Liturgy Matters - Part V
We are still in the second movement of the Eucharist - the Liturgy of the Word. We have spoken of the scriptures, and spoken of the sermon. As the second part of this movement, as a congregation, we now make response. We do this firstly by saying a version of the creed or an affirmation of our faith.
It is Timothy Radcliffe, of the Dominican Order, in his book, Why Go to Church? who writes that we do not usually experience ripples of excitement when we stand to say the creed - and yet its history was precisely that. In the early Church, after months of preparation, those to be baptized were brought into the Easter Vigil Service for both their baptism and first declaration of the faith. As he describes it, 'The church was dark, one was stripped naked, and plunged into the cold water three times as one confessed one's faith in the three persons of the Trinity... The experience was disorientating, probably terrifying. The recitation of the creed was rooted in the dramatic breaking with one's old life and becoming a member of the community of the faithful... it signified a courageous and even dangerous rupture with one's previous life.'
What the creed is not, is simply a recitation of dogma, though it can be perceived as that. I sometimes speak to people who say they find they cannot say the creed because it is not quite what they believe, or they struggle with elements of it and miss those parts out. Well, at least the words are being taken seriously in those cases.
But in fact, it is more about singing a love song to God in relationship with him, than it is about reciting a set of facts. It is Bishop Michael Perham who writes in New Handbook of Pastoral Liturgy, of the unfortunate 'fashion for insisting that the creed be said, rather than sung, turning what for generations had seemed like a doxological song into a doctrinal statement.' He goes on to say, 'To say that it is a statement of faith, rather than a song of praise, is a false distinction, and doctrine in worship always needs to be turned into doxology.' The word 'doxology, a Greek word which literally means 'glory-words', is simply a short hymn of praise to God. In fact, in my last church, we would sometimes sing a beautiful version of The Apostles' Creed: perhaps one All Age service we will try it out to see how it feels.
The two main creeds we have are The Nicene Creed, which begins 'We believe in God..', and The Apostles' Creed, which begins 'I believe in God' and both have their place in worship. The latter comes out of the original context of baptism, where a personal declaration of faith is made. The first reminds us, as Timothy Radcliffe says, that 'our faith is not the private assent to a number of propositions but our membership of a believing community.' He goes on to assert that 'Belief is the beginning of friendship with God,' and '...we are God's friends not by thinking things about him, but seeing things with God, through God's eyes as it were.' In other words, saying or singing a creed as praise to God helps us to understand and know him better as our friend.
Whilst our Common Worship rubric asks that the Nicene Creed is normative in our worship, it also says that 'on occasion the Apostles' Creed or an authorised Affirmation of Faith may be used'. There are in fact an additional 8 authorised affirmations of faith which can be used - 2 other versions of The Apostles' Creed, 1 version of the rarely used Athanasius Creed, 1 a version of the baptismal promises, and 4 others which are all based on texts from Scripture - from 1 Corinthians, Philippians, Ephesians and Revelation. At an All Age Service, when we are seeking to provide a simpler service, I usually insert an alternative creed or affirmation of faith. In fact, I have been questioned on one of these, by someone convinced they can only begin with the words I believe or We believe.. so perhaps this is my place to make reply and say absolutely not so. The affirmations of faith, authorised for use by Common Worship, do not always begin this way (although the creeds do). We have 10 to choose from - and you will find we do use different ones in that first Sunday service, depending on the season, and the rest of the liturgy. For almost all our services it will, however, of course continue to be the Nicene Creed.
Finally, it is worth ending with a comment from theologian Nicholas Lash, who writes, 'If faith is the way in which, in this life, we know God, then learning to 'believe in' God is learning to see all things in the way God sees them: as worth infinite expenditure, understanding and care.' For those who struggle with what the creed says, or what the creed means, maybe that is where we begin: to see it as an invitation not to recite dogma at God, but to enter into a way of understanding, that as we immerse ourselves in it, will help to teach us about God and draw us into deeper relationship with him, even as we sing or say this great hymn of praise.