Thursday, April 14, 2011

Dumping the Nicene Creed for Easter

I read with sadness recently about the plight of a blogging/Facebook friend who attends an Episcopal Church where the leadership has decided to dump the Nicene Creed from the Sunday liturgy beginning on Easter Day. In its place they plan to use some faith statement crafted by the Iona community. According to my friend, this replacement "creed" downplays things like the Incarnation and the Resurrection. I can tell he is deeply unhappy about this decision, and I certainly don't blame him!

I've written before about instances of letting go of the Creed, clergy who charge that the creeds are defective, and a Church of England chaplain who banned the creed to be inclusive. Perhaps this is more common than we realize?

Regardless of whether or not it happens a lot or rarely, dropping the Nicene Creed and replacing it with something else is a flagrant violation of ordination vows on the part of the clergy in charge of the parish. Accordingly, there should be discipline. And insofar as the Nicene Creed is the sufficient statement of the Christian faith, I'd even go so far as to say that dumping it for something insufficient borders on apostasy.

When asked about the rationale for making this change, my friend noted a handout given to parishioners which says: "It is anticipated that we will return to use of the traditional Creed in other seasons; but will remain open to occasional changes when it seems appropriate and timely." When it seems appropriate and timely? For whom? And by what authority? And what exactly makes dumping the Creed for an alternative that downplays the resurrection during Easter season a timely change? (Perhaps it's timely during Easter as a statement of disbelief in the traditional understanding of our Lord's resurrection?) This rationale strikes me as a perfect illustration of the emptiness of "progressive," "wanna-be-relevant" Christianity lite.

Dumping the Nicene Creed from the Eucharistic liturgy signals a bold departure from the norms of common prayer within the Episcopal Church, the ordination vows made by Episcopal clergy, and the traditional and sufficient statement of the core dogmatic content of the Christian faith. And it suggests not only that the sufficient statement of the Christian faith is optional, but that the content of that faith is optional as well. We are free to pick and choose alternatives to the faith of the Church, or to just make something up we like better, whenever we feel like it ("when it seems appropriate and timely").

Writing about the Nicene Creed when I first started blogging almost four years ago ("The Radical Creed"), I noted the following:

As "the sufficient statement of the Christian faith," the Nicene Creed underscores that there are boundaries and norms that define the Christian faith and that differentiate it from other possible faiths. Christianity is not a recipe for relativism, nor does it affirm subjectivism. It's interesting in this regard to note that the English word "heresy" derives from the Greek hairein, meaning "to choose." The Creed reminds us that Christianity is not an individualistic, "pick and choose what you like and discard the rest" faith.

Christian faith entails certain non-negotiable truths that make a claim on our loyalties and our lives.

The faith of the Church as expressed in the Nicene Creed is the norm against which individual opinions and judgments are measured and found more or less adequate, or wrong.

As Luke Timothy Johnson points out, all of this makes the Creed a deeply counter-cultural statement. And so, for all the ways in which it suggests a kind of rebellion against the norms of the Church's faith and practice, dumping the Creed is also an expression of accommodation to an increasingly post-Christian, and at times even anti-Christian, culture.

How very sad to see a parish church lose its identity and its way like this!


Michael ArkAnglican said...

"nail on the head" is the phrase that comes immediately to mind.
Is it being unloving to keep to the truth and hope help others do so too?
Sometimes I wonder if the Episcopal Church knows the meaning of the word heresy. Or if it does does it just not believe there are such things.
We may not agree on everything, but I think we believe on this.

Just Me said...

I don't even know how to respond to this. The idea that anyone in an Anglican church would dismiss the Nicene Creed is unthinkable.

Rick said...

I don't mean to harp on this, but this goes to my concern about Spong in relation to the distinctives of Anglicanism (your recent post).

Is there something deeper than just the wording of those distinctives missing in much of Anglicanism? Stating the distinctives if fine, but if one feels free to dismiss core creeds, what does that tell us?

The Underground Pewster said...

Maybe the leadership is finally being honest. They might not really believe in one holy catholic and apostolic church and are separating from it.

Janice said...

It's not just the Episcopal church. In my Australian diocese the dean of the cathedral seems to have been trying to get rid of the creeds for the last 2 years or more.

Good grief! I've just checked the cathedral web site and they're advertising a talk to be given by a theologian who has been described as "one of the most exciting Christian voices in the 21st Century," by none other than John Shelby Spong!

Furthermore the dean has posted a, "step-by-step plan for how to get more young people into the church," reposted from the blog of a former Episcopalian chaplain which, among other things, says,
"Stop worrying about getting young people into the church. Stop worrying about marketing strategies. Take a deep breath. If there is a God, that God isn't going to die even if there are no more Christians at all."

Bryan Owen said...

Thanks to you all for the comments. I ask your prayers for my friend. This is a situation that strains his relationship with his parish church to the breaking point.

I'm sorry to learn, Janice, about the cathedral's decision to bring Spong in as a speaker. Here's a summary of what happened when he was the bishop of Newark:

Prior to Spong's arrival as bishop coadjutor in 1977, the Diocese of Newark, like the Episcopal Church in the U.S.A (ECUSA), was facing a slow but steady decline from its peak membership in the 1960s. After Spong became the bishop in 1979, the rate of decline began to pick up.

Between 1978 and 1999, the number of baptized persons in the diocese fell from 64,323 to 36,340, a loss of 27,983 members in 21 years. That's a disastrous 43.5% decline. The Episcopal Church, by contrast, saw a decline in the number of baptized persons from 3,057,162 in 1978 to 2,339,133 in 1997, a loss of 718, 499, or a substantial 23.4%, according to the 1998 Church Annual.

The Diocese of Newark under Spong, thus, has declined at a rate 20.1 percentage points higher than the rate for the entire Episcopal Church.

This rate of decline is 86% faster than the Episcopal Church, whose losses are considerable in and of themselves.

Not exactly inspiring, is it?

I personally doubt that the so-called "step-by-step plan for how to get more young people into the church" is much of an improvement over the Spong plan. While in places it sounds so pastoral and mission-minded, it, too, ends up sacrificing the faith of the Church on the altar of cultural accommodation.

The Waffling Anglican sums it all up:

The problem with liberal Protestantism is that, if you are willing to alter the tenets of your Faith to meet transient social changes, then – in the final analysis – how real do you actually believe that Faith is? Real things tend to be intrinsically determined. You can’t make water out of hydrogen and chlorine; you can’t barbecue a deer and decide that it’s broccoli; you can’t jump off a cliff and not hit the bottom because you’ve decided to revise your views on gravity. True religion, in service to an objectively real God, is the same way. It is what it is, and no amount of “reappraising” will change it into something else however much we try to convince ourselves otherwise.

I’ll give the final words to Charlotte Allen from her essay “Liberal Christianity is paying for its sins”:

When your religion says "whatever" on doctrinal matters, regards Jesus as just another wise teacher, refuses on principle to evangelize and lets you do pretty much what you want, it's a short step to deciding that one of the things you don't want to do is get up on Sunday morning and go to church.

Anonymous said...

Sorry if I wasn't clear, but it's not Spong who's coming but someone Spong endorses highly. Not much better I'd think.

Bryan Owen said...

Thanks for the clarification and sorry for the confusion. Given the heretical character of Spong's theology and the record of decline during his tenure as diocesan bishop, a high endorsement from him for a speaker is a sufficient reason for grave concern.

Anonymous said...

Perhaps as a way to counter this anti-creedal bias you could place links (in a prominent place - top right maybe) on this blog to the traditional texts of both the Nicene and Apostles Creeds? Just a suggestion. Keep up the good work!
p.s. - I've moved to:
Check out the new site if you please.

Bryan Owen said...

Hi Roland. Thanks for your new web address and for the suggestion of adding the Creeds at the top of my blog. I'll give that consideration.

Christopher said...

I saw that too. Unacceptable. And during Easter! To do this is to suggest our prayer is not common, but rather clerical because central things can be changed up on the whim of or with the support of priests who are responsible for the liturgy and who are accountable for it as well. That N-C Creed is the inheritance of each of us, as is the Apostles', and no one has a right to suggest otherwise, which this does.

This is a form of authoritarianism of its own just as unsettling as other forms trending in our tradition. Our rubrics precisely guard against this by requiring the N-C Creed as the regular Sunday use. Provision is not made for something else to be used in its place.

From F.D. Maurice, The Kingdom of Christ, V. 2:

"The creed is the document which has served as a protection to the meaning of the Scriptures against the tendency which the Church doctors in different ages have exhibited to disturb and mangle them. The creed has served as a protection to the humbler members of the Church against the inclination which the Church doctors of different ages have manifested to rob them of their inheritance, and to appropriate it to themselves."

Bryan Owen said...

Amen, Christopher! I think your point about clerical authoritarianism in this matter and the way in which Prayer Book rubrics serve as a protection against it hits the nail on the head. And what a great quote from F. D. Maurice. Thanks for sharing.

liturgy said...

Bryan wrote, "Dumping the Nicene Creed from the Eucharistic liturgy signals a bold departure from ... almost 1,700 years of tradition"

With respect, Bryan, I think you are just making that up.

I know of no evidence, for example, of the creed being used in the Roman rite in the first millennium! I'd be very happy for you to demonstrate I am wrong.

The Christian Shema in the Eucharist is the Eucharistic Prayer. With its loss to the people into the Middle Ages, this function was moved to the Nicene Creed. With the Eucharistic Prayer's restoration over recent decades it again becomes our Shema.

In the Anglican Church in NZ the Creed has been optional for three decades now in the Eucharist - the issue here is the clericalised liturgy which doesn't use the fully renewed Eucharistic Prayer...



Bryan Owen said...

Thanks for the helpful historical clarification, Bosco. My point is not that the Nicene Creed has always been used in the Eucharistic liturgy in the West, but that the decision to jettison it from the 1979 American Prayer Book's Eucharistic liturgy by clergy who have no authority to make such a decision in itself signals a bold departure from the theological content of the Creed (a content which is arguably the dogmatic foundation for Christian orthodoxy). In other cases I've noted, clergy who are willing to make this kind of move in clear violation of Prayer Book rubrics are also willing to monkey with other parts of the liturgy, including "the Christian Shema." They don't like it's content, they prefer something more "relevant," and so they take the initiative to change it.

liturgy said...

Bryan, if your point is not that "dumping the Nicene Creed from the Eucharistic liturgy signals a bold departure from ... almost 1,700 years of tradition" then you shouldn’t write that. If your point is stay with the formularies that you vow and sign up to, I concur. I cannot speak for your context, but what you write is not my experience here. In NZ it is often many of those most noisily advocating their Nicene orthodoxy who are also adamant about being “creative” when it comes to the liturgy, neither following the formularies, nor even using an orthodox (meaning right worship) Eucharisitic Prayer. “They don't like it's content, they prefer something more "relevant," and so they take the initiative to change it.”

Bryan Owen said...

I see your point, Bosco. I may well reword that bit to try and clarify.

I find what you say about your context in NZ fascinating! My experience here in the Episcopal Church is exactly the opposite. I find it almost unimaginable that the orthodox within TEC would ever want to monkey with the wording of the Eucharistic Prayers, much less dump the Nicene Creed from the Eucharistic liturgy.

liturgy said...

But, Bryan, you in TEC still have study, training, and formation for your clergy, and standards and examinations for ordination – including in doctrine and in liturgy. We in NZ have long ago abandoned such requirements. Here we have a strong anti-prayer book ethos where many could not visualise the sort of services you take for granted.

Bryan Owen said...

You're quite right, Bosco, that we in TEC have "study, training, and formation." But its quality is not always clear. And the extent to which it is actually formative can be questioned from time to time. How else can one account for crazy stuff like "praying to the people" instead of Prayers of the People?

Even though it's a far from perfect approach, I'm astonished that in NZ the Church has long since jettisoned such requirements! What is the rationale for this?

And I confess to being mystified that anyone who claims to be Anglican would also indulge an anti-prayer book ethos. In the midst of much diversity in faith and practice, I've always thought that common prayer was at the heart of Anglican identity and one of the reasons why, in spite of disagreements that might otherwise pull us apart, many of us manage to stay together.

Then again, there are signs in TEC that common prayer is becoming yet another option - something to be chosen or set aside as individual preferences dictate.

liturgy said...

I am as mystified as you are, Bryan, but I hold a relatively rare perspective in NZ. This week, Holy Week – the central week of our church year, will see a burst of “creativity” so that it will be difficult to find Anglican parishes that have anything resembling their neighbouring parish. Numbers are very significant and if you’re just doing what your neighbour does, how will you attract? You could only find one odd thing you wrote about 2 years ago – I’ve attended an Anglican Eucharist where the Eucharistic Prayer was addressed to the congregation; another just had the Last Supper story from Paul. Having communion prior to the readings is a variant. All these options from people who would call themselves “conservative” and “evangelical” and “orthodox”. But don’t think it’s just limited to the Eucharist. Parishes regularly produce their own baptism rite. A minority of clergy would pray the Daily Office. Bishops vary the ordinal. The funeral rite is mined as a “resource”. In marriage, writing one’s own vows is quite popular. Need I go on? You are part of discussions with NZ people on the web – please remember the quite different context. And now you know why I started my Liturgy site.



Bryan Owen said...

Wow, Bosco! Thanks for the clearer picture of the different context in NZ. It sounds like sheer liturgical chaos. In comparison, while they remain troubling, the illegal liturgical revisions I've noted in TEC are fortunately rare.

Holy Week blessings to you and yours!

Anonymous said...

Interestingly, to me anyway, is the significant numbers of churches (evangelical) that i've attended in the CofE who do not recite the creed (or any creed) on a weekly basis. Why is that?

Bryan Owen said...

A troubling observation and an interesting question, Anonymous.

BTW, while you are more than welcome to submit comments, I do ask this:

If you choose to post anonymously, please provide a pen name.

Michela Wells said...

Those earler bloggers are I am afraid missing the point, it is ok crunching numbers to record falling congregations at Spong's Newark episcopalian church: but have these people been inside 'orthodox' religious institutions of late? I suggest it is merely a handful of charasmatic preachers who are able to maintain a reasonable congregation in the 21st century. Face it, Christianity is dying and providing no haven for the spiritual well-being of the next generation.
Spong and others like him are blazing the way to a fresh view of Christianity, wherein the dogma, cynicsm, sexism and sadism of orthodox religion is proven to be defunct.
-M.Wells (Believer in Exile)

Fr. Bryan Owen said...

Thanks for your comments, Michela.

You claim that "Spong and others like him are blazing the way to a fresh view of Christianity." But where is the evidence that the religion of Spong, et. al., is growing churches rather than blazing the way to institutional decline and irrelevance?

And where is the evidence that orthodoxy per se is "dying and providing no haven for the spiritual well-being of the next generation"? I know some Millennials who would disagree!