By Zac Koons
“Everybody stand up and recite the Pledge of Allegiance, please.” So said my church history professor on the first day of class. A strange request given the setting, especially because there was no flag in the room, but we obliged, being naive first-year theology majors and a disproportionate number of firstborn evangelical do-gooders.
“Thank you,” he said. “Now recite the Nicene Creed.”
Maybe five of our 25 knew the first line. The lone Episcopalian in the room (not me) hobbled through the first half of the first article before the whole room fell into a bruised and convicting silence. The guilt of that moment provided one of the first tanks of fuel for my long and circuitous journey into Anglicanism.
I was reminded of this experience recently when my mic stopped working in the middle of the liturgy — just after the first line of the Creed, in fact. And without the support of amplification, I was stunned by how pitiful the next several lines sounded from the congregation. The feeble trudge through “maker of heaven and earth” didn’t leave me with confidence that we’d make it through “of all that is, seen and unseen.”
I despaired. Do these people who recite these exact words Sunday after Sunday really not know these words? Is the faith of our congregation that frail? I eased up. Perhaps it wasn’t a lack of faith as much as a lack of enthusiasm. With another microsecond of reflection, I realized that too was plenty worrying. Do we care that little about the doctrine of the Church? Have I done such a poor job in teaching the role of the Creed within the liturgy, and the role of the liturgy in our lives, that this has become little more than a commercial break? Is this, in their minds, anything more than a moment to stretch your legs and wake yourself back up after the sermon?
Before despair could harden into depression, something wonderful, if pretty predictable happened: Voices began to find one another in the room. They coalesced starting around “one Lord, Jesus Christ” and by the time we got to “God from God, Light from Light” we were united in one strong vox populi. In the end, without the support of the stereo speakers, it felt like we were saying the Creed for the first time. It felt like we were paying attention. It felt like it mattered. And it was beautiful.
I’ve clicked off my mic after the first line of the Creed every time since. And the truth is, we still struggle through the first few lines. But that feels right to me. That struggle makes the Creed feel more honest. The microphone, I think, had given us a false sense of security and the priest’s voice plastered over the cracks in the competing cadences of the congregation. The microphone, in short, made faith sound easy. And faith often just isn’t.
What I love is that the chaos of our competing cadences creates a metaphorical space within which a great variety of people can locate their current state of faith (as expressed by Fr. Bryan Owen). Perhaps each individual can’t say each line each week. Perhaps your tongue muscles are still adjusting to the syntax of Episcopal liturgy. Perhaps you’ve just recently realized you’ve never thought much about the line “conceived by the Holy Spirit” and that on this particular day you can’t imagine assenting to something so crazy. The initial polyphonic spree of “the Father Almighty, Creator of heaven and earth” welcomes many. It opens a space that encourages rather than discourages the people in the pew to honestly consider their relationship to this ancient statement of faith.
The struggle of those opening lines creates tension that needs resolving. And it always does resolve. Voices always find one another in the room. But the important thing is that speaker system doesn’t shortcut the struggle. Without a microphone, the tension can’t be resolved by any other single person in the room, so voices must find one another in order for us to reach the end of the Creed. And when they do, the idiosyncrasies of individuals, the finger-crossers and filioque-skippers are all consumed into the faith of the We and carried all the way to the Amen. The metaphor evolves: In our journeys of faith, don’t we find that our faith at different moments and in different ways depends on the faith of others?
In this way, the recitation of the Creed now enacts a mini-drama Sunday after Sunday. It takes us on a journey from chaos to unity, and from the struggle of Christian faith as an individual to confidence of faith that can only come in community.
It took this providential technical failure to make me think theologically about the role of microphones in worship. The priest speaks in two voices in the course of the liturgy: At times speaking to God on behalf of the people and at times speaking to the people on behalf of God. What I had forgotten until that Sunday of microphone malfunction was that the Creed doesn’t fall into either category. It’s a moment for the people to speak to God directly. And by speaking over the people with my mic, I was doing exactly the opposite of what a priest is supposed to do. I was not a mediator as much as a wall, not a guide to greater faith as much as an impediment to it. Our voiced-over Creed left as little room for new converts as it did for seasoned doubters, and thereby little room for drama — and thereby little room for enthusiasm and genuine common faith.
Now, Sunday after Sunday, we experience in miniature how the faith of the Church is dependent on us being a body. I like Fr. Owen’s metaphor, that the Creed is a compass, but I wonder if we could think of it as a compass that initially wavers with its uncertain users, and only finds true north as those users settle into unity.
Some years ago, I was at a parish where one frequent worshiper at our mid-week Eucharist was a hard-of-hearing and rather loud-of-speaking elderly gentleman who, on every occasion I witnessed, struggled mightily to pray in liturgical rhythm with others. There was only one exception. The difference on that single occasion was that his daughter had come with him, and I noticed that each time we came to a liturgical prayer to be said by the congregation in unison, she would reach over and simply hold his hand. And that’s all it took. Human touch brought his voice into rhythm. The rhythm of our prayer, and the unified faith of the Church, coursed through her veins and into his. How beautiful is the body of Christ.
And how dangerous are misused microphones.