Returning to worship after falling away from church attendance during my college and early graduate school years was an uncomfortable experience. At the time, I found it difficult to sing the hymns (the words can be so specific about belief). But I was especially challenged by the Nicene Creed, particularly the part that says Jesus is “the only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, of one Being with the Father” (1979 Book of Common Prayer, p. 358). I would typically remain silent at that point, letting the rest of the gathered assembly say those words and carry me through the remainder of the Creed to the Prayers of the People.

It took about a year of worship before I was able to not only say all of the Nicene Creed, but also embrace it as a beautiful expression of truths at the heart of the gospel. Somehow, in ways I could not fully perceive, regular immersion in the eucharistic liturgy shaped me and moved me beyond doubt and skepticism to deeper faith.

Over time I have come to experience the recitation of the Nicene Creed in corporate worship as a window into a larger world of meaning and purpose. I now embrace the orthodoxy of the Nicene Creed as a mystical opening into a transforming relationship with the triune God.

Putting the mysteries of God into words is tricky and at times awkward. Those mysteries transcend our ability to fully understand. They cannot be contained by propositions or exhausted by rational explanations. But like a compass that always points north, the Nicene Creed sends us in the right direction. The compass is not the destination, just as the Creed is not God. But it would be much easier to get lost without it.

Anglicanism agrees. Anglicanism maintains, beginning with the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral in the late 19th century, and reaffirmed by subsequent Lambeth Conferences and General Conventions during the 20th century, that the Nicene Creed is “the sufficient statement of the Christian faith” (BCP, p. 877).

The Nicene Creed is sufficient. It is enough. We don’t need anything more to summarize the essential tenets of the Christian faith. But neither can we do with anything less.

Subjectivism and relativism run rampant in our culture, reinforcing drive-thru window and cafeteria approaches to spirituality. In such a context, an entire congregation reciting the words of a creed hammered out by two Ecumenical Councils in the 4th century might seem rather odd.

Luke Timothy Johnson puts it like this in his essay on “The Countercultural Creed”:

Every Sunday millions of Christians recite the creed. Some sleepwalk through it thinking of other things, some puzzle over the strange language, some find offense in what it seems to say. Perhaps few of them fully appreciate what a remarkable thing they are doing. Would they keep on doing it if they grasped how different it make them in today’s world? Would they keep on saying these words if they really knew what they implied?

In a world that celebrates individuality, they are actually doing something together. In an age that avoids commitment, they pledge themselves to a set of convictions and thereby to each other. In a culture that rewards novelty and creativity, they use words written by others long ago. In a society where accepted wisdom changes by the minute, they claim that some truths are so critical that they must be repeated over and over again. In a throwaway, consumerist world, they accept, preserve, and continue tradition. Reciting the creed at worship is thus a countercultural act.[1]

When we recite the Nicene Creed in worship, we pledge allegiance to Christ and to the faith of the Church.[2] We affirm that there are boundaries and norms that define the Christian faith and differentiate it from other possible faiths. We acknowledge that this faith transcends our individual beliefs, opinions, and doubts.

Reciting the Nicene Creed, we give ourselves in humble trust and love to a faith that binds together all Christians — past, present, and future — into “the mystical body” of Christ and “the blessed company of all faithful people” (BCP, p. 339). We live more deeply into the mystery of a God revealed to us Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. And we offer a prayer and “a love song to God in thanksgiving for God’s mighty acts on behalf of our and the world’s salvation.”[3]

Notes

[1] Luke Timothy Johnson, “The Countercultural Creed: What Are Christians Really Doing When They Stand Up and Say ‘I Believe’?” Christianity Today (Oct. 1, 2003), accessed on Aug. 22, 2017.

[2] Cf. the Rt. Rev. Frank E. Wilson, Faith and Practice [1939], Revised Edition (Morehouse Publishing, 2004), p. 73.

[3] John H. Westerhoff, Living Faithfully as a Prayer Book People (Morehouse Publishing, 2004), p. 84.

About The Author

Originally from Tunica, Mississippi, Fr. Bryan Owen was baptized and raised in the United Methodist Church. A hunger for liturgical worship and the weekly celebration of Holy Eucharist led him into the Episcopal Church, where he was confirmed on the Feast of St. Mary the Virgin, Mother of Our Lord Jesus Christ.

Fr. Bryan earned an M.T.S. from Vanderbilt Divinity School, a Ph.D. in Religion, Ethics, and Society from Vanderbilt University’s Graduate Department of Religion, and a certificate in Anglican Studies from the School of Theology at the University of the South. After ordination, he served as rector of the Church of the Incarnation in West Point, Mississippi and as Canon for Parish Ministry at St. Andrew’s Cathedral in Jackson, Mississippi. He is currently rector of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

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