By Daniel Martins
The African proverb It takes a village to raise a child has become a political football in recent years. Liberals embrace it as an emblem of commitment to the common good. Conservatives decry it as a sign of encroachment by the state on the prerogatives of parents. With some adaptations and exceptions, it also maps pretty closely to distinctions between the broad stream of Catholic Christianity and some among the heirs of the Reformation tradition.
My early Christian formation was in a free-church evangelical setting. There was a sharp focus on personal responsibility, and the need for each individual to make a decision for Christ. I am very grateful for this upbringing, that I was led to indeed make such a decision, and to bear witness to that decision in the waters of baptism. I learned to love Jesus. I learned the Scriptures.
During my high school years, I was moved to commit myself overtly and totally to Christ and his service. I have no memories of those years that I hold other than fondly. As I entered young adulthood, I was very much a product of the church community with which my family worshiped from the time I was old enough for school until I went off to college. There is some irony in this, however, because that very community would have been oblivious to any central role in my spiritual formation. To have any collective awareness of such an influence would have been thought to infringe on the role of my parents.
Rather shortly after I left the nest, both familial and ecclesiastical, my theological horizons began to broaden. The telling moment for me came during an exchange of letters with a church friend from high school days. I was explaining my growing understanding of and appreciation for the Eucharist. He replied along these lines: “I haven’t really yet figured out my theology of Communion.”
I wouldn’t have used this language at the time, but that was the moment I knew I was a Catholic. I had not yet adopted a different church label — I had merely dabbled with sacramental and liturgical Christianity — but I knew right then that I would never go back to my free-church evangelical ways. I never wanted to have to do what my friend testified to not having done yet—that is, work out my theology of anything. As a college sophomore, I still felt the burden of doing so, and was demoralized. By the time I was a senior, I had learned to rest in the blessed givenness of the Catholic faith. I could simply receive what was bequeathed to me rather than have to confect anything on my own. Far from being confining or stultifying, it was an immense relief. I had, in effect, joined the village, and at last recognized that it had raised me.
So, perhaps we can reframe the proverb: “It takes a church to raise a saint.” It seems that such a realization was in play during the heady days of ecumenical optimism in the 1960s and ’70s, when Roman Catholic, Anglican, Lutheran, and other churches cooperated with one another in the development of new and revised English versions of classic liturgical texts, in service to the culmination of the century-old ferment of liturgical scholarship that led to Vatican II’s Sacrosanctum Concilium and the 1979 Book of Common Prayer, among other fruits. These scholars agreed to recast the Nicene Creed in the first-person plural: “We believe.” Marion Hatchett’s magisterial Commentary on the American Prayer Book (p. 333) notes that the original conciliar form of the creed indeed used the plural, that its liturgical use in the Western church was a relatively late development, at a time when vocal participation by the laity was at a low ebb, when it was modified to the singular form (“I believe”). Hence, the plural form adopted in the 1970s was not an innovation, but a restoration.
(With some sadness I note that the most recent English translation of the Roman Missal, from 2011, mandates a return to the “I believe” form. This is an accurate translation of the Latin standard credo, but ignores the history of the Nicene Creed and is ecumenically regressive.)
Historical considerations aside, however, it is for pastoral reasons that I’m glad those whose canonical allegiance is to the 1979 BCP have the plural version (I should both note and commend: available even in Rite One celebrations). I can speak to this quite personally.
Between the time I held my egocentric (“I believe”) understanding of Christian faith and the time I recognized the Catholic village that had raised me without my knowing it, I had a brief wilderness sojourn. I pretty much stopped praying, and was very lax in public worship. I never actually lost my faith — in fact, I might have foolishly said it had matured beyond the need for either private prayer or public worship — but I was rather off the rails spiritually. It was the communal faith of the Catholic inheritance that put me right. Even when I didn’t believe very much, I was sustained by what we believe. In periods of doubt and spiritual aridity since then, the same has pertained: I have been carried by the communal faith of the Church when my heart has been cold or numb.
I am, in fact, grateful beyond words that my spiritual welfare depends quite little on what I believe. Both I and those committed to my pastoral charge would be much poorer if that were the case. Even when there is a church full of individuals — and I’m virtually certain this has been the case at times — whose personal faith is a dimly lit wick, a mere ember, their ability to at least give ritual voice to the faith of the Church — We believe — is what makes their work of worship a hopeful gesture. On any given day, in any given congregation, there are baptized Christians for whom it would verge on hypocrisy to say I believe. It is a manifest gift of grace that what we believe is there for them on that occasion. It has certainly been the case with me, and I suspect it has been so with you.