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The General Synod and the Nicene Creed (Part II)

Simon Sarmiento, Anglicans Online staff
4 December 1999

(See also Part I, July 1999, and Part III, March 2000)

Again in November there were reports in British national daily newspapers that referred to the Church of England General Synod debate on translating the Nicene Creed into modern English.  Headlines such as 'Virgin Mary debate still to be resolved' and 'Church leaders divided over wording of Creed' appeared.  This report gives some background to what happened.


Following the debate at the July 1999 session on this subject (see my earlier report), the House of Bishops issued a new report to the November synod in which they showed that they had changed their original position from one of total support for the ELLC translation, using only one English preposition of to translate ek, to a more flexible position as follows.

The House believes that three translations would be possible for this clause:

  1. was incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary [ELLC translation]

  2. was incarnate from the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary

  3. was incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the Virgin Mary.

The bishops report also said, inter alia, concerning each of the three options:

  1. It remains our preference.

  2. The House would be prepared to accept this were it to be the mind of the Synod to adopt it.

  3. A greater number of bishops are now willing to support retention of by/of, although the majority of the House would prefer to keep to one preposition, be this of or from, in the interests of the accuracy and economy of translation of the single preposition ek.

In the event, one more bishop than before voted for option a, and again only a single bishop voted for option c in the November debate, namely the one who had dissented from the original House of Bishops report, and who had proposed option c. to the synod in July. Presumably this greater number were all accidently absent having a cup of tea at the time of the vote, or perhaps what they meant to say was that they would reluctantly support option c only if Synod eventually rejected option a.

The course of the debate itself was well covered by the Church Times

Although it seemed pretty clear that option b using from was put forward by the bishops as a compromise position around which they thought, or even hoped that, a consensus might form, this did not happen.  In fact when the votes were taken on the various options, option b was lost on a show of hands without any count being called for, and option c was lost on a show of hands by 154-252. The voting on option a showed slightly increased support for it compared with July as follows:

In July, the votes were: Bishops 37-1, Clergy 164-21, Laity 107-82.

In November, the votes were: Bishops 38-1, Clergy 179-22, Laity 131-76.

This lack of support in the debate for option b is particularly odd in the light of comments made to the press immediately after the debate by Pete Broadbent, Archdeacon of Northolt (West London), and apparently acting a spokesperson for the evangelical minority – among the clergy at least – who said that he could happily accept option b but could not in conscience accept option a. Just how this translation problem can become an issue of conscience for anyone remains obscure to numerous synod members and observers, including your reporter. It may be relevant to mention that English Roman Catholics have not yet adopted the ELLC translation (which along with much other material is sitting in a Roman curial in-tray awaiting approval, and has been for many moons) but today they use the following version:

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

Which differs from the ASB (see below) only in the one word from, and is presumably equally acceptable to Mr Broadbent and many other evangelical members of synod.

The problem is that the level of support for option a is still less than a two-thirds majority of the House of Laity, which is required in order to get this material finally approved. If that majority is not obtained, then the BCP text would become the default here, which would not sit well in the middle of a modern language service, to say the least.

Some of the newspaper reports failed to make clear the procedural status of this matter. In fact, this entire debate, like the one last July, was purely advisory and does not necessarily determine what eventually happens. It may help to explain this in a bit more detail.

In November 1998, Holy Communion Orders 1 and 2 for the new Common Worship book had been amended on the floor of the synod to replace the ELLC wording with that currently used in the 1980 Alternative Service Book,

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

and then reached the procedural stage where the texts are formally referred by the synod to the House of Bishops, under the rule which states:

'a…provision touching … the services or ceremonies of the Church of England… shall, before it is finally approved by the General Synod, be referred to the House of Bishops, and shall be submitted for such final approval in terms proposed by the House of Bishops and not otherwise.' 

Thus, it is open for the bishops, and only the bishops, if they deem it appropriate, to make alterations to the texts before they return them for final synod approval, currently expected to occur in late February 2000. They could also divide the texts into separate items, rather than leaving them as a single entity. (The Eucharistic Prayers are themselves currently so divided from the main text of the order.) The bishops have – it says in their report – considered whether or not to separate the Nicene Creed text, but have not announced any decision on that.

They have brought forward motions for debate on this particular clause in two successive sessions of the synod in an attempt to gauge the views of all synod members before making up their mind what to do next.

Eventually, the final approval of the synod requires a two-thirds majority of those present and voting in each of the three houses. The recent vote did not command that majority of the House of Laity, although the percentage improved slightly over the July vote.  During such a final debate, it is also possible for the proceedings to be adjourned to enable the House of Bishops to reconsider matters in the light of synod action up to that point.

Regardless of the outcome of all this, the Nicene Creed will appear in Common Worship in at least two other forms. The House of Bishops also intends to have a rubric inserted to the effect that other authorized versions of the Nicene Creed may be used in the Order for the Celebration of Holy Communion. This order is in fact four orders one of which, currently named Order Two, which follows both the shape and language of the BCP, will contain the same form of words as is found today in the [1662] Book of Common Prayer. Further, the Synod has already authorized the printing of yet another version of the Creed, which omits the filioque clause, in an appendix to the book.

Another motion, which the synod debated but also defeated, called on the bishops to include a modern English version of the Prayer Book text as an additional option, to go in the same appendix as the filioque-free version. This seemed to some members like too much of a cop-out.

The issue now is to find a single modern English text on which the whole synod can unite. It seems unlikely that the ELLC text will meet this requirement. Although it appears in the new (1999) The Methodist Worship Book the fact that it is not yet in use by Roman Catholics, the other major body of Christian worshippers on a normal English Sunday, does seems to weaken the ecumenical case for its adoption by the Church of England.

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