Robbie Low on Saying and Believing
Sunday by Sunday the parish priest stands before the altar of God and leads the Christian community in proclaiming the Creed. It is a relatively brief but irreducible minimum of the Christian faith. Each article of the creed is an acknowledgement of the revelation of God in the Holy Scriptures and a proclamation of the centrality of his Son Jesus Christ in the work of salvation.
While many good and faithful priests do this with utter conviction and live out those beliefs in their lives, it is increasingly apparent that a growing number do not. A series of recent surveys, culminating in the authoritative ‘Mind of Anglicans’ report by Christian Research, reveals that an alarming number of clergy, in the liberal wing of the Church, are at best partial believers and at worst agnostic. While Evangelical and traditional Catholic believers recorded absolute conviction in over 90 per cent of their members, some liberal clergy groups were unable to register even a third of their clergy membership as convinced of the Resurrection and even less of the Virgin Birth or Jesus Christ as the way to salvation.
To most lay Christians (and non–Christians !) such revelations are deeply shocking. Believing clergy are too familiar with this scenario to be deeply shocked, though it remains for them a daily sadness. We all know the priests who joined to do an amateurish form of social work and seem to regard the Gospels as some metaphysical fairy-tale – an optional extra. We know where they have come from. Most of us have been through the same theological colleges and university faculties where the Scriptures are treated as some archaeological artefact rather than the living Word of God and faith is eviscerated by humanist and agnostic dons. Ambitious clergy learn early that orthodox belief, preaching ability and a pastoral heart do not compete with enthusiastic assent to current social nostrums. The replacement of divine inspiration with human ‘wisdom’ and the tragic pursuit of eternally elusive cultural relevance is measured in lost souls and the inexorable decline of the Church of England. Leadership at episcopal and parish level that is more concerned with being intellectually comfortable at middle class dinner parties than in witnessing to the miraculous and overwhelming mercy and glory of God impresses no-one. The faithful drift away, the unfaithful see no point in joining.
Why does it matter that the priest believes the words he says at the altar – or anywhere else for that matter? (This is a question that could only be asked in a post-modern society.)
First of all, it is a simple matter of integrity. His beliefs, his words, his life should be as one. He is put in a position of absolute trust and others should be able to rely on his honesty. The Christian looks to his priest as a guardian, a guide, a pastor, a fellow traveller on the pilgrim way. If the priest himself does not follow the road map of the soul then his people will be grievously misled.
The Creed is our faith. It was forged in the Church’s early battles against the twin enemies of heresy within and persecution without. It ensures that eternal truth is never corroded by political convenience or secular fashion. It is an assent to and our understanding of the loving purposes of Almighty God. We begin by declaring our belief in one God, Father and Creator. We dissent from the multiplicity of gods and the inherent cruelties of paganism. Nor are we rats caught in the trap of mortality, feeding, fornicating and fighting our way through a Darwinian nightmare. We are made in God’s image and have an eternal destiny.
Crucial to this is the person of Jesus Christ. In him, the Christian declares, God participated absolutely in our humanity and, in his death on the cross, defeated sin and death. The divine life in Christ is therefore open to us. By his sacrifice our humanity is taken up into his divinity, our time into his eternity, our mortal into his immortality.
The Creed proclaims Jesus Christ as the word of God enfleshed. Clergy who believe it understand that Christ is the eternal and divine wisdom. Everything he is, says and does is revelation and is determinative for all time. Clergy who reject this are reduced to seeing Jesus as a well-meaning, if deluded, rabbi doing his best in rather trying cultural circumstances. His ‘wisdom’ is easily improved by their own post-modern insights. It is in this heresy that most of our Church’s unhappy divisions find their primary fault line, where liberal Protestantism, having rejected the Traditio and the Magisterium, lapses into gnosticism. ‘We know better than God’ is the pathetic chorus that echoes from the Gates of Eden down the history of fallen man.
History and Icon
Does it matter if Jesus was born of a virgin – an article of the creed that seems to cause liberals most trouble?
I suppose in age so obsessed by sex virginity itself is seen as a miraculous rarity. But it is an odd fact that just as human scientific ‘progress’ makes virgin birth possible, people are most sceptical of Almighty God’s ability to achieve the same.
The openness of Mary to the word of God and the power of the Holy Spirit enables God to become man in Jesus Christ. For believers it is both a physical reality in history and also a spiritual icon of how Christians have revealed Christ in the world ever since. If God did not become man in Jesus Christ, then it’s time to close the churches and make up our minds whether to become Jews, Muslims or simply stay at home and mow the lawn. We are not left with the option of Jesus as a good man. If he is not the Son of God, then he is a deceiver and so are his followers. If he is God incarnate then the Church has the supreme mission of salvation, the road to eternal life. There is no middle ground here.
As a priest, if I did not believe the Creed and the promise of the Resurrection, I could not deceive my people in such a heartless and cavalier way. One of the supreme privileges of the priesthood is to be at the bedside of the dying. When I hold their hands, hear their confession, read God’s word, pray for them, anoint them, and bless them, I do so in the certain knowledge that I am commending them into the everlasting arms of God and his unfailing mercy. The Creed of the Christian Church is the simplest and most profound expression of the glorious reality of God – our origin, our end.
Fr Robbie Low is Vicar of St Peter’s, Bushey Heath in the Diocese of St Alban’s.