Rev Canon David Jennings

This is the title of a Modern Church day conference in Lichfield on Saturday 1st November, led by David Jennings.

It has become an increasingly popular question. These are my own personal thoughts. No doubt the conference will be much more enlightening.

Worship has changed so much over the last few years that we are left wondering whether there is anything at all that worship needs. How do we decide whether a particular ‘messy church’ event is an act of worship? What ingredients does it need in order to count as one?

What is worship?

When I was about half my present age, still heavily influenced by my anglo-catholic upbringing, I remember feeling utterly shocked by another vicar in a Deanery Chapter meeting. He had just returned from a big Vineyard church in the USA and was telling us what had happened there. At one point he mentioned that in preparation for a big service ‘We had some time of worship training’. In context I was puzzled. Knowing that he was a charismatic, and that charismatics often referred to singing choruses as simply ‘worship’, I wanted to check what kind of training that was. To me, worship training might include techniques for stilling the mind, prayers to recite before the service begins, the different kinds of prayer, self-examination before confession, lists of intercessions, how to direct your mind when Communion was being administered to other people, etc, etc. In those days personal prayer books abounded, giving instruction on these things. They did not include singing practice; that was too trivial to be included in any book I had come across. So I wanted reassurance that this charismatic vicar didn’t just count singing practice as worship training. I didn’t get it: he had meant exactly that. At the time I felt outraged. However it was he, not I, who was swimming with the tide.

So if singing charismatic choruses is worship, is an organ recital worship? Is a flower festival worship? Is a coffee morning in aid of cancer research worship? Where do we draw the line? If anywhere? And if nowhere, does worship mean anything at all?

Given the present fluidity, creeds are a possible way to draw the line. A community of believers gathers together and, whatever else it does, it shares a public statement of belief. They express their unity with each other and their tradition. They are anchored. By reciting the Apostles’ Creed rather than a passage from the Bhagavad Gita they publicly affirm their Christian roots.

Words change their meanings

Unfortunately I don’t think this answer will do. There are two reasons. The first is that age-old creeds lose their meanings over time. The conference title asks whether worship needs believable creeds. Most churchgoers today, when they recite the creeds, do not worry unduly about the exact meanings of the words. If they do, they probably think they can say the words with a clear conscience so long as they can interpret them in their own way. That was certainly not what the bishops intended when they established the text of the Nicene Creed.

To take one example, reciters of the Nicene Creed say ‘We look for the resurrection of the dead’. If you believe in some kind of life after death this sounds okay. Most people prefer it to ‘the resurrection of the body’ which is the way the older Apostles’ Creed puts it. The difference is there because the original versions are in Greek, and the two creeds use a different Greek word. The Nicene Creed uses nekron, a plural word which can be translated ‘the dead’ in general, though the primary reference is to their bodies. The singular always means a corpse. In the English translation we altogether lose the connection to the corpses, and we like it that way; after all, we don’t actually believe dead bodies are going to be reconstituted and brought back to life.

The Apostles’ Creed is a tougher nut to crack. What is being raised is the sarkos, the very word Paul uses to distinguish flesh from spirit. There is no way the translators can get round it. It has to be the body which is raised.

In either case, it was the bodies they meant. This, after all, was the whole point of Matthew 27:51-3. As Jesus died on the cross,

The earth shook, and the rocks were split. The tombs also were opened, and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised. After his resurrection they came out of the tombs and entered the holy city and appeared to many.

So throughout the Middle Ages Christians believed that when Christ returned graves would open and the bodies would come to life again. A surviving relic of this belief is the fear of graveyards. They are spooky because – well, imagine how you would feel if you were there when it happened!

This is just one illustration of how we do not think like fourth century Christians and should not pretend we do.

Requiring commitment can exclude

The other reason why I think worship does not need creeds is that they exclude. There have been mountains of commentary on the decline of churchgoing in the second half of the twentieth century, and one of the themes has been whether people can turn up anonymously, sit at the back and go home feeling they have had a worthwhile experience without feeling any pressure to get more involved. If you have been attending Communion services for a long time you may remember the huge opposition there was when the Peace was introduced. We had to shake hands with each other! Many people had a strong gut feeling that this was not what they had come to church for. At the time, unfortunately, the clergy knew best. The congregation were to be a family who all knew each other and learned to talk to each other about their faith. In that model, creeds had a natural place in the family.

Although it worked in some ways, it excluded those who did not want to be dragged into a new community. Today there is greater awareness of the need to cater for those people as well. This has an implication for creeds. If an interested enquirer turns up to a church service to see what it is like, the Peace may puzzle them but it will be the communal recitation of the Creed which creates most tension. All of a sudden they want me to stand up and say I believe this stuff! What am I going to do? Help!

Creeds first began when groups of early Christians summarised what they believed for the benefit of enquirers and public debate. As a natural development from this, it became common for new members, at their baptism, to declare their assent to these beliefs. Later, in 325, the Nicene Creed was established for a very different reason: the emperor Constantine, seeking to unify the empire, wanted the bishops to ditch their differences and present a united front. This provided a powerful boost to the practice of denouncing one’s opponents as heretics: the Creed could be used as a criterion of orthodoxy.

After all the centuries of heretic-hunting, I wonder whether we should demote them. When people get baptised I can see the point of a personal testimony, but not of obliging the candidate to assent to every clause in the Apostles’ Creed. I can see the point of faith summaries, but not of keeping them unchanged for centuries. If we restrict creeds to moments when they have a specific function within gathered communities, most of our worship can express a more open welcome.

In practice, in every worshipping congregation beliefs vary in two ways. People believe different things from each other, and some people care about their beliefs more than others. In a healthy church there should be lots of different activities, one of which should be open discussion where people who want to can discuss their different beliefs and explore their differences, without anyone feeling threatened with exclusion or fearing they might say something forbidden. If we find ourselves saying things that religious leaders consider unsound, Jesus did too.