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Elizabeth Cunningham

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Credo: Community Without Conformity

Posted: 10/21/11 02:06 PM ET

As an Episcopal minister's daughter descended from nine generations of clergy, I recited the Apostles' Creed every week. It begins:

"We believe in one God, the Father, the Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, of all that is, seen and unseen."

I was still active in the Episcopal Church in the early 1970s when the 1928 Book of Common Prayer was in the throes of revisions later adopted by the General Convention. I remember the debate about the use of the comma in middle of the fourth line, and how thrilling it was (to me) when the comma won. I still believe in the power of a well-placed comma, and I love the Anglican tradition for its sumptuous language, even when it also terrified me, especially in the 1928 version. "We acknowledge and bewail our manifold sins and wickedness..." (From The Confession of Sin)

I stopped reciting the Apostles' Creed when I became a Quaker in the 1980s, an affiliation that lasted more than 10 years. After participating in such a verbose, if gorgeous, liturgy, I found the silent worship of Quaker Meeting profound and unsettling. New ideas, images and beliefs began to gestate in what felt like a nurturing womb. Given that these were also my childbearing years, it is perhaps not surprising that I began to encounter the divine feminine. In time I came to miss liturgy and to experiment with creating ritual. Eventually I requested release from membership with the Religious Society of Friends and became an interfaith minister.

I still believe in the communion of potluck meals, in the life-saving grace of casseroles when you are sick or in childbed, in the importance of a community's witness and support when you celebrate or mourn. But I question whether we must have uniformity of belief in order to minister to each other.

In 1995 I started what I sometimes call an alternative community center at High Valley, the former site of my mother-in-law's eclectic school of the same name. For 16 years we have hosted seasonal celebrations, house concerts, singing and poetry circles, jam sessions, workshops and theatrical productions. We have no committees or any formal structure, though we do have a core community that I've nicknamed "The Usual Suspects." You become a member by virtue of showing up. High Valley is only one of the centers of an overlapping community that laps at both shores of the Hudson River and extends north and south. The strength of this loose community is its wide embrace; its bonds of deep friendship. (When one of The Usual Suspects faced surgery, we held a fundraiser.) Its weakness may be lack of continuity, of established beliefs and traditions to transmit. We are a likely a fleeting phenomenon. You could argue that this weakness is also a virtue, given the checkered history of institutional religion. Maybe the institutional and the ephemeral are simply the horns of another human dilemma.

Last Saturday High Valley hosted a workshop called "Off the Beaten Path; mapping our own journeys." Participants came from a variety of religious and nonreligious backgrounds. During the course of the day, we drew maps, walked the labyrinth, improvised music. Finally, we wrote our own creeds. There is nothing that can equal the power of a corporate "We believe." But some of us can no longer say those words. I will close with selections from some of our personal credos, whose beauty and thoughtfulness stir me as much as that placement of that comma in the Apostles' Creed.

(The below quotations from workshop participants are used with permission.)

I believe that the paths we walk in the woods, the courses whales swim in the sea, and the flight of the migratory birds are never meant to be straight -- or easy.


I believe in the infinite universe
(more intimately known as the 'verse),
ever expanding,
all encompassing,
home of all tenses -
past, present and future,
perfect and imperfect...

I believe I am safe and protected and that such security allows me the temporary devastating luxury of despair.

I believe in the first song of the first bird.

I believe in the good dark earth
in the silence of the night.

I believe that I may make it through this life
with a heart broken open
and a soul that keeps a sweet secret.

 

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