On Creeds and Wedding Vows
I have been to wedding ceremonies where the couple write their own vows. It is a recent custom that reflects wider cultural changes. In the past, one of the things that made a wedding special was the fact that you got to say exactly the same words that everybody else said. When a couple said their vows, they weren’t just expressing their own feelings. They didn’t use their own words; they used the same words that their parents and their ancestors had spoken, and they made those words their own.
But today we are sceptical about the past. We are sceptical about anything that is merely handed down to us. We assume that the truest thing we could ever say would be something we had made up ourselves.
In the same way, Christians today are often suspicious of creeds. Many churches are more comfortable with mission statements than with creeds. The thing about a mission statement is you always get to make it up for yourself. It’s like writing your own wedding vows.
But here’s the paradox. It is the individualised confession, like the personalised wedding vow, that ends up sounding like an echo of the wider society. What could be more conformist than expressing your feelings of love through your own specially crafted wedding vow? ... Or again, what could be more conformist than a mission statement? Every company has one. And although each one is unique, they all sound eerily similar, as if all the companies in the world were out to achieve the same blandly generic aims. I think there is a similar dynamic at work in many churches today. The harder they try to be special and unique, the more they seem exactly like everybody else.
By contrast, to confess the creed is to take up a countercultural stance. When we say the creed we are not just expressing our own views or our own priorities. We are joining our voices to a great communal voice that calls out across the centuries from every tribe and tongue. We locate ourselves as part of that community that transcends time and place. That gives us a critical distance from our own time and place. If our voices are still echoes, they are now echoing something from beyond our own cultural moment.
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