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Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Quicunque Vult

This time of year, worship leaders -- at least some of us -- find ourselves trapped in a simmering perennial debate about the Athanasian Creed.   Shall we use it at all in worship, and if so, how?  Passions run surprisingly hot over something that is, from any objective point of view, an awfully minor point of liturgical concern.

For those who are fuzzy on this, the Ath. Cr. (one can't really abbreviate it with AC or q.v., both being taken already) is a medieval Gallic statement of faith in the Trinity.  It hasn't got much of anything to do with St. Athanasius, and some of its arch doctrinal formulations -- especially "believe this or go to Hell" -- have made it a subject of debate for centuries.   Oh, and it's as long as ... well, believe this.

Still, it was popular in the Middle Ages, and that popularity continued right into the Reformation.  The older BCP tradition prescribed its use periodically throughout the year, in place of the Apostles Creed at Morning Prayer.  Since Morning Prayer was often the chief Sunday service, this meant that for centuries churchgoing Anglicans heard the Athanasian Creed monthly or more often.  Since the 1860s, however, its use has dropped off dramatically.  In former Roman use, it was said at Prime on Sundays.   The modern Roman practice appoints it for Prime on Trinity Sunday alone -- meaning that laypeople rarely if ever encounter it.

One finds it in among the confessions of the Evangelical and Reformed churches.   Among us Evangelicals, in particular, the Athanasian Creed has been guarded with considerable zeal, including occasional recitation in worship.  We recall reading in one of the early reports of Lutheran-Episcopal dialogue that the PECUSA team was quite surprised by how seriously their Lutheran counterparts took the Creed.

All this means that, threats of damnation and all, it holds a venerable place in the Western tradition, and that many churches are accustomed to its use in worship. Or at least they were once.  These days, it's hard to say who's accustomed to what.  Evangelical Lutheran Worship, for example, doesn't include the Ath. Cr. in its pew edition.  This suggests that the editors don't consider its use widespread enough, or important enough to congregations, to be supported.  We disagree; but then, the ELW team made few editorial decisions with which we do agree.

Still, the Athanasian Creed is not without its problems.  Let's talk about the practical ones first:

  • Since Lutheran parish worship rarely includes a Sunday service of Morning Prayer, the Athanasian Creed is often appointed for use at the Eucharist on Trinity Sunday.  This means that, if we use the Ath. Cr., we are importing it into a service to which it is somewhat alien.  It risks disrupting the structure of the service, and taking attention away from the essential matters of the Word proclaimed and sacrament administered.
    • Sed contra, many parishes disrupt the structure of the Mass for occasional services -- not merely baptisms and weddings, but announcements, awards, blessing the Boy Scouts, and what have you.  Surely an annual celebration of the trinitarian faith in its marvelous,  mind-blowing obscurity merits the same exception.
  • That length is truly formidable.  At 658 words, it is longer than the entire books of 2 John, 3 John, Philemon, or Obadiah; it gives St. Jude a run for his money, too.  So how does an assembly manage it?  
    • Father A. likes to read the Ath, Cr. responsively by verse, like a psalm; it is not especially well-adapted for this.  
    • A former parish was wont to divide the creed into longer paragraphs, and read those responsively; this worked pretty well.  The pastor was usually assigned the "go-to-hell" bits, on the odd theory that they were less offensive coming from him.
    • Eventually, though, the worship committee decided that it preferred to recite in unison, reflecting the corporate nature of a creed.  This was a little chaotic, but not as bad as you might think. 
    • Fr. Charles Austin has designed a service in which the Athanasian Creed is read piecemeal, one section near the Kyrie, one in place of the psalm, etc.  This may help soften the blow for some congregations, although we also worry that it will prove confusing to others.  Will everybody know that these seemingly random bits of recitation are in fact one coherent thing?
  • The language may be a problem in some quarters.  No, not Latin -- even the English, including juicy bits like "coeternal" and "undefiled," may challenge those who speak it as a second or third language.  We're not sure if a Global English version of the Athanasian Creed has been attempted, and we're not sure we'd have much use for one if it did.  But this will be an important consideration for many communities, not least our own. (Indeed, to be honest, we may omit it Sunday, for this reason alone).
What about the theological concerns?

Most of these hinge on the "damnatory clauses."  They are indeed rough stuff, and do not reflect the personal beliefs of all that many modern Christians.  Get enough of those people into one room, and recitation of the Athanasian Creed becomes an exercise in hypocrisy -- mouthing out words which nobody believes to be true.

But this touches on why creeds matter at all, an especially important subject for the Evangelical and Reformed churches, whose existence is predicated upon their creeds.  Perhaps one's own personal beliefs are at variance with the confessions of one's church.  This does happen, often upon some small doctrinal point -- say, the perpetual virginity of the Blessed Virgin (expressed clearly enough in the Smalcald Articles and the Solid Declaration).  One must then choose:  (i) abandon one's church; (ii) deny the church's teaching, either publicly or privately; or (iii) admit with some humility that one's personal judgment may not be the measure of all things, and submit it to the judgment of the community, even with the private reservation that this submission is temporary, until such time as God may vindicate the individual over the community.

To say the Church's creeds, and especially its most difficult one, is to make the third choice.  Some people may not be able to do this, as a matter of conscience; they are welcome to maintain a dignified silence.  But for many Christians, it is just this choice -- to be admit that one's own ideas about God and the universe may not be correct, and that those of the Christian community well may be -- that constitutes the essential leap of faith.  It is this openness to the idea of the Holy Spirit at work among God's People as a whole which makes it possible to take one's own place among the people, trusting that God's apparent foolishness is greater than one's own supposed wisdom.

Or, to put it more simply:  Get over yourself, say the creed and stop worrying so blessed much.


Pastor Joelle said...

Nope not gonna do it. I agree there are parts that are beautiful. I think my ordination vows require me to use it in teaching, but not necessarily insist people confess it. The church is looking pretty bad these days and while you and I can play games in our head with the anathemas, that is all many people are going to remember about this creed.

You know what is really a damned shame? There is no way we can get together with anybody to come up with a revision that we can agree upon. Other than "oh it's a mystery, can't we all just love each other?"

Father Anonymous said...

Well, it's not in the rubrics, which in any case are pretty notional for Lutherans anyway. So the only pressure any pastor should feel in this matter is pressure from a congregation that really want it. My bigger complaint is about the annual round of agonizing about it.

And, honestly, there's a lot of other stuff we don't use in worship that might serve congregations well, passing on tradition without raising so many hackles. Clint's point about the Te Deum was well-taken, for example. Or any of the other traditional canticles, for that matter.

On the other hand, I've got a follow-up post in my head which lays out one of the sentimental reasons I like using the Athanasian Creed. I'll try to get to it.