The problem with creeds


Most members of the church's hierarchy regard the creeds as the source of the church's unity. However, the fact is that the exact opposite is the case. The creeds actually guarantee the disunity of the church and were consciously intended and designed to do just that. That is a strong statement, resisted by many on first hearing, but history reveals that the primary purpose of any creed is to determine who it is that does not qualify for membership. Creeds are designed to separate the true believers from the false believers. Because creeds set boundaries, they inevitably divide.

--John Shelby Spong, from The Sins of Scripture.
As I reflect on my experience at attending services at an Episcopal church last week, I find myself able to better comprehend in what ways I didn't like the experience. While it is true that the formal ritualism of the procession and recession of the cross didn't do anything for me, I didn't object to it either. It wasn't the practices or the rituals, but rather the overt theology, that I found disagreeable. In some cases the expression of orthodoxy was subtle, particularly in the hymns. It was more explicit in the confession of sins--which I wasn't crazy about--but it was most overt in the creedal recitation of faith. That was where the church really lost me.

I focus so much on the creeds because they get to the essence of what it means for me to be in a Christian community. I will not affirm something that I don't believe. Religious services are for me a means of connecting with God--and a creed that I don't accept diminishes this experience for me.

John Shelby Spong, who wrote the passage above, is a retired Episcopalian bishop. His controversial beliefs illustrate the disconnect between traditions and theology among liberal Episcopalians. I wonder how many religious liberals who attend Episcopal services recite creeds that they don't literally believe. Spong is absolutely right about the fundamental problem with creeds. Many Episcopalians justify their recitations by accepting them as mythological rather than literal. But I agree with Spong that the creeds are in and of themselves designed to divide rather than include. And all the statements of inclusion by any Episcopal church will never change this fact.
Modern parish experience using the "Nicene" Creed suggests that its sectarian sense is intrinsic, and for most people quite conscious. I advise ordinands that if they must use the "Nicene" Creed in their parishes, they might march about waving American and Episcopal Church flags, while their church wardens tear up photographs of the Mormon Tabernacle: these gestures would express the custom's fundamental spirit, and employ beloved Episcopalian paraphernalia lately fallen into disuse.

-- Notes on worship at Saint Gregory's Episcopal Church, San Francisco
My experience in church last week thus left a sour taste in my mouth. I am certainly not opposed to attending non-standard Episcopal services in other contexts. I still love the Taize service that I attend at an Episcopal church on Wednesday nights, in no small part for its more ecumenical flavor, and its uses of texts from many sources, religious and secular. And I am aware of some other Episcopal churches that have non-standard services on Sundays. But by the same token, this experience with the Episcopal church has given me a greater appreciation for the UCC, which views creeds as "testimonies" rather than "tests" of faith. There is no creedal affirmation in the services of either of the UCC churches that I have attended. Rather than turning seekers away, through this approach it is clear that we are indeed welcome. If only more churches would come to understand this.