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This page last updated 15 April 2007
Anglicans Online last updated 19 November 2017

The General Synod and the Nicene Creed
Simon Sarmiento, Anglicans Online staff

Part I: 17 July 1999
(See also Part II, December 1999, and Part III, March 2000)

British national daily newspapers last week carried headlines Synod divided over Virgin's role and Virgin Mary debate still to be resolved. These must have been puzzling for educated Anglicans world-wide who know that the Nicene Creed is mainly about Christology not Mariology. Nevertheless 82 lay members, 20 clergy members, and even one Church of England diocesan bishop voted against taking note of a report by the House of Bishops which painstakingly explained why the new, ecumenically recommended translation of one line in the Nicene Creed should be preferred to earlier English versions.

This dispute goes back to the November 1998 sessions, when the synod debated in detail the text of the Holy Communion services proposed for use within Common Worship - the new English liturgies to be published in 2000 to replace the Alternative Service Book 1980. At that time, Professor Anthony Thiselton, an evangelical biblical scholar, successfully moved an amendment to replace part of the new translation proposed by the English Language Liturgical Commission (successor ecumenical body to the International Consultation on English Texts) which reads:

For us and for our salvation
he came down from heaven,
was incarnate of the Holy Spirit
and the Virgin Mary
,
and was made man. (ELLC reads became truly human - see below)

with the 1970 ICET translation already found in the Alternative Service Book 1980 (and before that in Series 3 Holy Communion) which reads:

By the power of the Holy Spirit he became incarnate of the Virgin Mary.

The original Greek is:

For reference the 1662 Book of Common Prayer reads:

And was incarnate by the Holy Ghost of the Virgin Mary.

As an entirely separate matter some time ago, the synod had already agreed to retain the traditional wording was made man rather than adopt the ELLC recommendation became truly human. Although both are considered to be accurate translations of the Greek word enanthropesanta, this does weaken any attempt to argue that the bishops are adopting ELLC for the sake of ELLC, as it were.

Professor Thiselton argued that his version (and the BCP version) embodied the Western Latin tradition which had come down to the Church of England, i.e.

de Spiritu Sancto ex Maria Virgine

and that people in England were familiar with it.

The general perception of the November debate was that most of the synod members voting against the ELLC text are conservative evangelicals who think it amounts to putting the Virgin Mary and the Holy Spirit on the same level of importance. Which is obviously an erroneous Catholic doctrine (sic). This perception appeared to be still valid at York this month.

The bishops' June report to synod (which had been approved 36-1, James Jones dissenting) argues that the Church of England should use a direct translation of the Greek rather than a translation of a translation. They say:

"there is no doubt that the [ELLC] proposed version is the most literal translation possible of the original Greek of the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed."

"...It has been the long established practice of the Church of England to use original texts (the Hebrew and the Greek of the Old and New Testaments), preferring them to the Latin. This was part of our reformers' commitment to the renaissance scholarship widely available in Europe in the early sixteenth century. Moreover the Greek phrases used in the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed are those used in two New Testament passages, Matthew 1:1-18 and Galatians 4:4."

The Greek preposition ek is used to govern both genitives in the contested phrase and, as Bishop Michael Nazir-Ali (Rochester), who presented the bishops' report to the synod, explained, it can be translated as of, from or by, or even through, but only by one of these at a time. Bishop Nazir-Ali said:

"The amendment passed by the General Synod last November seems to have no basis in Antiquity and no background even in Anglican tradition. It appears to go back only to the 1960's and 70's."

And he went on to say that there is no agreed explanation for why the received Latin text introduced a distinction of prepositions, which could even be a scribal error (ex for et).

Bishop James Jones (Liverpool) disagreed. He believed it necessary to maintain the distinct role of Mary and the Holy Spirit on the basis of the authority of scripture, of sound doctrine, cultural appropriateness, and because it did not disturb recent usage. "Clarity at this point is a priority, in maintaining the distinct role of Mary and the Holy Spirit."

Professor Thiselton (Northern Universities) admitted that the ELLC text was "not unscriptural in the Book of Common Prayer sense of being repugnant to scripture" but he remained opposed to it, and insisted that academic integrity was at stake.

Typical of the conservative evangelical lay members objecting, Mrs Faith Hanson (Norwich diocese) said the text was perceived by many as being "a backward step in terms of theological accuracy, and open to misunderstanding".

The Archbishop of York, David Hope, in a quite brilliant whirlwind tour of liturgical history, showed that the proposed wording was just as much part of the Western liturgical tradition as of the Eastern. And the Creed was something that had to be taught and explained within the Christian community. It was not supposed to be self-explanatory.

Orthodox representative to the synod Archimandrite Ephrem Lash, who is also a delegate to ELLC, pointed out that the ELLC wording has been accepted without objection by every other English-speaking church throughout the world, including the English Methodists, as well as other Anglican provinces. English-speaking Roman Catholics are waiting for Roman approval for world-wide adoption. Only the Church of England is proposing to change it. He noted drily that "the Orthodox are a little sensitive to changes in the creed". (The General Synod has several ecumenical members with voice though no vote.)

The motion to take note of the bishops' report was passed by the following votes: Bishops 37-1 (no prizes for guessing which one), Clergy 164-21, Laity 107-82. The 82 number is a concern because it could presage a failure to achieve the required two-thirds majority in the lay order on later liturgical votes if this issue becomes a matter of principle. The bishops are due to return the eucharistic rites to the synod in November for final approval. They have to decide whether to stick to their guns on this wording. If final approval does not occur in November 1999 it could severely affect the timetable for publication of further Common Worship texts before the end of 2000 when the ASB authorization ceases. One does wonder if it might not be easier to persuade synod to approve the recitation of the creed in Greek.

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