I have a reading group this afternoon for which I have to prepare the introduction on today’s section of the book we’re reading. Our book is Sam Wells’ God’s Companions, and the section we’ve got to is “The Body of Christ as the Eucharist”. It’s just my luck that this turns out to be the longest section (nearly half) of the book. In this section he meditates on the Eucharist as giving us a pattern of discipleship or living, by following through its structure from Gathering to Going.
There are some very poetic turns of phrase, and it’s full of the fruits of deep reflection, but I haven’t found it an easy book to read at all. Dr Wells seems to have little self-doubt, whereas I’m full of it. He has well organised packages of ideas that feel just a little too much like answers that won’t admit to further questions. I am temperamentally drawn to awkward questions, always second-guessing myself with a counter argument.
One of the sections where I really found myself struggling was his work on the Nicene Creed. He presents it accurately enough as the hard worn fruit of argument, but then he contrasts that with the pious legend of the origins of the Septuagint as though creeds don’t attract pious legends. Yet the Apostles’ Creed is presented in tradition precisely as the fruit of a pious legend, with each of the Twelve contributing a clause, Peter beginning with “I believe in God the Father Almighty.”
Then he treats its position in the liturgy as though that reveals something essential about the Creed as response to the Word and anticipation of the prayers. Yet until recent decades the Anglican liturgy (he is an Anglican) had the sequence Gospel, Creed, Sermon and the Creed functioned more in the traditional role of the rule of faith, placing these particular Bible readings in the context of the catholic faith, that they might be properly interpreted. Again, this separation of (human) Response from (divine) Word seems to me overdone. The Word itself comes to us in words which themselves are already the fruit of human response.
(By the way if you want another position for the Creed, then the Liturgy of St John Chrysostom among others places it after the offertory, the peace and the exclusion of the catechumens, and immediately before the anaphora.)
Then again, it’s only at this point in time, and only Anglicans and a few Protestants, who now say “We believe in one God” rather than “I believe …”. The Latin text has always been “credo in unum Deum”, the text of the liturgy of St John Chrysostom and other orthodox liturgies is also in the singular. The BCP is “I believe in one God”. Yet he makes a great deal of the “We believe in one God” of the text currently in use mainly among Anglicans as an argument for the corporate nature of sharing faith in community and bearing one another’s burdens of doubt and times when faith is weak.
It ends up feeling to me like a dogmatic schema is being imposed upon a historical accident as though the relatively varied patterns churches have actually adopted really have a necessary inner logic only disclosed to present-day Anglicans.
In the end, I want to like the poetry and insight of what he says, and much of it is very quotable and well worth pondering. But in the end I can’t quite overcome my own resistance, which is born of feeling that the awkward edges of historical reality are getting airbrushed out of a presentation which is just a bit too tidily packaged for my taste. I can’t help noticing the rough protrusions of history and fact which stick out awkwardly through the theological gift wrap and sellotape, and I feel obliged to draw attention to them.