“Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” Matthew 28:19
Reading the notices in church porches can tell one a lot about a parish. In England, the established nature of the Church of England seems to mean that there are all sorts of notices with a legal air about them. The notices in the porch of the church in the village in which I grew up included one from the diocese advising that the benefice had been suspended and it was signed by someone called ’Plus Peter’. I think I knew what it meant, there would be no appointment of a new Rector to the group of parishes until the overall situation had been removed and the bishop had put his name to this ruling, but what would it have said to any casual visitor? Why do churches use such obscure language? Why do bishops insist on presenting themselves in such odd ways?
Walking back across the village green, the thought occurred, ‘what does any of it mean?’ All that stuff; what has any of it to do with Jesus?
What does it mean? It’s a question that must easily be asked about most of what the church does: the way we are organized, with synods and councils and vestries, the things to which we devote our time, the things for which parishes have to raise money. A visitor might easily wonder what it all means, what has it to do with a carpenter from Nazareth?
Among the things a visitor might find difficult to understand are the words we use, not just in church notices, but in our ordinary worship. If we were asked to explain the Nicene Creed to someone who had never encountered it, how much of it might we be able to explain? How much of it would have any meaning for the visitor?
Creeds have been disappearing from worship, both the Nicene Creed and the shorter Apostles’ Creed seem to be absent. The evangelical churches, not having a formal liturgy, never included the Creeds in their worship, tending to see them as making faith into something intellectual rather than as something personal. Even the churches with formal liturgies find less place for the statements of faith than they did in the past. In our own church, the Prayer Book says that the Nicene Creed should be said ‘on Sundays and principal holy days’.
Why do we keep the Nicene Creed in our worship? Why do we continue to say the Creed Sunday by Sunday?
The history of the Creed took many hours of lectures and study in theological college days: trying to understand the deliberations of the early Church Councils; trying to understand the arguments about the Greek philosophy and terminology that underlay much of the thought; trying to understand how those who lost the arguments, who were often as genuine and sincere as the winners, came to be labelled as ’heretics’. The motives behind some of the conflicts sometimes seemed less than noble, but that has often been the case in the history of the church, it is, after all, comprised of sinful human beings.
The Nicene Creed we say each week was adopted as a statement of belief at the Council of Nicaea that took place in 325, but took its final form at the Council of Constantinople in 381, so should properly be called the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed. It was a statement about God and about what it was that Christians believed.
The word ‘creed’ comes from the Latin word ‘credo’, meaning ‘I believe’, but the Nicene Creed became not just a statement of faith, it became the rule by which the church judged people. Countless people through the centuries would be executed because they expressed views that did not accord exactly with what the church prescribed. The church subjected people to hideous persecutions and punishments in order to ensure they expressed their faith in a very precise way.
After centuries of conflict over church doctrines, it might be easy to understand why many 21st Century Christians shy away from formal expressions of faith like the Nicene Creed. If the Creed owed more to the debates of the church than to following Jesus, in times when traditional churches are in decline, many Christians will understandably prefer a personal faith based on a relationship with Jesus, than one which is expressed in words from eighteen centuries ago.
Why do we continue to use the Creed when it may mean very little for most people who attend church and when many strong and growing churches feel no need for it? Isn’t it a bit like the notices in the church porch, something that is part of our heritage, but not something necessary to the life and the work of the church now?
Does the Nicene Creed have a practical meaning for us?
In practical terms, perhaps we could see it as anchor, or as a mooring post, something that stops the church from drifting in all sorts of directions, as might happen were there to be no formal statement of what it is we believe, a formal statement of which we remind ourselves each Sunday.
The Nicene Creed reminds us of essentials in our Christian life.
It begins with a declaration of belief that God is present throughout the cosmos, that he is the ‘maker of heaven and earth, of all that is, seen and unseen’. It is an important statement because it says there is meaning in our universe. If there is a creative spirit in all that is seen and unseen, then all that has been made has not only meaning, it has worth. In times when prejudice, racism, religious sectarianism and environmental destruction are major issues, the Creed says there is someone behind all that we see and that, if he is behind the world and the people we see, then we should treat his creation with the utmost respect.
The Creed reminds us of the life and work of Jesus. It reminds us that in Jesus, God took on our human flesh and blood, that he identified with us completely, that he took on the burden of our failing and wrongdoing, and that he died and rose again from the dead to prepare a way for us. Every week we say, ‘For us and for our salvation’ and every week we should remember the implications that has, If Jesus died for each of us, then each of us is called to respond to him and each and every one of us is of infinite worth; every single person is someone we should respect, not because we might like them, but because Jesus died for them.
The Creed says that, through Jesus, God is a God of justice, history has meaning, people will be called to account. ‘He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead’: when we read history from that perspective we can believe that there is purpose and justice in the unfolding centuries.
The Creed recalls us to acknowledge the work of the ‘Holy Spirit,
the Lord, the giver of life.’ How often is our faith in God the creator, or in Jesus in the Gospel story, but not in the Holy Spirit, God with us in every moment? How often at church meetings is there a sense of the Holy Spirit at work? Might church not be very different if we really believed what we said each Sunday about the Holy Spirit?
The Nicene Creed reminds us that God’s church is one church and belongs to no-one but him and that it is a church that looks forward to a world to come. If the people who stand and say the Creed really believed in such a church, would it not look very different?
While the words may seem dry and formal, the Nicene Creed has the potential to remind us of the heart of our faith and to challenge us to take seriously the God whom we worship.