A couple of weeks ago I wrote about rubrics in The Book of Common Prayer. I wanted to emphasize that while those rubrics direct our movements and actions and even our words together in prayer, they do not attempt to tell anybody what their inner thoughts or beliefs should be. We may not always be people of common mind, but we gather and hold together in common prayer.
Our communal gathering, centered in common prayer, makes space to lift up church teaching and theological tradition. We read from Scripture, hear a sermon, and say the Nicene Creed. The rubrics call for all of this, including the creed, stating succinctly that the creed is to be said after the sermon “on Sundays and other Major Feasts.”
Saying the Nicene Creed is our practice, with a few exceptions, during the principal service at 9:00 AM throughout the program year. We move with more flexibility in crafting liturgy for the 11:00, but even that service is rooted in the spirit of the BCP if not adhering to every letter. While we may not say the Nicene Creed every week or in every season at the 11:00, it will appear from time to time, when the season or occasion is particularly appropriate to recalling and retelling the church’s story.
Because belief matters. Lex orandi, lex credendi – as we pray, we believe. I want to share a few thoughts on what I see as gifts in saying the creed together, with eyes wide open to caveats and challenges that are also present.
I think the “we” is so important when we say the Nicene Creed together. Because we are using words to describe an eternal mystery by ephemeral means. We are telling the old story of our faith tradition, a story that can often feel detached and even irrelevant to the daily joys and struggles of our lives. Together, we are giving voice to something handed down through generations and generations of faithful people and now entrusted to us in our day and our time. We are walking together, lifting up one another, joining our hearts and voices as a church.
The contrast between “we” and “I” is striking. “I,” on the other hand, might choose to seldom or never say the Creed on my own. I am intimidated by the insufficiency of words to convey the things of God. I am often caught up in my own life with struggles and hopes and fears, too much to remember being part of something much, much bigger and more beautiful than I can see in too many cluttered moments. And I forget about the saints in generations past on whose shoulders I stand, and the ones on which I lean on in this amazing community in this poignant time.
To say we believe is a powerful expression of community and connectedness that I cannot escape. It carries me and sustains me when I am tired or skeptical or even just silent.
We believe IN…
Sometimes I hear an objection to the creeds that is based on individual resistance to some of its specific statements. Personally, I hold a deep respect for this objection because I place high value on authenticity and integrity. It seems noble to me, for one to abstain from statements to which they might not personally subscribe.
And it’s also quite a modern concept to think of belief as primarily individualistic assent to propositional truths. In the 4th century, for example, when the Nicene Creed was being written and revised at church councils, bishops and church leaders focused on what would be taught in their cities and regions. The matter wasn’t hammered out among individuals vying merely for personal preferences over those of everyone else.
I’ve found it helpful to embrace a nuanced translation for the way believe is often written in the Gospels – not so much believe in (like buying in) but believing into (like trusting or embracing).
“We believe in God” signifies more than acknowledging divine existence or agreeing on the details; it denotes a collective leaning, trusting, and embracing of God as the heart of our community. And this is what we are doing together, yes? – leaning on each other and trusting in God as we seek to make sense and make meaning and make our way as Church in the world.
I write today just hoping to offer a glimpse into the complex interplay between belief, community, and tradition. The conversation goes on, and I invite you to join in. Your insights, objections, and reflections continue to enrich this ongoing exploration.
The Rev. R. Scott Painter