Creeds, orthodoxy and the Covenant

There are, I think, three groups of questions about the relationship of creeds to orthodoxy:

First, substantive questions:
What must be believed?  What may be believed?  What must not be believed?
Second, interpretative questions:
In what manner must or may or must not these beliefs be held?
Third, determinative questions:
Who decides? And by what mechanism?
The creeds were devised as a way of dividing orthodox from heterodox, friend from foe, in the first four hundred years, give or take, of the Christian Church.  They were originally working documents purporting to encapsulate and express truths which were eternally present but only contingently expressed.

Standing stones on Lewis
By use and antiquity the creeds' propositions have become the inner citadel of What Must Be Believed.  They set out the core intellectual framework of Christianity.  Assent to the Apostles' and Nicean/ Constantinopolitan Creeds is a prerequisite of knowing oneself and others to be orthodox.

The Athanasian creed is widely accepted but out of fashion. Many are uncomfortable with the 'damnatory clauses' that top and tail it.
(In 1872 Archbishop Tait declared to Convocation that ‘not a soul in the room or in the Church of England takes the damnatory clauses in their plain or literal sense.’ The clauses caused ‘distress and alienation of mind’, he said, and were heard as ‘savage words’.)

But the Creeds are not clear like a line on a map.  I suggest that the the individual clauses of the Creeds, and the Creeds as a whole, mark the borders between orthodox and heterodox like standing stones on moorland, way-markers in a complex geography.  All the stones are pretty mossy and chipped by now and, though some have slipped over and smaller ones have fallen from view, most are still clearly visible.

What has changed, repeatedly, is the intellectual and social landscape in which the stones are set.  Sometimes that change has been slow and barely noticed by those who trek across it.  At other times change has been convulsive. This is nothing new, nor is it new to say that the pace of change is quicker too.  I believe this latter observation has been made since the early nineteenth century but it could well have had a longer history. However, it is this combination of shifting contexts and ancient stabilities that make orthodoxy both possible and inexorably problematic.


How do we remain faithful to the witness of the standing stones whilst the landscape is changing around us in unpredictable ways?
And how do we do so in a world which is changing in both different directions and at different speeds in different parts of the world?
The Church of England has only had power to determine its own doctrine from 1974 (in the Worship and Doctrine Measure) and only had this confirmed by the courts in 1992 (over the ordination of women as priests).  Now it's too late: ecumenical agreements and rapid globalisation mean that the CofE is no longer sufficiently autonomous to state and sustain its own doctrine.

Icon depicting Emperor Constantine
(center) and the Fathers of the
First Council of Nicaea (325)
as holding the Niceno–Constantinopolitan
Creed of 381 - Wikipedia
The Covenant offers only the beginnings of a mechanism for determining doctrine. Any party to the Covenant may question the actions of another if it has concerns. The mechanisms that then follow are only sketched in and will have to be (endlessly) elaborated - but they do look as though they have the potential to be a quasi-judicial mechanism for determining doctrine.

Will it work?  It won't.  I can say this with confidence having looked at the Church of England's attempts to use courts to determine doctrine in the nineteenth century.  

Leaving all theology aside there's a simple matter of group psychology.  Say Province A is convinced that Province Z has stepped beyond the bounds of orthodoxy.  It asks a court - or Covenant mechanism - to determine that Province Z is heterodox.  The process decides Province Z is not unorthodox.  Result: Province A is livid, they refuse to accept the finding, and instead attack the whole process.  In effect Province A cedes authority over doctrine to the central mechanism only when it supports their own a priori convictions, never when it finds against them.  

The inability to resolve doctrinal disputes without a shared mechanism leaves everyone exhausted and frustrated. Ironically, though by no means inevitably, it's more likely to keep people together. The attempt to do so within a shared mechanism is likely to stoke up resentment, deepen difference and fuel dissension. In a globalised world the conflicts will be global: every blogger and their cat will want a say, every Chancellor and Vicar General will guard their interests with vigour. 

The standing stones will still be there. But until the day there is one Great Church (as envisaged by some ecumenical Protestants just after the Second World War) no church will be big enough to make definitive judgements.  In fact the opposite tendency is stronger: attempts to enforce agreement generate schism.


  1. The covenant will never serve to bring about unity. How anyone in this day and age thinks it will is beyond me. It's such a backward-looking document, an attempt to return to a past time, a fantasy time that never really existed.

    Your picture of the stones reminds me of my visit to the Loch Buie Stone Circle in Scotland.

  2. I think the thrust of this piece is that despite difficulties it's better not to have a Covenant as the lesser of two evils. With which I heartily agree. It's realpolitik.