by Eleanor Johnston and Wayne Fraser
In each of six Niagara churches where we have worshipped, Wayne as interim priest and Eleanor as chorister, a few parishioners have expressed difficulties with the content of the Nicene Creed.
Picture this: a diligent, positive parishioner asks to see Wayne and sets a time and date. When he arrives, he closes the door, locks it, takes a seat and confesses: “I feel guilty for doubting the Nicene Creed.”
What a relief! He isn’t suffering from cancer or about to lose his job. Theology? Let’s talk. First he needs to be heard: “The Creed is not even in the Bible. It’s all about levels of power. This isn’t what Jesus is all about. The word love isn’t even in the creed! God doesn’t sit on the clouds, for heaven’s sake! Most of my beliefs are reflected in the hymns and sermons. I have to tune out when we get to the Creed. I can say about half the words.
What’s wrong with me? Am I still a Christian?”
The first response must affirm his doubting faith. Jesus helped Thomas when he experienced doubt. Questioning faith is an opportunity for growth. Freaking out at doubters is singularly unhelpful. We, too, are uncomfortable reciting the Nicene Creed every Sunday. “Uncomfortable?” That’s an understatement.
An active lay person in another parish told how, in a conversation with two priests, she expressed similar doubts. Both men harangued her and insisted she take a Bishop’s Diploma Course to reconsider her faith, so that she could properly function as a lay reader. When two ordained men gang up on a single lay woman, forcefully telling her that she must believe every word of the Creed to be a Christian, that is bullying—at such a moment, the Creed loses its credibility.
“There’s so much old science reflected in the Creed that does not jive with what we know today about the universe”
Why is the weekly repetition of the Nicene Creed so important? In most churches this is the case. The ritual must have some meaning for parishioners, and we get that. The difficulty arises with those who are inflexible, who insist that it must be spoken at every Eucharist. Alternate creeds like the Apostles Creed or the ancient Shema are deemed second-rate. Yet in some churches experimental liturgy attempts to use contemporary language to reflect today’s spirituality!
After all, the Nicene Creed was commissioned by Emperor Constantine in 325 C.E. Imagine Jesus and his followers composing something similar for the Caesars in their lifetimes. Surely Jesus’ teachings are more spiritual, more profound, than a Roman Emperor’s plans to make Christianity the state religion. This elevated status undermined the radical theology of Jesus which challenged Rome’s violent suppression of its conquered people.
There’s so much old science reflected in the Creed that does not jive with what we know today about the universe. The ancient concept of a three-tiered world, to begin with. And a flat earth.
The Nicene Creed teaches us to believe in “one holy, catholic and apostolic Church.” Is that in the Bible? No. What good does it do? It does not make much difference to most people’s lives. If we are still considering the role of the Nicene Creed in the Christian church after 1,700 years, still fretting about ideologies, we have missed the point.
It’s more important to be like Jesus than to repeat words about Jesus. Faith is not recitation of words but living the Word, following the Way of Jesus. Instead of reciting a creed, we should be helping, praying, learning, teaching and curing in Jesus’ name. Jesus did not tell us to believe in concepts but to trust in Him, in the Father, in the way of the Kingdom.
Eleanor Johnston and the Reverend Wayne Fraser with the form below.