One small item of ceremonial in church services left an impression on me when I was quite young. When the Vicar led the congregation in reciting one of the creeds, both he and the choristers would all turn and face eastwards together with the rest of the congregation. Everyone was saying the same words together and facing in the same direction. All were 'oriented' towards the rising sun, as Christian graves are, as a symbol of resurrection faith and hope. It felt like being part of a vast army, walking in step. My stance, my consent to those words spoken, expressed my belonging.
It was an experience revisited years later in the different setting of St Peter's square in Rome during a great Papal Mass. Singing the Creed in Latin, with a quarter of a million worshippers from all over the world, was an experience of solidarity strong enough to make the bones of contention which separate churches seem irrelevant. What a contrast between this and singing the Creed in a performance of J S Bach's B Minor Mass. This powerful and uplifting music was evoked by the composer's faith. It is hardly possible to sing it without being moved, yet it is possible to be moved emotionally without ever experiencing the same solidarity in shared belief. A puzzling number of non-believers figure among enthusiasts of sacred music.
The story of any believer in Jesus Christ cannot be told without them relating how His story has affected the course of their lives and given them a shared sense of purpose and destiny with others. Some churches encourage members to tell their stories openly - to give testimony - as it is called, in public worship. It is more common in Christian tradition to stand together and recite a declaration of faith, expressing interconnectedness between ourselves, others and God. This is what we call a 'creed' from the Latin word 'credo', meaning 'I believe'.
When an adult is Baptised or Confirmed, the ceremony includes a brief, simple declaration of personal commitment, and uses of one of the authorised creeds of the church. Ancient Baptismal services contained a formal interrogation of the candidate's beliefs. It was the last of a series of public ‘scrutinies’, as they were called, which were made at public services during the final weeks before initiation. At the end of the course of instruction called, then and now, ‘catechism’, the candidate stood naked in the water, ready to be immersed, and the following dialogue took place:-
Do you believe in God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth?
Candidate: I do.
Minister: Do you believe in Jesus Christ his only Son our Lord, Who was conceived
the Holy Spirit, Born of the Virgin Mary, Suffered under Pontius
Pilate, Was crucified, died, and buried, He descended into hell; The
third day he rose again from the dead, He ascended into heaven, And is seated on
the right hand of God the Father Almighty; From thence he shall come to judge
the quick and the dead?
Candidate: I do.
Minister: Do you believe in the Holy Spirit; The holy catholic church;
The Communion of Saints; The Forgiveness of sins;
The Resurrection of the body, And the life everlasting?
Candidate: I do.
After each affirmation, the candidate was immersed in the water, then raised out of it. In later practice, the questions were joined to make one long question requiring one response, just before the action. It appeared in this form in the old baptismal service of the English Book of Common Prayer. The ancient form has been restored in modern baptismal services. This text dates from circa 150AD and is called the Apostles' Creed, named after them not because they wrote it, but because it tells the essentials of God's story, as the church received it from them. It is recited daily at Morning and Evening Prayer as well, a reminder of the faith in which we were baptised.
Because of a long debate and bitter controversy among early Christian teachers over the relationship between divine and human nature in the person of Jesus Christ, an ecumenical council of church leaders from across the Roman Empire was convened at Nicea in Turkey in 325. The Apostles' Creed was revised and sections expanded to make a formula of faith to which all could agree. It was subject to further minor modifications at another ecumenical council held in Constantinople in 381, and has been used (with small variations) by most churches as their basis of faith ever since. It is called the Nicene - Constantinopolitan Creed, but spoken of just as the Nicene Creed.
It is used in Holy Communion services on Sundays and festivals. The original version began : "We believe .." because it was the declaration of a council. Some churches still use it like that; others have personalised it with the ”I” form, like the Apostles' Creed. The agreed text of the 381 council runs:-
believe in one God, the Father, the Almighty,
maker of heaven and earth, of all that is seen and unseen: We believe in
one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father,
Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, of one Being with
the Father; through him all things were made; for us and for our salvation he
came down from heaven; by the power of the Holy Spirit he became incarnate from
the Virgin Mary, and was made man. For our sake he was crucified under Pontius
Pilate; he suffered death and was buried; on the third day he rose again in
accordance with the scriptures; he ascended into heaven. He is seated on the
right hand of the Father, he will come again in glory to judge the living and
the dead, and his kingdom will have no end. We believe in the Holy Spirit, the
Lord, the Giver of life, who
proceeds from the Father; with the Father and the Son he is worshipped and
glorified; he has spoken through the Prophets. We believe one holy catholic and
apostolic Church. We acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins. We
look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come.
taken from the WCC's 'Lima' rite text)
These two Creeds represent what can be said together in worship to summarise the facts on which a Christian faith in God is built. They give essentials of the church's understanding of New Testament teaching. Each phrase requires detailed unpacking and reflection, and connecting to biblical teaching to be taken in personally. Each phrase is open to interpretation when set alongside personal experience, yet gives a rallying point for people to identify with each other in their journey of faith.
The differences between the way different churches understand and express their common heritage is a source of confusion for any would-be disciple of Jesus. There is a shameful record of persecutions, disputes, and mutual condemnations between Christian communities, a history which contradicts his teaching. This fact cannot be avoided. It has served as a deterrent for many who sought to take Christianity seriously. However, the great variety of interpretation that exists expresses how well real faith awakens our creative responses.
The Scriptures and the Creeds offer freedom of interpretation, which make it possible for people from all kinds of background and culture to acknowledge the importance of Jesus Christ for them. They also provide sufficient firm guidelines for faith to develop. But, people's need to express their faith in discipleship has differed, even conflicted since the beginning. Christians have not always been mature and secure enough in their convictions to live together happily with differences. This has been evident wherever Christians have been under pressure from political and economic forces that do not reflect Christian values.
The more believers are insecure, the more they tend to make community with those with whom they have more in common - a language, a culture, a life-style, a spirituality. The church often does no more than reflect the society it is part of, despite its calling to be different. When there has been conflict over firmly held convictions among Christians, this has resulted in the institutionalisation of rivalry in different confessional groups, each confessing the one true church and claiming to be its embodiment. It is evidence that human weakness and failing are not entirely left behind by groups or individuals on the journey of discipleship.
Over twenty centuries, this has led to the development of families of like-minded churches. We call them denominations. They preserve their own understandings of Christian tradition and common life in parallel with each other. They emphasise some aspect of faith which has been vital to their existence, sometimes defining themselves by antagonism to others. Nevertheless, recent decades have seen the growth of friendship and collaboration between churches on many fronts. This is what is called the Ecumenical Movement. In obedience to fresh insights into the teaching of Jesus about unity in witness among his disciples, church leaders have sought to end the suspicion and hostility of one community towards another, and recognise each others' right to call themselves Christian.
In search of reconciliation, dialogue about historic disagreements in belief and practice between Christian denominations has shown how much agreement exists over matters of faith. Most of the one and a half billion Christians on earth can stand and recite with conviction the Apostles' and Nicene Creeds. The re-statement of old opinions, on issues such as the understanding of Baptism, the Eucharist, and Ministry has shown some convergence of opinion on matters which once seemed permanently divisive.
The measure of agreement and common action by various denominations on many moral and social challenges is the most remarkable fruit of reconciliation. Sadly, this action is not yet welcomed universally. Some still define their discipleship by the partisan positions they have adopted against others, rather than by their allegiance to Christ. Vital to peace between communities of faith, and the credibility of their common witness to Christ, is the task of healing the wounds caused by centuries of division and distrust.
Parts of the church have sometimes colluded with the state to persecute and oppress others with whom there was disagreement. The freedom of all churches and the state from entanglement with each other's power, is just and necessary, so that they can engage in proper dialogue and critical solidarity. From the start of the ecumenical movement early in this century have grown shared initiatives of co-operation in mission and service. The strength of these today is seen in the impressive work of church humanitarian aid agencies, and the large number of Christians offering their skills in secular aid programmes. This demonstrates a formidable unity of concern and purpose among believers. But collaboration is not enough, nor is it the end of reconciliation.
The aim of ecumenism is to forge a global community of communities, one social organ, expressing unity in diversity in its worship and action, and a unanimity in proclaiming faith in God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. This seems like an impossible dream; yet all over the world, the impulse to reconciliation gets worked out in small ways, locally, regionally and nationally. It begins to be possible for others to say without sarcasm in their voices: "See how these Christians love one another." Organic unity of the church is the necessary goal to strive for, if Christians are to retain Paul's idea of common discipleship involving: "One Lord, one faith, one Baptism; one God and Father of us all, who is above all through all and in all." (Ephesians 4:5)
Faith that is shareable is more than a matter of assent to statements of belief. It concerns more than bringing religious institutions together. Faith is a quality of trust in the relationship between God and people made known in the story of Jesus Christ. It is effective at the individual and the corporate level. Faith depends on loving and being loved, on having an attitude to life which always has room for hope. God's love is ultimately all we can rely on. It is said that when the great reformer Martin Luther was wrestling with doubt about whether or not he was saved, he would keep saying to himself: "I am baptised, I am baptised!" He believed in the objective reality of God's commitment to his children, expressed in the gift of Baptism. Sometimes even people with faith need to remind themselves of that sign, which offers personal relationship with Christ and a place among his disciples.
Christians belong to a community with the worship and service of God at its centre. It is within this framework that a deep, intimate and loving relationship with God is best to be realised by all kinds of people. Worship can make openings for a relationship with God to develop in new ways. It offers ways to encounter the mystery of transcendence in beauty, silence, wisdom of thought, and authentic relationships. It can release a fountainhead of creativity in its participants. The riches of Christian art, architecture, music, literature, and social innovation down through the ages testify to this. The very word 'worship', derives from the Anglo-Saxon 'worth-ship', i.e. to give God value and honour that is rightly his. Acknowledging his love for us by expressing love in return, in our words and actions, calls upon our creativity in a special way.
A distinguishing mark of being human is the ability to play. From soon after birth, the infant plays as it begins to learn. It makes a wide range of sounds long before it can speak coherently or sustain a measure of physical control. Developing creative potential is essential to growth in life. This is as true of our simplest humble inventions and everyday existence as it is of the most sublime works of art the world has known. Awe and wonder in the face of the beauty and variety of nature is a common experience. When taken into prayer and expressed in music, poetic words, ceremonies or decorative arts in praise of the creator, it expands our sense of well being.
When we are praised for any achievement, we are affirmed and strengthened. Paradoxically, when we praise God's greatness, it makes us feel twice the person we are. The tomatoes you cultivated in your window box, from which you selected the best to offer at the Harvest Festival, are received by the priest at the altar with a knowing smile. Awe and wonder are enhanced by joy at feeling appreciated. Worship which glorifies God also has a way of affirming and strengthening people.
Imagination and feelings can be moved by the story of Christ or one of the saints celebrated in festivals. The wounding experiences of life leave us feeling very isolated. The realisation that Jesus suffered betrayal and injury points us to one with whom we can identify. This can help to end our inner loneliness, and rekindle hope in our hearts.
During the Good Friday Liturgy of Christ's Passion, there is a procession to pay homage to the Crucified One. It has been in church worship for fifteen centuries. People come to lay down their burdens of failure and shame, and touch the wooden cross representing the gallows on which Jesus hung. They may rise from their devotion betraying no outward sign of change, but afterward there is an air about them. It comes from having met and shared something beyond words. Thus a healing, a re-orientation of life, can begin as it often does through worship, helped by simple ritual gestures.
A community that treasures his story, and wants to love as Christ loves, is welcoming and open to newcomers. Each church is perpetually challenged to remain 'a church for others, as Jesus was man for others'. The experience of loving acceptance can be healing and restoring for those who are lonely or inwardly broken. It can also touch at a deep level those who strive, endlessly competing with self or others, as well as those who are searching for higher meaning and truth in life.
Worship and the spirit of fellowship can be a haven of security and calm for all - the strong and the weak alike: those setting out on their journey and those at the end of life; those who are passing through crisis, and those whose course is steady and undaunted. But a community can only be effective when it is open, able to offer the encouragement needed, so that all can believe it is possible to live together with differences.