Why Do We Still Recite the Nicene Creed at the Eucharist?

By Chapman, Mark D. | Anglican Theological Review, Spring 2005 | Go to article overview

Why Do We Still Recite the Nicene Creed at the Eucharist?


Chapman, Mark D., Anglican Theological Review


The Anglican Communion appears to be seeking to rule some in and some out on the grounds of "orthodoxy." In that context, a discussion of the creed in worship may help to illustrate the relationships between doctrine, performance, and practice. This article suggests that F. D. Maurice's understanding of the use of the creed offers a way forward for Anglicans: the "performance" of the creed as a focus for the name of God becomes far more important than assent to propositions. This understanding might help Anglicans in living with diversity while acknowledging an underlying baptismal unity. Reading the creed as a corporate hymn of praise to triune Love might encourage God-fearing people to live in humble adoration of the One who loves them-without growing anxious about precisely what, or even whether, the other people who are singing God's praise "believe."

It is hard to know what people make of creeds today. My hunch is that most people, and even most Christians, however pious, do not spend much time reading creeds of any sort, let alone the Nicene Creed. Popular apologetic programs like the Alpha Course are, perhaps rather surprisingly, distant from the creeds, and instead focus on a few selected articles and a few things (like particular models of the atonement and charismatic experience) which are not in the creeds at all. In fact, the most likely place to encounter creeds is not in any teaching situation at all, but instead at a service in a church which uses a formal liturgy. And here, especially since the demise of Matins and Evensong as regular congregational sendees in most English churches, with their use of the Apostles' Creed,1 it will be the so-called Nicene Creed2 that will be most frequently encountered in the Church of England and in many other parts of the Anglican Communion. This is something still said, and occasionally even sung, at celebrations of the eucharist, at least on Sundays and holy days.

I will begin this essay by taking this liturgical context seriously and start by thinking in some detail about reading the creed in the setting of worship. Trying to work out why it is there and what it is for is important and might say something about the nature of the Nicene Creed more generally, about what form it has and precisely what sort of thing "I believe" or "we believe" might mean for Christians. Consequently I will be asking through the course of this paper: what are we doing when we read the Nicene Creed in worship? In the context of an Anglican Communion that appears to be seeking to define its boundaries more clearly and to rule some in and some out on the grounds of "orthodoxy,"3 it seems pertinent to look again at the role of the creed in worship. While I am not primarily attempting an essay in ritual or liturgical studies, a discussion of the creed as used at the eucharist can serve as an illustration of the relationship between doctrine, performance, and practice-and it can also be of some use for the contemporary church. What I will suggest is that the sort of understanding of the use of the Nicene Creed outlined by F. D. Maurice in the mid-nineteenth century offers a way forward for Anglicans, whereby the performance and affirmation of the creed primarily as a focus for the name of God becomes far more important than assent to propositions.4 Such a performative understanding of the creed might be a model for Anglicans as they seek to live with diversity while acknowledging an underlying baptismal unity.

The Creed in the Liturgy

As with most things to do with liturgy, the origins of the use of the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed at the eucharist are shrouded in mystery: however, there is good evidence to suggest that it was regularized by the Patriarch of Constantinople, Timotheus (511-517), during the reign of Anastasius (491-518) in 511.5 It may have been first adopted in Antioch in 471 by the bishop, Peter the Fuller (476-488), although this may be a later interpolation into the historian s text. …

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