesterday, today and tomorrow and that in the past TEC has maintained and nurtured its early Christian roots. That sense of unchanging faith is to me a foundation of our Church. I may not agree with V G Robinson being a bishop but there is room for discussion and reflection. However, when a priest is allowed to summarily and publicly refer to the Nicene Creed as “a speed bump” and calls on the church to "feel the freedom" of eliminating a thousand year old Creed that binds us to other churches, I have a very serious problem with TEC. My greatest fear for the future of TEC is much as you brought out - individual feelings seem to be becoming more important than accountability and community interest.

Perpetua said...

So at the next general Convention there will be a resolution acknowledging that this occurs. Then a few years later. the rubric is change in the new version of the Prayer Book.
Or maybe publishing this in Episcopal Life circumvents the need for the step of having the General Convention acknowledge this occurs. This article has removed that "speed bump" and now full speed ahead to changing the rubric for the next Prayer Book.

Bryan Owen said...

Well, Perpetua, I certainly hope and pray that doesn't happen!

Joe Rawls said...

"Speedbump"? How about "I just don't believe that nonsense".

Bryan Owen said...

Good point, Joe.

Thanks also to BigTex AC and to Rufus Ward for your comments as well. Much appreciated!

Allen Lewis said...

I wonder when the Rev. Butcher will decide that this bodily resurrection thingy is inhibiting his "flow." Will he feel free to jettison that piece of doctrine also? Or will he treat it as a nostalgic metaphor - beautiful, but not really necessary for today's "feeling and thinking Episcopalians."

Where does the Bowdlerization of the liturgy end? The Rev. Butcher needs to be re-taught about how the prayer book rubrics are understood and applied. Apparently he cut class the day that topic was covered.

Allen Lewis

bls said...

Here, for another point of view, is the rubric for the saying of the Creed at Holy Communion (to be said immediately after the reading of the Gospel) in the 1928 Book of Common Prayer:

"Then shall be said the Creed commonly called the Nicene, or else the Apostles’ Creed; but the Creed may be omitted, if it hath been said immediately before in Morning Prayer; Provided, That the Nicene creed shall be said on Christmas-day, Easter-day, Ascension-day, Whitsunday, and Trinity-Sunday."

Perhaps this was a better idea? I really don't see why the Nicene Creed needs to be said every week, either. So I'd be in very much in favor of changing the rubric, and very much in favor of saying the Apostles' Creed at most Eucharists, and the Nicene 4 times a year.

I mean, it's not like it's (so-called) "orthodox" Anglicanism or anything, apparently....

Bryan Owen said...

I disagree with you on this one, bls. I think that the Nicene Creed is, indeed, one important touchstone of Anglican orthodoxy. This is the reason why successive Lambeth Conferences and General Conventions of TEC have reaffirmed the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral, which says that the Nicene Creed is "the sufficient statement of the Christian faith" (BCP, p. 877).

bls said...

True - but that doesn't imply it needs to be said every week. (After all, Baptism is also mentioned in the C-L Quad., but it doesn't happen every week, either.)

Why not offer a choice? A Creed would still be said (and the Apostles' is "the Baptismal Symbol," which makes it an excellent reminder on a week-to-week basis) and it wouldn't be a departure from our tradition.

Then, those who wanted to say or sing the Nicene Creed could, and those who preferred the Apostles' could use that one. After all, it was used during the first 300 years to no apparent ill effect.

Bryan Owen said...

bls - You're making some very good points which, if they were in play for Prayer Book revision, I would certainly be willing to consider.

I note that the '79 Prayer Book generally expects that the Apostles' Creed be said in the Daily Office. The possible exceptions are summed up in the following rubric: "The Apostles' Creed is omitted from the Office when the Eucharist with its own Creed is to follow. It may also be omitted at one of the Offices on weekdays" (BCP, p. 142). IOW, if one belongs to a community that observes Daily Morning and Evening Prayer, the Apostles' Creed could be dropped at one of those services.

Sadly, the Daily Office is all but a relic of the past in most parish churches, so we rarely use or hear the Apostles' Creed in a church service except when there are baptisms or a renewal of the Baptismal Covenant.

I understand that the rationale for using the Apostles' Creed in the rite for Holy Baptism is its connection to early 'rules of faith' used for the instruction of catechumens. And it's use in the Daily Office is meant to be a daily reminder of our baptisms - of the faith into which we are baptized.

I'm not as clear on the rationale for linking the Nicene Creed with the Eucharist.

For the time being, I think that the '79 Prayer Book gets enough of this right such that it would very risky to make changes. Indeed, my real concern is that when Prayer Book revision does kick in, there will be a concerted effort by a vocal few to eliminate both the Apostles' and Nicene Creeds from active use in our liturgies, thereby effectively moving us away from being a creedal Church. I hope I'm wrong about this, but if that's a fight that occurs in the future, it will confirm some of my worst concerns about the direction that some of our brothers and sisters wish to see TEC move in.

bls said...

Well, perhaps offering the choice would be a smart move, then; perhaps some parishes would prefer to say a simpler Creed instead of the long and theologically-complex Nicene.

And that way, perhaps these vocalists would be mollified. In any case, I think there would be some kind of choice offered, and the vocalists won't succeed in dumping the Creeds entirely; there are too many parishes and people who want to say or sing them. (Singing the Creed to one of the old tones is a good approach, IMO; it makes it less like a "loyalty oath" and more like a meditation on the nature of God. I think the problems have occurred because we stopped singing the Creed, in fact.)

Bryan Owen said...

I agree with you about singing the Creed. I've always found that a lovely way to get at something that's really central to the Creed - it makes it less cold and analytical and more, as you said, "a meditation on the nature of God."