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.