If, every morning, you proudly dress yourself in your Union Jack pullover, while singing ‘Land of Hope and Glory’ at the top of your voice, and the very thought of Scottish Independence makes your blood run cold, would you join the SNP?
If you long for the day when Britain throws open its borders to immigrants from every nation, when it joins the euro and leads the continent into ever closer union, would you join UKIP?
If you like nothing better than a plate of whale meat, loathe polar bears with every fibre of your being, and have invested heavily in every fracking enterprise you can find, would you join Greenpeace?
Of course, the answer to all these questions is “No”.
If the only music you like was heavy metal, would you take out a subscription to a season with Scottish Opera?
If your absolute favourite sport was cricket, would you join the Raith Rovers supporter’s club?
If you lived on Shetland and, owing to a debilitating fear of either air or sea travel, never left, would you join the friends of Tate Britain?
Well, the answer to these questions is, “You might”.
What I’m trying to do, in rather crude terms, is draw a distinction between membership organisations which have values, and those which are really more the providers of service.
Those that have values expect those who join to share those values, to a greater or lesser extent. If, for example, you stand for election to public office under the banner of a particular party, voters have a right to expect that you hold the values that the party as a whole espouses. If you join a political party, the other members have a right to expect you to be in sympathy with its stated aims and objectives. On the other hand, an opera company, a football club or a gallery aim simply to provide you with enjoyment and stimulation, but they don’t care what you believe.
Now, what about the church? There is a very interesting case currently working its way through the processes of the United Church of Canada. Gretta Vosper, minister in a Toronto parish, has declared she is an atheist. She talks of beliefs which divide and argues that empathy can achieve more and better than religious dogma. She is trying to develop a post-theistic church, a church which does all the good things a church should do – help people to reflect deeply on life, work to overcome injustice, help those in need – unencumbered with restrictive belief systems. Her congregation is standing by her. Her denomination is taking action to remove her because the church does have expectations. It expects those who are members, and those who hold appointments within it, to subscribe to the values it holds.
Now, that is a little over-simplistic. Different branches of the church hold different values. They have changed and developed over the centuries. Individual members, even of the same congregation, will believe different things. That’s why I sometimes say that, whenever two or three are gathered together, there you have an ecumenical encounter. But what individuals and churches believe are not wholly different from one another. There is common ground. The church, throughout its history has held on to the need for common ground. And throughout its long history, it has tried to define what that common ground is, what the core beliefs and central values are which define what the church is.
Over the next few weeks, we’ll be thinking about these things. This arises from a discussion at a recent Kirk Session meeting. People don’t like saying the Creed, I was told. I tried to say why I thought it was important. I don’t think I explained it particularly well. But, someone said, perhaps it would be good if we knew more about it. That seemed a good suggestion. So that’s what we’re going to do. We’re going to learn about creeds. I’ll talk mostly about the Apostles’ Creed, the one we have been using week by week for nearly ten years, but I’ll be referring to others, principally the Nicene Creed, which, if you like, you can look up in the Hymn Book. I don’t expect anyone to like saying the Creed any more than before, but at least we should all know a bit more about it, and some of the others, and understand a bit better its place in the doctrine and worship of the church.
At its most basic, the Creed is an attempt to define what the church believes. The name, ‘creed’, derives from the first word of it in Latin, credo, I believe. Already, we come up against a problem. It’s that first word – I. People have said to me, ‘I don’t want to be told what to believe.’ And, ‘You’ll put people off if you expect them to believe all that.’ I have a lot of sympathy with that position. I don’t want to be told what to believe either. I want to use my own intelligence. I want to examine each proposition of faith and come to my own conclusions. I am an educated, free thinking, post-enlightenment individual, as are we all, and I am not going to be told what to believe by anyone. That would be an unconscionable infringement of my intellectual liberty.
I shared something of my own internal faith journey with the Kirk Session. I told them this. Sometimes I believe without difficulty. Sometimes I hardly believe at all. It comes and goes, and sometimes comes back again, sometimes in a different form. As you get older, the certainties and convictions of youth get knocked about a bit. Life experience changes you, and changes what you think, or at least it should, if you think and reflect at all. There have been times when I have said, “I believe . . .” and I’ve been really unsure if I did believe at all. But I have said it anyway, not out of laziness, nor for show, nor out of a fear of being ‘found out’. I have continued to say, “I believe . . .” because of the church. I have taken strength from the fact that the Creed expresses the belief of the church, even if at times I have been unsure if it was my belief. I have taken strength from the fact that others, whom I have looked up to and respected, have believed, and confessed their belief, and reasoned with myself that I am more likely to be wrong than they are.
To me, that is why the church is essential. I couldn’t walk the journey of faith alone. I would venture that only a very few can. Pretty much all of us need companionship on the journey, need the faith of others to carry ours when it is faltering, need the strength of others in those many times when we ourselves are weak. And, for my money, it is the people who obviously struggle who are the greatest source of strength and encouragement, not those who project an aura of unobtainable certainty.
Will people be put off the church by encountering a statement of its values? I can see that they might be. If you simply do not share them at all, then why join? But the church is an organisation, a movement, with values. These are what it is about, and what should attract people to it. But what we should never do is give the impression that unless you can sign up for it all, there’s no place for you. The church is more about community than belief. It is a community of doubters, of thinkers, of doers, of the uncertain, of the exploring. The creed is not a test, but an aspiration, an expression of the fundamentals which give rise to the life of this extraordinarily diverse and vital thing that we call church. It is not always, ‘I believe . . .’, but quite often, ‘I would like to believe . . .’ because this is what I want to be a part of.
Over the next few weeks, we’ll be looking at the Apostles’ Creed in some detail. We’ll think about its history, what it says, why it says it, its place in the history of the worship of the church and its purpose now. Whether or not we end up with a greater understanding and appreciation, I can be sure of one thing: exploring the Creed, this pithy summary of the faith of the church, will lead us to the heart of the Gospel.