Several years ago, I was leading a workshop on New Member Ministry in a North East Diocese when I made a comment about formation of new church members. I referred to the Nicene Creed as a summation of Episcopal/Anglican Doctrine. To my surprise, a Canon of the Diocese interrupted me and said, “I don’t agree with what you just said.” I became an Episcopalian and then a Priest because you can be an Episcopalian and believe whatever you want to believe.”
Since I was not quite clear where the Canon was coming from, I said, “How do you square this with a church with a liturgy where every Sunday in almost every congregation we say the Nicene Creed?”
“Oh,” the Canon replied, “that is just there because it is a part of our history.”
I paused for a moment and then said, “Well, you are wrong on this. We have a section of the Prayer Book that has ‘historical documents’ in it. The Creed is in our Eucharistic service as a summary of the Church’s teaching.
“Well,” said the Canon “You have a right to your opinion just as I have a right to mine.”
Now I had several responses that I could have given to this dismissal of my statement, but I thought for a moment and realized that if the Canon actually believed everything I had just said was a matter of opinion then nothing I could add would make any difference. I went back to talking about how to better welcome new folks. I have, however, never forgotten this encounter because of the way that objective truth was negated by a person’s subjective opinion.
As all Episcopal clergy should know, of course, the Nicene Creed was placed in our Prayer Book liturgy, before the sermon in early Prayer Books and after the sermon since 1979, so that any individual sermon would be proclaimed in the context of the Church’s wider teaching and doctrine. I know this fact because scholars who have studied the Prayer Book liturgy have documented the editors’ intentions on the matter. I had the privilege of doing my theological study during the publishing of the Prayer Book Studies which laid the framework for the 79 Book of Common Prayer. So I read every one of the Studies.
The placement of the Nicene Creed as well as the use of the Apostles Creed in Baptism and the placement of the Creed of Athanasius in the 79 book served a two-fold purpose. First, they affirmed the Anglican Principle that only the Doctrinal positions of the undivided Church of the first three centuries could have universal authority among “catholic” (note small “c”) Christians. As our theologians have often said, “We are a Creedal Church not a Confessional one.”
Second, the presence of the Creed serves as an on-going connection to our apostolic origins as a living presence in today’s Church. This second reason is based on the Anglican attitude toward Tradition. Again, most of our clergy would know that the three sources of authority in our community (as attributed to Hooker) are Scripture, Tradition, and Reason.”
Over the years, I have often heard leaders in the Episcopal Church appeal to this “three-legged stool” as our authority which allows them to explain what modern “reason” has to teach us. In doing this I usually note two things about their attitude. First is that Reason (which meant for our forbearers “logic” or philosophically or scientifically information) seems always to be the most important leg of the stool. So, for example, what we “know” today about gender and human sexuality triumphs anything the Scriptures have to say on this matter. Hooker actually said it quite differently. He said that the first authority is the Scriptures, then “What cannot be proven by the warrant of Scripture” should then be referred to Tradition. And “What cannot be proven by warrant of tradition” should then be referred to Reason. This is why we should never really refer to a “three-legged stool” since Hooker, who is our authority on this matter, clearly had a hierarchal view of these values.
Second, anyone who listens today to what many of our leaders have to say about these matters must know that “Tradition” has almost no value whatsoever for them especially as it comes to what the Church has taught in the past. Quite the contrary, when many of our leaders use the word ‘tradition’ they mean it in the same negative way one may speak of those who say “we never did it that way before” use the expression to veto any new or innovative ideas. Tradition as it has to do with what vestments you may wear or what altar hangings you might put in place for Lent is fine, but Tradition in teaching is a constraining and confining arbitrary restriction to what Reason has come to understand.
Now let me contrast this attitude to what Archbishop Michael Ramsey said on this topic. “Traditionalism is the dead weight of the past; worshipping the past just because it is the past. Tradition is the living presence of those who have going before. It is the vote by those who are no longer present with us but who will be with us in the world that is to come.” I have always thought that this idea of the vote “of those who have gone before” is a wonderful way to express the importance of Tradition. So when a parishioner asked of his Eastern Orthodox Priest, “Do I have to believe the Creed?” The Priest replied, “Oh my goodness no. You do not have to believe it. You get to believe it. The Creed, like the Church itself is God’s gift to you.”
So when some leaders argue that we should remove the Nicene Creed from the Eucharistic liturgy to make us more inclusive and relevant to non-members, I see this argument as just one more expression by folks today who believe that we present living humans have a superior view of all things that have gone before. I have found that when visitors, especially non-Churched people, visit a Church, they expect it to have a form of liturgy, a Holy Book that we would read and expound, and a set of beliefs that we hold. I would expect this of either a Jewish service or a Muslim service. Inclusiveness as an argument for not having these things is at best condescension and at worst folly. It demands that we surrender our identity in a way that most visitors would never ask or understand. It is in the final analysis one more argument against tradition by those who have long ago lost any regard for it.
Of course, I have a right to my opinion, but this is not my point. My point is that I do not refer to myself as a minority in the Church. Sure, I understand what conservatives in the Church mean when they say this. Many times I have voted on a Diocesan level in the minority. I have certainly as a Deputy to General Convention frequently voted in the minority. I have often found myself marginalized by so-called “Inclusive” people. Yet, none of this convinces me that I am a minority. They simply convince me that in today’s rapidly declining Church, strongly influenced by the secular spirit of the age, and certain of the rightness of every position on social and political issues that I am out voted at this moment. Then I say the Creed and remember that I have voted with the overwhelming majority with whom I have on-going fellowship, if the All Saints Day Liturgy and the Creed are correct. By the way, I have Progressive friends who also say the Creed with integrity and belief. Not all Progressives dismiss the Creedal affirmation of Doctrine as mere Tradition or worse, as the Canon did, as opinion. So, even if I have voted differently on an issue, we have already voted on the essentials. That is what has, is, and will in the future hold us together.
We have cast our vote, indeed our lives, with Peter, James, John, Matthew, Paul, Mary, Mary Madeline, Perpetua, Felicitas, Justin Martyr, Francis, Claire, Patrick, Augustine, Augustine of Canterbury, Cranmer, Hooker, Brooks, Hines, and a heavenly host of those known and unknown who have already voted.
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