Church culture today loves its barriers. It loves to emphasise what makes Christianity different from other faith traditions, or what makes one’s own denomination different from others, or one’s own church different from the one across the road. We need to break them down.
Not because they are meaningless. For those who think all religious beliefs are irrelevant to everything else, it is easy to think there is no point in any of them. For those of us expect our religious commitments to make a difference, they matter a great deal. However church culture turns them into barriers.
It does two things. First, it treats disagreement as a problem which hinders communication. It doesn’t need to. Disagreement is normal and healthy.
Secondly, it clings onto inherited barriers that no longer reflect real differences of opinion.
The creed as barrier
The most obvious case is the Nicene Creed, still recited in many churches today. The problem is much wider, but I focus on the Creed as a good illustration. It affirms that Jesus is
the only Son of God,
eternally begotten of the Father,
God from God, Light from Light,
true God from true God,
begotten, not made,
of one Being with the Father.
This was debated for centuries. What it meant to call Jesus ‘of one Being with the Father’ was the subject of high political intrigue. Bishops were exiled and recalled from exile on the basis of which theory was dominant at the time.
Similarly, the Holy Spirit
proceeds from the Father and the Son.
A thousand years ago this innovation caused wars. The earlier version had the Spirit proceed from the Father alone. Today, only a handful of scholars have the slightest interest in who the Spirit proceeds from. So why keep reciting these statements?
Thus the Creed, far from expressing what Christians really believe, has become part of our doctrinal and ritual furniture, something we have to make space for while we get on with the more meaningful things.
Many churches have adapted by composing alternative ‘creeds’ with no formal authorisation. This reverses the logic.
The bishops who established the wording of the Nicene Creed followed the normal sequence. Faced with questions, they used the resources they had to find the most convincing answers. When they found them, they expressed them in a statement.
This sequence makes sense. First we debate the question. When we establish answers we express them in belief commitments. If the belief commitments are important enough we summarise them in statements. If they are exceptionally important we keep repeating the statements.
When churches use alternative creeds, the process works in the opposite direction. We feel we ought to have something looking like a creed, because that’s what church services do. (Or maybe the person planning the service senses that they wouldn’t get away with not having one at all.) The content of the alternative creed then has to be some compromise between what they feel they ought to affirm and what their priorities really are. It is as though the form is what matters, while the content only needs to sound roughly appropriate to the occasion.
Clinging to the unimportant
So churches cling to statements of belief which no longer express what people really care about. Why not just get rid of them and break down all those unnecessary barriers?
I am not talking about whether they are true. Lots of things are true which we don’t recite. But people who are not used to church services, and turn up to one, may find they are expected to stand up and publicly assent to statements to which they have never given any thought. Reciting things makes them seem important. This sets up unnecessary barriers against those who aren’t already committed to them.
So we have turned the logic of our barriers on its head. Instead of starting with commitments, some of which are so contentious that they create barriers, we are so used to a barrier-ridden organisation that we feel obliged to uphold commitments which would not otherwise interest us. We have come to define our different churches in terms of doctrines that, in all honesty, we don’t care about. This bizarre situation was explored by George Lindbeck’s influential book The Nature of Doctrine.
What do we really care about?
Instead, why not define our churches by the things we really do care about? This, after all, is what we do in every other field of discourse.
I wonder whether the reason, at least in part, is the mismatch between our spiritual awareness and the way we interpret it. People who research religious experience, like the Alister Hardy Religious Experience Research Centre, observe what happens. People of every and no religious background may have a distinct experience of transcendent spiritual reality. How they interpret it depends on the ideas in their background and their local culture. Roman Catholics think they saw the Virgin Mary, Hindus think they saw Krishna.
Add to these the many others who have not had a distinct one-off religious experience but do have a relatively consistent inner sense of relating to the divine. These groups of people characteristically like to share in a local group that enables them to express their spirituality.
For many, the obvious place to find it is their local church. This church may provide what they are looking for. In addition, it may also offer a load of irrelevant or unconvincing doctrines. These can often be tolerated or even assented to, if the real reasons for supporting the church are those deeper spiritual ones.
In this sense churches and their doctrines are parasites on real spirituality; but perhaps we knew that all along. The irrelevant and unconvincing doctrines survive because church leaders mistakenly imagine their congregations believe them.
Back to alternative creeds. At their best they can express positive beliefs without setting up unnecessary barriers. Here is an excellent example I came across while on holiday in Lostwithiel, Cornwall. It was written by the vicar, Paul Beynon, and I have his permission to reproduce it here.
We believe in God,
robed in splendour and veiled in mystery
ruler of light and darkness alike.
We believe God is encountered in Jesus Christ,
who once suffered death for us all,
but whose radiance cannot be hidden;
whose touch brings life and light to our broken world,
who revives the weary and heals the wounded.
We believe we walk closest with God,
when guided by the light of the Holy Spirit,
who enters the shadowy places of our hearts,
who touches earth with heaven’s love
and leads us into truth and life.
The god Jesus believed in is a god who created the whole human race. To follow Jesus is to believe in a god like that. Like any loving parent, God wants the family to get on well with each other, and avoid putting up barriers to exclude each other.