By Rebecca Curtin
We believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible. And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the only-begotten, begotten of the Father before all ages. Light of Light; very God of very God; begotten, not made; of one essence with the Father, by whom all things were made; who for us men and for our salvation came down from heaven, and was incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary, and became man. And He was crucified for us under Pontius Pilate, and suffered, and was buried. And the third day He rose again, according to the Scriptures; and ascended into heaven, and sits at the right hand of the Father; and He shall come again with glory to judge the living and the dead; whose Kingdom shall have no end.
We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the Giver of Life, who proceeds from the Father; who with the Father and the Son together is worshipped and glorified; who spoke by the prophets. We believe in one Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church. I acknowledge one baptism for the remission of sins. I look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come. Amen.
– the Nicene Creed as usually recited by Orthodox Christian congregations
Growing up I never knew the Nicene Creed was the source of such controversy. As a child I thought such things, the things I learned by heart, that I recited together with my family, week after week, year after year, were indelible, that they had always been just as they are now.
But, of course we learn as we grow older that this is not so. Even something as old, as seemingly stable as the Nicene Creed has for me in adulthood taken on a new level of perplexity. Indeed, adulthood itself seems to be a sort of endless complication of things that used to once be so simple.
On Sundays, I usually attend an Antiochian Orthodox Church near my home with my partner, a cradle Orthodox. We love the welcoming, tight-knit community there, and the high concentration of converts makes it so that my blond hair doesn’t immediately betray my non-Orthodox status.
Sometimes during the service I almost forget I’m Catholic, even when we cross ourselves (the Orthodox tend to cross themselves a lot) and I do mine “backward.” I have grown to love the abundant incense, the prostrations, and especially the icons, that second congregation that despite its two-dimensionality somehow seems to peer out at the congregation and participate in the service as we do. If the Catholic Church for me has always been clear the clear, bright, and light infused colors of stained class, the Orthodox Church is the luminous golds, and earthy browns and reds of the icons.
I do feel out of place at Orthodox church when we recite the Nicene Creed. The Catholic and Orthodox versions of the creed are similar, but the differences are so central to the theologies of both traditions that disagreements over them have had shattering repercussions and, some argue, directly led to the Great Schism of the eleventh century, when the two churches formally separated. These differences seem small now (i.e. the difference between “essence” and “being” or the addition of “and the son” when stating from whom the Holy Spirit proceeded) were at one time considered matters essential to salvation.
When it is time to say the creed, I usually stumble along reciting the Catholic version softly to myself, which is difficult to do when everyone around you is reciting something just a little different. But then, perhaps ironically, but also soul-liftingly we all say in unison that we “believe in one Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church.” Despite our creedal differences here is a reaffirmation of unity that has always seemed to me at once comforting and also mystifyingly naïve.
But, earlier this month the North American Orthodox-Catholic Theological Consultation released a statement “Steps Toward a Unified Church” which includes a commitment to a common “statement of faith,” a common creed. The Catholic Church concedes that, in the interest of Church unity, “the original Greek form of the Creed of 381, because of its authority and antiquity, should be used as the common form of our confession in both our Churches.” If unity is achieved, Catholics will recite the version of the creed now used by Orthodox churches.
Perhaps this all seems somewhat superficial. After all, the Orthodox Creed as printed above is very similar to what is recited in Catholic churches. Can we count these small agreements as real achievements when the Church has huge issues to tackle like the ordination of women, the future of Catholic higher education, and the place of the LGBT community in the Church?
But, words are so very important. The words chosen by early church councils, used in our liturgies, and by our theologians are the basis for so much of Church dogma. And, small steps like this acquiescence on a point that at one time seemed incontrovertible reignites my hope that important change is possible in the Catholic Church. I rejoice, perhaps selfishly, that true communion between the Catholic and Orthodox Churches could be possible. And, I cautiously celebrate this small indication that the Church may be willing to consider compromise when a higher end is within sight.
Rebecca Curtin holds degrees from the University of Notre Dame and Harvard Divinity School. She lives in Somerville, MA.Advertisements
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