Creeds Holding Close

To hold the Prayer Book close is to embrace the creeds. A creed is a summary of essential Bible teaching; creeds come under the authority of the Bible. But they also serve us as guides to reading the Bible. Beginning students of the Bible would be helped by using the creeds as their guide to the Bible; more advanced students can then use the Bible to help interpret the creeds.

When I first started these posts on our need, at this time, to hold the Prayer Book close, someone on Twitter tried to start an argument (surprise!) by pitting the Prayer Book against the Bible. I refused to engage because the Prayer Book is suffused with Scripture; there is hardly a phrase in it that lack scriptural foundation. What is true of the Book as a whole is true to a supreme degree in the creed

That we have the Nicene Creed was a close thing. A “latitudinarian” spirit being strong in the late 18th century, the 1786 proposal for the first American Book did not include it. But the first American Book of 1789 printed the Nicene Creed in the Holy Communion service after the Gospel. It, or the Apostles’ Creed, was to be read there, although it could be omitted if the creed had been said immediately before in Morning Prayer.

That same latitudinarian spirit is present in some current proposals for liturgical revision: they would remove the Nicene Creed from being something to be said at all Eucharists on Sundays and Major Feasts—the requirement in the Prayer Book. It is true that a recitation of the Nicene Creed was not done at Eucharists in many places in the first Christian millennium. But it has been our usage (with, until 1979, the Apostles’ Creed as an alternative). Our Prayer Book locks the Nicene Creed to the Eucharist apart from weekday celebrations on non-feast days.

Since the creed follows the sermon, it can provide a correction for whatever crazy things the preacher might have proclaimed. A dear (now departed) theologian friend, not an Episcopalian, marveled at this. He found the Episcopal Church remarkable, that the faith of the ages could be undermined or ignored or outright rejected in a sermon, and then everyone would rise up and say, “We believe in one God . . .” Another friend has told me that sometimes the first word of the creed should be, “Nevertheless”! This, I think, is an underappreciated strength of the Episcopal Church.

The Apostles’ Creed is the ancient creed for baptism. Episcopalians extend that use by putting it in Morning and Evening Prayer. Every day, when we say those set prayers, we reaffirm the faith proclaimed at the baptismal initiation of Christian life.

There is a third creed, the Athanasian, which is long and didactic. It is printed in the Prayer Book as a historical document but is never prescribed for use in worship. This is its first appearance in an American Book. It is stubbornly and charmingly pedantic, saying for instance: “yet ... there are not three incomprehensibles ... but one incomprehensible.” It lacks the authority of the Nicene and Apostles’ Creeds.

To hold the Prayer Book close is to take the creeds seriously and to study them. When I was on staff at Saint Thomas in New York City, we organized a series of Evensong sermons on the creed, taking them more or less one line a week. I have written on them myself. They are worth whatever study we are able to give them.

Study, and also proclaim: the Apostles’ Creed daily, and the Nicene Creed weekly.

Out & About. The next “Good Books & Good Talk” seminar will be at 5 p.m. on Sunday, March 20, on Children of Men by P. D. James. The book is quite different from the movie, and more theological (which, in my book, means better).

The Rev. Canon Dr. Victor Lee Austin is the Theologian-in-Residence for the diocese and is the author of several books including, "Losing Susan: Brain Disease, the Priest's Wife, and the God who Gives and Takes Away."