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Angela Tilby: Let us sing the Creed      

05 June 2020


A painting of the Council of Nicea in Sumela monastery, Turkey

A painting of the Council of Nicea in Sumela monastery, Turkey

IT IS often alleged that the Church of England no longer does serious theology. If this is so, one reason might be a loss of familiarity with the creeds, particularly the Nicene Creed. Singing the Creed at the eucharist should be a highlight, and it can be just that when well sung to Merbecke, or to the once popular setting by Martin Shaw, which managed to be both jaunty and ecstatic. I am not aware of musical settings to the Common Worship words, although Stephen Darlington produced an adaptation of Merbecke which worked well when I was at Christ Church.

Today, the Creed is much more often said than sung, and this is a problem. Coming after a sermon, and followed by spoken intercessions, it can be a bit of a drag. The temptation is to leave it out or to replace it with one of the shorter affirmations of faith, which some might prefer in the mistaken belief that, because they are drawn directly from scripture, they are somehow more valid.

The loss of the Nicene Creed matters, because it affirms the Trinitarian shape of the Christian faith into which every baby, child, young person, and adult being brought into the faith is baptised. It is also the most important and obvious example of legitimate development from scripture: a development that brings out what is implicit in scripture, enfolding it in a form of corporate speech that every generation takes up as its own.

The Spirit works beyond Pentecost in the tradition of the Church, and it is by imitation and repetition that we are formed in faith. Dogma, as has often been said, following a rabbinical saying, is “a fence around a mystery”. To lose the Nicene Creed risks a descent into an endlessly quarrelsome individualism, at the same time as making us vulnerable to control by whatever constitutes the current church hierarchy.

Sometimes, in Christian learning groups, people are invited to “write their own creed”. There is value in this, in helping people to articulate what matters most to them. But Christian faith is more than an affirmation of what we instinctively hold dear: it is a growing into what is always, in some sense, beyond our grasp.

It would be good to find a way to reinhabit the Creed as a mystery, as a symbol — and music helps this to happen. I have been to churches where the Nicene Creed was said rhythmically to a low-key organ accompaniment, and even, on one occasion, spoken by all as a worship band strummed in the background.

Music lifts our speech to praise. The Creed is not meant to be a list of propositions with which we may or may not agree, but a song of liberation. The Holy Trinity is our destiny as well as our beginning.

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