between David Storey, Anthony Woollard and Jonathan Clatworthy
from Signs of the Times No. 45 - Apr 2012

David Storey

I wonder what you make at my attempt at a more universal creed but hopefully Christian. I have tried it on others including Jonathan who suggested I pass it on to you.
We believe in God, Creator and Divine Lover
    of all humanity and creation.
We believe in Jesus, the Christ,
    who has manifested the nature of God to us
    and still seeks to assist us live a divine life.
We believe that the Spirit of God
    guides and strengthens us to create
    a world where God's will is done.
So may all humanity and creation be blessed.

Anthony Woollard

Creeds are funny things! They usually emerge to answer the questions of the day.

The earliest creed, as you know well, appears to have been 'Jesus is Lord', and that is probably the basic creed by which most Christians live and define themselves; the charismatic Evangelical and the liberal Catholic may mean somewhat different things by it, and the interesting question is how much that matters. Then we have the fuller creeds, emerging from the debate about Marcionism (is God really the creator of all things?), Trinitarianism and - especially in the Nicene version - Christology. Actually, though I know there are liberals who wouldn't agree, I think that the Nicene Creed (perhaps with the omission of the virginity of Mary and maybe slightly different language about the metaphysical relationship between Jesus and the Father) is a pretty good summary of what Christians believe; it touches very lightly indeed on the Atonement ("for us and for our salvation") and on the Church and its life (mentioning only one of the Sacraments), thus leaving open a range of interpretation of two issues which have torn Christians apart, but still implying (as your formulation does not) that something about these topics is of the essence of the faith. Can we get away with less, as you suggest? I'm not sure. But I would suggest that your formulation might best be presented within a reasonably full discussion of what Creeds are for and why the historic ones don't work for many people. What do you think?

David Storey

Part of the question needs to be what is the context of the Creed. 

Political parties and most clubs would be considered peculiar if they repeated  their constitution or even their principles at every occasion that they met.  Why should Christians be lumbered with repeating a translation of what a council of bishops is deemed to have decided hundreds of years ago. Particularly when a number who have studied the matter are dubious about the democracy of the document. And also do not feel that it is appropriate for today.

What I tried to do was slightly mirror an alternative to the traditional creed but with something that might be meaningful to the ordinary churchgoer or better still the visitor to the church who is otherwise mystified by such phrases as "after whom every family on earth is named".

Although I used the term creed, mission statement or some other modern jargon might be more appropriate.

Anthony Woollard

This correspondence gets more and more interesting. Why indeed should we recite, constantly, forms of words dreamed up under dubious circumstances centuries ago when the issues at stake were (perhaps) different from what they are now?

As regards the frequent recitation, you are right that few if any secular organisations recite their constitutions at every major meeting - yet Jews and Muslims are enjoined to recite their (simpler) creeds even more often than Christians, a fact which might give pause for thought. And US schoolchildren pledging daily allegiance to the flag (whatever some of their politicians may do to besmirch it) may be another interesting parallel.  One function of the creeds may be as oaths of allegiance (see Pliny inter alios).

Also, and following on from this, they are affirmations of a continuity and a community which are not restricted to place and time. Hugh Montefiore was fond of describing the creeds as 'gang songs', thus bringing in further parallels, fortunate or otherwise, with the scouting movement. That is the basis on which I, fairly happily, say (or where possible sing) the Nicene Creed every Sunday - and why I would be at least as sad to see it replaced as the Scouts would if they lost Ging-gang-gooly. (I have written elsewhere on the significance of football chants; again there is a parallel, I think.)

Of course another, and very important, historical use of the creeds is as defences  against heresy. As liberals we may properly be suspicious of the very concept of 'heresy'. Yet there are questions about boundaries in any organisation. As I suggested in my previous e-mail, the trouble with 'Jesus is Lord' is that it only represents a boundary-statement if you agree what it means (eg, in the context of the time, that the Emperor, or Mithras, is NOT the ultimate Kyrios). Hence the greater elaboration of creeds in later centuries, which served well enough against Arians, monophysites, and later Albigensians and the like. Against whom might we feel obliged, even perhaps reluctantly as liberals, to draw boundaries today? The New Atheism perhaps? The Shema does that as well as any Christian creed, perhaps better, though obviously it lacks the reference to Jesus as the embodiment of God and all that follows from that. Or fundamentalism? That is tricky, especially when certain of our brothers and sisters in other parts of the Anglican Communion would like to impose a quasi-credal Covenant on us nasty liberals.

But one wonders in any case how far the old heresies are still alive; I could make out a very good case that most fundamentalists are really monophysites in disguise, and I think that that would chime in well with some of Jonathan's arguments.

Jonathan Clatworthy

That’s interesting. What are you thinking of when you compare fundamentalists with monophysites?

Anthony Woollard
My eyes were opened here when I heard a rather fundamentalist preacher say that those of us who found it hard to believe literally in the Gospel miracles were sub-Christian.
'Of course Jesus could work miracles; he was God, wasn't he?'

Er... yes, so we are told to believe, but there are also issues which have been raised by kenotic Christology for example. I am not convinced that my preacher friend really believed in the humanity of Jesus, just as, at the other end of the spectrum, my Radical Orthodox friends, with whom I otherwise have a lot more sympathy, don't really believe in the humanity of the Church.

David Storey

Can I suggest that the Lord's Prayer can be a similar mantra for laity as is the Jewish Shema or Islamic prayers.

I have gone back to it with the emphasis on 'thy will be done'. For the schools I want to see the introduction of silent meditation at the start of the day or perhaps should I suggest guided meditation so that the emphasis is on letting go all those things that are troubling and being attentive to the potential for learning in the present in this time at school. I heard of it being practiced in a school at Kidlington, just outside Oxford and of it being practiced and spread elsewhere. One of the new Academies starts the day with the pupils committing themselves  to the aspirations of the school. What I heard, I was not against.

I went to a school which had a tradition of School Songs which were at times aspirational but also with a sense of fun. Regarding the New Atheists I want to challenge them to include respect and love in their aspirations.

Regarding Albigensians, I have a great respect for them. As far as I am concerned Jesus would have been with them rather than those Crusading against them. I have more sympathy with what I like in Arianism which is concentrating on the humanity of Jesus. I find the churches' emphasis on the divinity of Jesus alienating and unhelpful when it does not recognise the divinity within all humans, which is what I believe Jesus taught. I like to think that my theology owes more to Maria in the Sound of Music than to traditional creeds. We need not to be held back from recognising the importance of experience in formulating today's truths, and shelving yesterday's truths.

As religious people we are handling mysteries, but hopefully with care and not in the confrontational and conlictual ways of the past. We need to learn true humility and respect for others, also when silence or an adequate pause is appropriate.

Anthony Woollard

Given that the Albigensians were essentially Gnostics - anti-body, anti-sex - I find it hard to be sympathetic to them on a theological level or see how Jesus could be on their side, though on a sociological level it might be a different matter, and I would certainly not want to be on the side of their oppressors.

What you could well argue, in the light of current Anglican Communion events, is that the historic creeds have NOT in fact saved us from anti-sex/anti-body tendencies in more recent times - and that, so far as they HAVE helped to put down undesirable deviations in the past, it has usually been linked with oppression and bloodshed. But even conceding a lot of that, I would still want to make out a case that the boundaries of faith which the creeds attempt to draw, quite irrespective of whether their historical origins would bear scrutiny, just might have more modern resonance than appears at first sight. I also feel that the "gang song" function is far from irrelevant - as I think you recognise, even if you might prefer different songs and less wordy/noisy ones!

You may have a point however in arguing that creeds would be largely redundant if we took other parts of the liturgy, including the Lord's Prayer, more seriously. The use of the word sacramentum in Pliny's famous description of Christians' weekly "oath of allegiance" is a very obvious pointer to the idea that commitment in the liturgy is not only credal. It still depends, I think, on what we want to affirm, and why.

  • If we believe that assent to propositions is really important, we will be keen on propositional creeds. I suspect that many MC members would not be all that enthusiastic about such an argument - though if there were no propositional element at all to faith I suspect there would be no theology and no role for MC!
  • If we believe that boundaries are important, we will want creeds to draw those boundaries. Again a lot of MC members might be unenthusiastic here - though history suggests that people of faith need to have some idea about what they do NOT believe as well as about what they do.
  • If there is anything at all in these arguments, then we must ask: what propositions? what boundaries? And here we inevitably get into arguments about the relevance of statements which are some sixteen centuries old. There is, as I have tried to illustrate, a case for saying that they are not quite as irrelevant to today as appears at first sight. But we would all have our favourite ideas to add to them: maybe about the environmental implications of the belief in God as Creator, or about the teachings of Jesus particularly on social matters, or about aspects of the Church. Should these be included - or should we be thankful that the creeds are silent on matters of current controversy?

One possible solution is a combination between history and the here-and-now. I think of Confirmations in Coventry Diocese (which is not a particular beacon of theological liberalism) where obviously the 'oath of allegiance' aspect is pretty important and where candidates are encouraged BOTH collectively to recite one of the historic creeds AND individually to make a statement about their personal faith; the results are often interesting. As regards specific congregations or other groupings, you have used the expression 'mission statement', and both our parish and our Diocese, like many others, have one of those (rarely very adequate but sometimes useful) to set alongside their commitment to the historic creeds.

Perhaps this is now the time to draw this correspondence to a close, publish it in Signs and invite readers to contribute?

David Storey is a member of Christians Awakening to a New Awareness (CANA).
Anthony Woollard is editor of Signs of the Times. He taught Theology at William Temple College  before entering the Civil Service where he spent most of his career in the the Department of Education.
Jonathan Clatworthy lives in Liverpool and is Modern Church General Secretary. He has worked as a parish priest, university chaplain and lecturer in Ethics.