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We believe

“I invite you to stand as you are able, and join with me in the words of the Nicene Creed on page 358.”  While the rubric in the Prayer Books says simply, “On Sundays and other Major Feasts there follows, all standing…,” I’m aware that many of us struggle with the creed, and thus in worship I prefer to issue an invitation rather than a command.  Some folks stand or sit quietly; some say parts of the Creed but carefully avoid or modify specific clauses with which they have some scruple. I believe that most of us believe what we say in the Creed, but I am frequently surprised at the number of people who recite it every week, but when asked, say something like, “Oh, we don’t really believe that anymore, do we?”

The Creeds are historical documents, in the sense that we know something about where and when they were composed, and in what historical context.  The Creed we read every Sunday was drafted at the Council of Nicaea (today called Iznik, Turkey) in 325 AD, and adopted with considerable revision at the Council of Constantinople (Istanbul) in 381 AD.  These Councils were convened by the Emperors Constantine and Theodosius, who invited all the Christian bishops in the Empire to come together and hammer out a clear statement of belief.  This was important if Christianity was to be an Imperial religion:  the Empire needed to know what the main stream of Christians believe.

However one thinks about the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, the Creeds were drafted by human beings in the midst of spiritual and political struggle. The goal of the Councils was to define orthodox belief, so by definition some ways of interpreting Christ were excluded and labeled heresy.  Much has been made of this process of “silencing minority voices,” but one need not see a cynical conspiracy.  This is the Church working out our answer to Jesus’ question to the Disciples: “Who do you say that I am?” 

In fact, the largest part of the Creed, the second paragraph that talks about who Jesus is, treads a careful line to avoid foreclosing hard questions with easy answers:  Jesus is eternally and cosmically God and also a human being who was born to a specific woman and who was killed under the administration of a specific Roman governor. The historic heresies are not excluded because they said something challenging about Jesus that the Church couldn’t handle.  They are excluded because they say something that is too little, too easy: That Jesus was simply a good man and a good teacher, but not God (the Arians), or that the man that we know as Jesus was only some sort of spiritual projection of God, and thus not a human who suffered (the Gnostics and Docetists).

Some will say that “Jesus did not come to establish a Church.” That may be true, but the fact is that the Church is the historical human body, full of human limitations and weaknesses, that has been given the gift and the responsibility of maintaining and furthering the Good News that Jesus left us. The Creed is a statement of our corporate identity: we are people who try to follow Jesus, and this is what we as a community say about who Jesus is, who God is, who the Holy Spirit is.

The community part is key.  Some of you may have heard an interview a few years ago with the late Yale professor Jaroslav Pelikan on the National Public Radio talk show, “On Being.”  Pelikan highlights the fact that the Nicene Creed is composed in the first-person plural:  “We believe…”  This is not only a statement of group identity (something of which individualistic Westerners are suspicious), but also a statement of continuity – through history and through our own lifetimes.  Pelikan says,

To know that in the Philippines this morning this was the creed that was recited at mass and to know that the Emperor Justinian in the 6th century and Thomas Aquinas in the 13th, and my late father and grandfather all affirmed this.  It’s ‘we’ all of us together….  My faith and my faith life, like that of everyone else, fluctuates.  There are ups and downs and hot spots and cold spots and boredom and ennui and all the rest can be there.  And so I’m not asked of a Sunday morning as of 9:20, what do you believe?  And then you sit down with a 3×5 index card and say, “Now, let’s see.  What do I believe today?”  No, that’s not what they’re asking me.  They’re asking me, “Are you a member of a community which now for millennium and a half has said, ‘We believe in one God.’”  And so that’s what I affirm when I sing it.

(The full broadcast and transcript of this program is available at

The Creeds are ultimately not checklists of propositions to which we give intellectual assent, or to which we pledge allegiance, as are some of the Lutheran and Calvinist Confessions. The point of the Creed is not to differentiate ourselves from other Christian traditions (we have plenty of ways of doing that), but to affirm that in spite of differences we are all part of one tradition (the one holy catholic and apostolic Church), however diversely lived and expressed in different times, places and cultures, that covenants to wrestle with these holy mysteries.

That shared tradition is the reason the Eastern Church found it so shocking when the Western Church added a single word to the Creed in the seventh century, proclaiming that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Son as well as from the Father.  Ironically, respect for shared tradition is also why many visitors to St. Saviour are so shocked by our previous rector’s decision to strike out the words “and the Son” from the creed in our prayer books.  Our affirmation of shared faith is brought up short by a stark example of a break in our tradition, and we find ourselves stumbling over the words and the rhythm.  An effort at inclusivity has become a shibboleth.

That shared tradition is also why I have resisted paraphrased, modern language versions of the Creed for liturgical use (as opposed to new translations from the original languages).  Fresh metaphors and images for the persons of the Trinity can be helpful and soul-expanding, and are necessary if mystery is not to harden into rote formula.  Poetic elaboration of theology is also an ancient tradition, and has a place in worship as hymnody and other liturgical texts – the Gloria in excelsis is essentially a poetic paraphrase of the Creed.  But the moment in the service when we are invited to stand as we are able and read together from page 358 is meant to be a straightforward, unadorned affirmation of the minimum our community has agreed we can say together about God.  In the words of St. Augustine, as quoted by Professor Pelikan: “We have said this not in order to say something, but in order not to remain altogether silent.”

On the other hand, I would never say that the Creed is a litmus test for salvation.  I do not believe that God judges us on whether we believe the right things about God or about anything else (but of course, I could be wrong in that belief!).  When scripture and tradition talk about faith in Christ, I hear that as a call to be faithful to Christ, to keep faith in our relationship with God, and to trust that God will remain faithful to us.  Whether we accept the words of the Creed as history or mystery is less important than that we are willing to engage with the truth that they represent.

So why bother with the Creed?  Do we really believe this stuff anymore?  Is it more intellectually defensible to stand silent while others recite it?  In a world where it is far too easy to divide ourselves from one another, to demonize those with whom we disagree, and to parse every utterance for the possibility of offense, what could be more challenging and rewarding than to stand weekly with a diverse community of Christians around the globe and to say together, “We believe in one God…”

Do you hear the bells?

Vivos voco,                        I call the living,
Mortuos plango,               
I mourn the dead,
Festa decora,                   
I adorn festivals,
Fulgura frango.                
I shatter the lightning.

+   +   +   Traditional Latin inscription on church bells

That folk may come to church in time, I chime;
When pleasure’s on the wing, I ring;
To speed the parting soul, I toll.

+   +   +   Inscription on the bell of an old village church in Devonshire

Bells in church buildings may seem perfectly obvious – but why?  What is there about striking heavy bronze cups to make a loud sound that had anything to do with Christian faith or Christian community?

Christianity did not invent bells, of course.  China developed bells, gongs, cymbals and singing bowls thousands of years ago; they were an important part of traditional Chinese religious practice, and were adopted by Buddhism and Hinduism.  The penetrating, far reaching sound of the bells was often understood as carrying prayers to the ears of the gods and ancestors, as well as creating a meditative state of mind.  When the ancient Egyptians learned how to smelt bronze, bells became a part of their religious practice, too; Moses may have carried this tradition out of Egypt and taught the Hebrew priests to sew bells to the hems of their robes, but the shofar, or ram’s-horn, was the traditional call to worship.

Christianity did not invent monasticism, either, but the disciplined daily schedule of prayer and silence in monastic communities made some sort of signaling system necessary.  In the earliest Christian monasteries, monks were alerted by striking a resonant piece of wood called a semander, which is still traditional in many Orthodox traditions.

According to tradition, it was a bishop in Nola, near Naples, Italy, who first introduced bells into Christian worship around the year 400, both as a call to worship and as a way of calling attention to important parts of the service for congregations that could not see or hear much of what was going on.  Bells caught on quickly, and by the early 600’s bells were so closely associated with the call to Christian prayer that Mohammed vetoed them for Muslim worship, establishing instead the tradition of the muezzin’s chanted call from a high minaret.

In the early Middle Ages, between the fall of the Roman empire and the slow development of Medieval European civilization, Christian monasteries functioned as outposts of culture and religious centers, especially outside cities.  The sound of the bells calling the monks and nuns to prayer seven times a day was a connection between the cloister and the world outside; a Christian working in the fields or the kitchen could hear the bells and pause for a moment’s prayer in communion with the brothers and sisters.

Fast-forward to the English Reformation in the sixteenth century.  Given the opportunity to develop a new prayer book for the independent English Church, Archbishop Thomas Cranmer turned to the monastic cycle of daily prayer, simplifying it for the use of Christians in all walks of life.  The new Book of Common Prayer was anchored by the daily offices of Morning and Evening Prayer, to be prayed either in the parish church or at home.  The parish church bell, like the monastery bell, became even more important as a way of calling the people together for prayer with their neighbors, whether in the same space or separated by distance.  The voice of the bell became closely associated with the parish, such that people could readily pick out the sound of their own parish bells from others.

St. Saviour’s bells have been speaking to the people of Bar Harbor for over eighty years.  Many have heard the quirky story of the bells’ donation and the reason for the “temporary” steel tower, but far more important than that story, I think, is the way that our bells have worked themselves into the sensory landscape of our community.  Neighbors and tourists may grumble about being awakened, and nearby dogs may go on high alert, but the slow, sonorous voice of our bells is as much a part of downtown Bar Harbor as the smell of the sea at low tide.  I particularly love the interplay of our bells and the firehouse horn at noon and nine:  church and state, protectors of spirit and of body, letting us know that all is well in our little village.

Not all may recognize it, but our bells are a sort of witness to the people of Bar Harbor, residents and tourists.  We no longer live in a society where everybody goes to church, and the bells are just a reminder to do what we are all doing anyway.  The bells have become more like a voice of one crying in the wilderness:  refusing to let the world forget that we owe our existence to God and our redemption to his son Jesus Christ.  The bells are a song on the breeze, celebrating the fact that the Holy Spirit still speaks and that there are people who still listen.  If even one or two people stop what they are doing and offer a few moments of prayer when our bells ring, how wonderful!  The voice of the bells calls each of us to prayer, to relationship with God and God’s people.  Do you hear the bells?

Future History

Last summer, as we commemorated the 150th anniversary of the first Episcopal service on our island and reflected on the stewardship that built this church, a few folks began to wonder what kind of legacy we are leaving for those in future generations.  The Bicentennial Club was born from a commitment to make our community sustainable for at least the next fifty years: taking care of our physical plant as well as looking to the long-term financial and demographic health of our parish (I had suggested “The Biker Gang” as a cool nickname for the Bicentennial Club, but Jim Vallette didn’t think that was as clever as I did).  As we celebrate more anniversaries in the next few years (the founding of our parish, the completion of our first building), count on the Bicentennial Club to remind us that stewardship of our history extends into the future as well as the past.

One of the first efforts in this direction has been a sensitive remodeling of our front entrance to be more accessible to those with mobility issues.  We were quickly blessed with four initial gifts totaling forty-five thousand dollars, including a generous pledge from our neighbors at the Parish House.  More gifts have continued to come in, and we are on schedule to begin construction on the project this fall.

When we presented the proposal for the entrance at a parish meeting, several folks mentioned other items around the campus that need some attention.  The Vestry had many of these on our radar, but others were things we might not have thought about.  Our ever-attentive Junior Warden, Wayne, quickly added more items to the to-do list: some major capital improvements, some minor maintenance fixes.  Your vestry has been addressing these responsibly.

No one seems to know just how old the church boiler is, and that should tell us something. The faithful old beast has always (so far) rumbled to life every fall, but that can’t go on forever. This summer the Ves­try hired Richard Rollins, PE, to evaluate our system and write specifications for a replacement. We are currently soliciting bids to replace our boiler (we will send the old one to live on a farm, where she will be able to run free and chase rabbits), as well as to tune up our other heating systems to be more effi­cient. This work will begin in the spring, when heating contractors are less busy and more competi­tive.

We had also asked Dick Rollins to investigate options to increase our energy efficiency and decrease our carbon footprint.  Some ideas (like heat pumps and geothermal heating) were found not to be very appropriate for our building and location, but we plan to do further research on possibilities for solar electric generation.  There are grants and loans available for such projects, and we may be able to coordinate with the replacement of our roof shingles, another need on the horizon.

You may have noticed the church looking a little dim, especially in the back of the chancel as bulbs have burned out, and you may have wondered why no one has replaced them yet (there is room here for the old jokes about how many Episcopalians it takes to change a light bulb: “Change it? My great grandfather donated that bulb!”). A few years ago we replaced the lamps in the church chandeliers with super-efficient LED bulbs.  Since then, the cost of LED’s has come down dramatically, and in the next month we will be replacing the lamps in the track lights and spotlights as well.  This will significantly reduce our electric bill from lighting, the LED’s will last several times as long as incandescent bulbs, and will generate far less heat (I can’t guarantee that they would have made the last two weeks in July comfortable, but every little bit helps).

One of the goals of the Bicentennial Club has been to reconnect with the families of some of the folks whose names are commemorated on the plaques and windows that fill our church, inviting them to be part of the future of our parish as well as the past.  One of our first endeavors at this will involve necessary repairs and restoration of several of the stained-glass windows.  These conversations are ongoing, and I have great hopes that we will be able to rekindle relationships with some of these families.

All of these projects are important, and all of them cost money (you knew I would get there, didn’t you?).  But this is not about a big capital campaign to raise funds.  In 2015 and 2016 the Living Stones Team did a great job of educating all of us about the realities of our parish finances and our responsibilities as stewards.  In response to that campaign, St. Saviour’s congregation did an impressive job of increasing pledges and annual giving to reduce the amount we draw from our endowment every year for operating expenses.  The endowment is healthier, and our budget is more sustainable than it has been in some time.  The task now is to continue our annual stewardship so that we can live within our means, and cultivate the endowment so that it can support the long-term sustainability of our parish.

Part of that cultivation is “the duty… of all persons to make wills, while they are in health, arranging for the disposal of their temporal goods, not neglecting, if they are able, to leave bequests for religious and charitable uses.” (BCP p. 445).  Just as we set aside part of our regular income to be a sacramental offering to God, we are invited to sanctify all that we have gathered in our life by giving part of it away.  One of the reasons we have an endowment, and one of the reasons that St. Saviour’s has been a strong rock in this community for almost 150 years, has been the generosity of our people in their estates.  This is an easy way to ensure that St. Saviour will be healthy at the celebration of our bicentennial.