What Do We Believe?
The Episcopal Church, as part of the Anglican Communion and tradition, has historically emphasized our common worship as one of our most important defining characteristics. We do not, as a rule, require people to sign their names and give their formal assent to a long list of doctrinal statements in order to join our Church. Rather, we invite everyone to come pray and worship with us, for we pray our beliefs.
But that raises a crucial question: what exactly do we believe?
It is fairly well known that, generally speaking, if you ask five Episcopalians to give their views on a particular theological topic, you’ll likely get seven or eight different answers. In many ways, that is a great strength of our tradition—we create room and space, within our fellowship, for a range of perspectives, interpretations, and beliefs.
We have, over the years, focused so much on the idea that Anglicanism is a “big tent” that it sometimes surprises people, both inside and outside of The Episcopal Church, to discover that there are a few specific things that the Church claims and believes and teaches as being true. Although it’s not necessarily our defining characteristic, we do have doctrines; we even have a small handful of dogmas. The dogmas are pretty basic—Christianity 101, if you will. (There is one God known to us in Three Persons; Jesus Christ is God’s only Son, both fully human and fully divine; Jesus became incarnate in the flesh, lived and died as one of us, and was raised from the dead to save us and make atonement for our sins … basically the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds—that’s our dogma.)
Our doctrines are only slightly more involved. In many ways, our doctrines are simply interpretations of and commentaries on the Creeds. The Creeds are the distilled statements of what we believe; the Catechism explains how we hold, understand, and practice those beliefs.
For the next several months, we’ll be taking a look at the various parts of the Catechism in order to explore what it is we, as a Church, actually believe. With that goal in mind, let’s begin at the beginning.
From An Outline of the Faith, commonly called the Catechism (BCP 845 ff)
Q. What are we by nature?
A. We are part of God's creation, made in the image of
Q. What does it mean to be created in the image of God?
A. It means that we are free to make choices: to love, to
create, to reason, and to live in harmony with creation
and with God.
Q. Why then do we live apart from God and out of
harmony with creation?
A. From the beginning, human beings have misused their
freedom and made wrong choices.
Q. Why do we not use our freedom as we should?
A. Because we rebel against God, and we put ourselves in
the place of God.
Q, What help is there for us?
A. Our help is in God.
Q. How did God first help us?
A. God first helped us by revealing himself and his will,
through nature and history, through many seers and
saints, and especially the prophets of Israel.
This first section of our catechism might seem a bit out of order. Why are we talking about human beings before we talk about God? But upon reflection, I think it makes the most sense to start here. How can we talk about our faith if we don’t first figure out who we are? Or, as Jesus says to Nicodemus in John 3: if I’ve told you about earthly things and you don’t understand, how can I tell you about heavenly things?
So we begin by asking that most primordial of questions: who are we? And the most immediate answer is that we are creatures (creations) of God, not only part of God’s entire Creation but also especially created “in God’s image.”
As the outline goes on to explain, that doesn’t mean that we look like God (ceilings of certain Italian chapels notwithstanding!). Being made in God’s image has little to do with appearance, because we’re not talking about something so superficial. We’re talking about nature, or better yet, essence. Who and what are we, on the inside? It is inside, in our essential natures, that we bear the stamp and imprint of our Creator. As the outline says, it is the fact that our natures reflect and bear the image of God’s nature that we are able to love, to be creative, to use reason. Perhaps most importantly, because our natures are images of God’s nature, we do have the capacity to live in harmony with God and each other.
Why don’t we, then?
The Catechism says that we have misused our freedom and made wrong choices. But that is, I think, the result, rather than the cause. What this part of the outline is telling us is that, as part of the inherent nature God gave us in creating us, we bear the gift and the curse of free will. This trait distinguishes humanity from the rest of the created order that we can observe. We are not animals, merely acting on instinct; we are not plants, growing according to environmental conditions; we are not minerals or chemical compounds, reacting mindless according to the laws of physics and chemistry. We have the capacity to love … but we don’t have to. We can create … but what we choose to create is up to us. We can choose to live in harmony … or we can choose to live in strife, conflict, and disharmony. And for so much of human history, we’ve chosen the latter.
The last part of this first section of the Catechism offers us hope in the face of that history. God, our Creator, is neither neutral nor ambivalent towards God’s wayward creations. God loves us—always has, and always will. So God has never left us orphaned, has never merely abandoned us to our bad choices. God yearns after us and sends us help, specifically in the forms named in the outline.
And that tells us something about the nature of God. Which is a good segue, because that’s the part of the Catechism we’ll be exploring next time!
As always, if this column sparks any questions, concerns, ideas, curiosities, or any other kind of response in your hearts and minds, please reach out to me via email or phone—let’s talk about it! And if you’d like to explore these things in a safe and engaging group setting, please consider joining our Faith Talk formation series on Thursdays on Zoom.
Peace & blessings,
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