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VIEW OF THE
The recent debates in the Convocations of Canterbury and York have again raised the long-vexed question of the use of The Confession of our Christian Faith, called the Creed of St. Athanasius,' in the public services of the Church. It must, I think, be admitted that in respect of this creed the clergy are rather hardly treated. Many of them, perhaps most, disapprove its public use ; their congregations disapprove it still more. Diocesan Conferences have declared against it, or at the best have half-heartedly defended it. And now at last the Bishops have begun to make speeches or to publish letters and addresses reflecting upon the creed or rearranging it, or attenuating some of its phrases, or explaining them away. But, all the while, the clergy are obliged by a definite rubric to recite the creed in public services and to recite it on such festivals as Christmas Day, Easter Day, and Whit-Sunday, when its damnatory clauses are strangely out of tune with the wishes and thoughts congenial to Christian hearts. There is, in fact, a strong case for some relief; but the relief is not given.
No doubt it is easy to argue that no man is compelled to take Holy Orders, and that, if a man voluntarily takes them, he has no claim to get rid of the obligations which they impose. But this argument is hardly conclusive. For it is desirable that men, and especially earnest and thoughtful men, should be ordained, and that no unnecessary obstacle should be put in the way of their ordination. That the Athanasian Creed is such an obstacle will hardly be disputed by anyone who knows the state of theological feeling in the Universities; but if it is, and so far as it is, an obstacle, it is an evil. Nor are the clergy the only persons to be considered. For it is desirable, too, that the laity should go to church. If then there are a good many devout laymen who dislike and resent the public use of the creed and avoid hearing it by staying away from church, so far again it is on this account an evil.
It is possible, indeed, that the evil may be exaggerated. The
See Dr. Wickham Legg's letter in the Guardian, April 6, 1904.
consciences of some candidates for Holy Orders are almost morbidly sensitive in the present day. For the doctrinal statements of the creed are probably not repugnant to anybody who believes the orthodox Christian faith, and, as believing it, is qualified and inclined to take Holy Orders. The so-called damnatory clauses, too, have been officially interpreted as 'to be understood no otherwise than the like warnings in Holy Scripture.' If so, all that can be said of them is that they are infelicitously expressed; for there can be no doubt that they appear at first sight, and are generally taken, to go beyond the most certain warrants of Holy Scripture,' by which, according to the 8th Article, the Athanasian Creed may be proved.
But the fact is that it is a mistake to look upon the same words as bearing always and everywhere the same significance. It often happens that technical phrases come to be used, not in a literal, but in a secondary meaning. There have been times when it seemed natural and necessary to visit theological errors with extreme maledictions. The most awful condemnations of heretics excited no surprise or disgust. It is as certain as any fact of history can be that the same language which is felt to be terrible and deplorable by consciences trained in nineteen centuries of Christianity was not so felt, or was not so felt in anything like the same degree, by the Christians who first made use of it or first listened to it. The damnatory clauses, therefore, of the Athanasian Creed are a heavier burden upon consciences to-day than they were many centuries ago, and they will become a still heavier burden as the years and the centuries pass. For humanity grows more humane ; that is one of the few clear gains attaching to progress; men are kinder than they were, and their theology, too, becomes less rigid, less bitter than it was.
The great objection, then, to the public use of the Athanasian Creed is that its language in its natural interpretation is not what Christians and Churchmen hold to be true. Archbishop Tait, in his speech in Convocation, put the general feeling well :
We are to take the clauses in their plain and literal sense. But we do not. There is not a soul in the room who does. Nobody in the Church of England takes them in their plain literal sense.
A reasonable person will not indeed deny that in any historical Church, having a continuous unbroken life of many centuries, formularies may, and often must, be interpreted with considerable latitude. The language of the sixteenth or seventeenth century, and a fortiori of the ninth or the fifth century, cannot be altogether suited to the twentieth. The candidate for Holy Orders, and scarcely less the lay member of the Church, must ask himself, not whether he approves and accepts every sentence of the Prayer Book in its literal meaning, but whether he feels himself to be in general sympathy with its language and its spirit; and he will allow himself the greater liberty, as he reflects upon the difficulty which the Church has experienced for a long time in legislating for herself or in getting legislation passed for her through Parliament. Still, when all is said, it remains an unhappy circumstance that Churchmen should be expected on solemn festivals to take part in strong condemnatory phrases which they do not, and cannot in their consciences, hold to be literally true.
It is now more than thirty years since the last attempt was made to meet and solve the problem of the Athanasian Creed. The story of that attempt is told at full length by the present Archbishop of Canterbury in the twenty-second chapter of the Life of Archbishop Tait. Archbishop Tait was himself in favour of rescinding the obligation to use the creed in the public services of the Church. He was defeated by the strong opposition of the High Church party under the leading of Dr. Pusey and Dr. Liddon. Dr. Pusey wrote to the Bishop of Winchester on the 19th of October, 1871: 'If the Athanasian Creed is touched I see nothing to be done but to give up my canonry and abandon my fight for the Church of England.' Dr. Liddon wrote to the Archbishop of Canterbury on the 23rd of December, 1871:
It is not, I trust, obtrusive or other than right in me to state firmly to your Grace that if this most precious creed is at all mutilated by the excision of the so-termed damnatory clauses, or degraded—by an alteration of the rubric which precedes it—from its present position in the Book of Common Prayer, I shall feel bound in conscience to resign my proferments and retire from the ministry of the Church of England.
Archbishop Tait, like the statesman that he was, chose in these circumstances the less of two evils. He preferred sacrificing his own views upon the use of the creed to breaking up the Church, whose chief minister he was; and the creed and the rubric prescribing its public use have remained without alteration to the present time.
Thirty years have wrought a change of theological opinion. The liberalising spirit which has passed upon theology has intensified the antipathy of many devout Churchmen to the frequent public recitation of the creed. High Churchmen, as they have adopted a new position in regard to the inspiration of Holy Scripture, have apparently adopted, or are adopting, a new position in regard to the public use of the Athanasian Creed. The Bishop of Worcester, at his Diocesan Conference, has spoken in favour of a resolution : 'that the present rubric governing the use of the Athanasian Creed is the cause of more harm than good, and should be fundamentally altered.' The Bishop of Chester, at his Conference, has declared the creed to be in its present form' an absolute stumbling-block in the way of the faith.'
There is an increasing desire also to bring the Church of England, in her use of the Athanasian Creed, into greater harmony with the other Churches of Christendom. At present she insists upon the public recitation of the creed thirteen times in the course of the year. But the creed is not so treated in any other Church of Christendom (except, indeed, the Episcopal Church of Scotland), nor was it so treated in the Church of England herself before the Reformation. It is not similarly recited in the Church of Rome, or in the Churches of the East, or in the reformed Lutheran or Calvinistic Churches of the continent of Europe, or in the Presbyterian Churches of Scotland or in the Nonconformist Churches of England. It is not similarly recited in the Church of Ireland or in the Episcopal Church of the United States of America. The rubric enforcing its use in the public services of the Church of England on the festivals now enumerated in the Prayer Book was the work of the Anglican Reformers. It first appeared in the second Prayer Book of King Edward VI. It did not in express terms order the creed to be used as a substitute for the Apostles' Creed until the revision of the Prayer Book in 1662. To revert to the more ancient Catholic usage of the creed would be in accordance with the growing spirit of regard for the principles and practices of the early Church.
In these circumstances it is matter for thankfulness that the Upper Houses of both the Convocations of Canterbury and York should have lately passed resolutions, the one for 'appointing a committee to consider in what way the present use of the creed 'may be modified, the document itself being retained in the formularies of the Church as an authoritative statement of the Church's faith'; the other, for
restoring the creed to its more ancient use as a document for instruction of the faithful, in such manner as may most fully safeguard the reverent treatment of the doctrines of the faith.' 3 These resolutions are striking in themselves. They indicate a remarkable advance of episcopal opinion. But there is no reason to think that the bishops have gone beyond the opinion of the Lower Houses of the Convocation, or the Houses of Laymen, or the clergy and laity of the Church everywhere. For still more striking than the resolutions have been the debates which took place upon them. Almost everybody who has spoken has expressed himself as sympathetic with the desire to give some relief to anxious consciences, if only it could be given without compromising the Catholic Faith ; and nobody has exhibited anything like the bitterness or wilfulness or the arbitrary irreconcilable spirit which marked the debates, or some of the speeches delivered in them, thirty years ago. But when men who resist a policy resist it not because it is wrong in itself, but because of consequences which may possibly flow from it, it has already come halfway to success. If it should happen that the several parties in
· Stanley, The Athanasian Creed, pp. 36 sqq. His statements are not entirely accurate, but even the use of the creed at Prime in the Church of Rome is not a parallel to its use at Matins in the Church of England.
• See the Guardian, May 11, 1904.
the Church came to agree upon a change in the treatment of the creed, it would still be difficult to determine what the treatment should be.
Three main proposals of reform have been made :
(1) It has been proposed to meet the difficulty felt about the creed by retranslation. Not a few suggested retranslations have appeared. It will be enough to mention that the Committee of Bishops appointed more than thirty years ago to consider the use of the Athanasian Creed put forward suggestions on the 12th of February, 1872, for certain alterations both in the Latin text and in the English translation. They proposed in the translation, among other minor changes,
(a) To substitute the word 'infinite' for 'incomprehensible and the word 'eternal' for ' everlasting 'throughout the creed.
(6) In verse 1 to read Whosoever willeth to be saved' instead of 'Whosoever will be saved.'
(c) In verse 25 to read 'There is nothing afore or after, nothing greater or less.'
(d) In verse 28 to read ' willeth to' for 'will' and 'let him think' for 'must think.'
(e) In verse 29 to read ' faithfully' for 'rightly.'
(f) In verse 42 to leave out all the words after ' faith' and to substitute for them' which every man who desireth to attain to eternal life ought to know wholly and to guard faithfully.'
But I am afraid it must be admitted that no retranslation can solve the question of the creed. The Bishop of Worcester has said, rightly enough, that 'the objections to the public use of the creed would not be adequately met by a retranslation.' So, too, the Archbishop of York: 'We can use the most perfect possible translation, but we cannot touch the difficulties which surround the matter.' For, in fact, the Latin original is frequently open to the same objection as the English translation. To take the first two verses only, the words:
Quicunque vult salvus esse ; ante omnia opus est ut teneat Catholicam fidem.
Quam nisi quisque integram inviolatamque servaverit ; absque dubio in æternum peribit.
are fully as explicit as 'Whosoever will be saved, before all things it is necessary that he hold the Catholic Faith ; which Faith except everyone do keep whole and undefiled, without doubt he shall perish everastingly.'
It is, in fact, noticeable that the six professors of theology in the University of Oxford, who were consulted by the Committee of Bishops, Dr. Mozley, Dr. Pusey, Dr. Ogilvie, Dr. Heurtley, Dr. Bright, and Dr. Liddon, in their reply, dated the 30th of November, 1871, avowed themselves' unable to make any suggestions as to either the text or