Bless, O Lord, us thy servants,
who minister in thy temple.
Grant that what we sing with our lips,
we may believe in our hearts,
and what we believe in our hearts,
we may show forth in our lives.
Through Jesus Christ our Lord.
Amen. (The Chorister’s Prayer)
‘What are we going to do with the Creeds?’ Marcus Borg claimed this was one of the questions he was most commonly asked by progressive Christians. His solution was to point to the older meaning of the word: credo originally signified ‘a giving of the heart.’ Likewise ‘believe’ derives from the same Old English roots as ‘beloved.’ John Shelby Spong offers a redefinition grounded firmly in these assumptions: ‘I do not think of [the creeds] as strait jackets…I view them rather as love songs.’ Recently Angela Tilby suggested that it would help to revive the practice of singing the Nicene Creed, especially to the ‘jaunty and ecstatic’ setting by Martin Shaw with which many Anglicans of a certain age will be familiar – the purpose being to ‘reinhabit the Creed as a mystery.’
And yet. As a chorister I don’t find that etymology is enough; it does not say how I can sing my lovesong with integrity. It doesn’t quite banish an inner voice vividly articulated by Christopher Hitchens in conversation with Borg: ‘The Inquisition, the Crusades…You’re telling me that all they were saying was, “We give our heart.” No, come on.’ It is impossible to shake off an awareness that the Creeds are also an embodiment of power relations between the dominant belief system and the heterodox. A group of men composed each one not to express love but to close up interpretive loopholes, with implicit penalties for those who dissented. Simply trying to hang on to a more inviting older meaning for credo potentially lumbers us with the connotational weight of the word Father in the fourth century, one which presupposes a near-absolute power over the child, or the biological understanding behind the word ‘begotten.’ To return to the earlier meaning of a word to get us off the hook fails to acknowledge that language changes, meanings shift and our understanding of the cosmos has radically altered. Does this mean that we will always have to ignore a kind of alienation in our relationship with the act of speaking or singing the Creeds and hope love is enough to carry us through? Or is it possible to be in negotiation with the words as we speak rather than making recitation and reflection two different activities?
Tilby’s solution helps because it permits a shift of focus from what the words signify to the task of singing them well. To get the notes and the tempo and the vocal colours right is to make a gift to the congregation and to God. Also helpful is the awareness shown in those words ‘jaunty and ecstatic’ that in articulating the Creed we are engaged in telling a story. As such it is not a homogenous recitation, but a mix of high points – the solemnity of the incarnation, the joy of the resurrection - and lower ones, a structure supported by the music. It is rare to find a composer who sends the congregation out humming the words ‘one, holy, Catholic and Apostolic’, but the relative flatness of the passage allows both singer and listener the space to prepare for demanding and joyous singing about ‘the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come’ as the narrative concludes. It is good to be part of that joy, regardless of whether one assents intellectually to the statement that is made. But Tilby’s approach still leaves the speaker in the mindset of doing something with a problem. The very phrase suggests intractability – as if the Creeds were a stain on the wall which I can’t eradicate but might paint over to look like a flower. Rather than doing something with I would prefer to be asking, ‘What am I doing?’
This is an actor’s question. When an actor is at a loss with a text they complain, ‘I don’t know what I’m doing.’ It is a painful state to be in; but the language in which actors discuss it can be useful here. The Church no longer expresses the outright hostility to theatre that led Tertullian to celebrate the idea of comedians burning in eternal fire as ‘worth watching at last’, but it has not made much use of the technical language of the acting profession – perhaps because it’s too easily associated with the notion of ‘pretence.’ However, an actor does not pretend, unless they have a side-career as a con artist. To perform a text is to make a commitment to an act of imagination which, in order to be complete, must be shared with and by an audience. As part of that act of imagination the actor may present, transform, show, represent, narrate or demonstrate; the audience may welcome, receive, understand and sometimes be permanently changed by the process. All these actions, arguably, take place within the service of communion.
For the audience/congregation are inevitably performers too. As embodied creatures we live in the gap between what we think and feel and the problem of expressing it. Words are never wholly adequate; we choose the wrong ones; or we select the words of others that feel right, only to have them turn into clichés, or come out in ways we did not intend. The body freezes when it should dash forward to help or offer a kindly embrace, masking what we genuinely feel, or prompting us to rush into an action that feels ‘untruthful’ although there is not intent to deceive. All of us, not actors alone, are constantly trying to produce a truthful performance of our selves; these selves vary in context - the self as lover, the self as activist, the self as a member of a church. Inevitably, the performance falls short. It isn’t a question of ‘sincerity’ or ‘being real’; our only choice is to try to express ourselves and fail. What the actor does in addition to performing their own multiple ‘selves’ is to take the risk of offering up their own humanity in order to embody a here and now that is different from the world around us, a here and now that illuminates our own world and sends us back to it with clearer minds. This created here and now is unique to the moment of performance; it is a re-presentation of a story that is presented in this way for the first time and can never be precisely replicated. Nor, of course, should it be. As the director Mike Alfreds trenchantly puts it, ‘During a performance we’re all getting older together.’ The best theatre is a celebration of transience.
That is, when it works, and I return to the point when it does not, to ‘I don’t know what I’m doing.’ In this context ‘doing’ does not refer to physical acts demanded by the stage directions or the rubric; an actor can be perfectly clear that they are to stab the King or exit pursued by a bear and still ask, ‘What am I doing?’ Identifying what one is ‘doing’ is a moment of liberation for an actor suffering from a blocked imagination who cannot make the link between what the text is asking and the act of re-presenting it. Finding out what to ‘do’ is the key to a process of co-operation between what already exists ( the text) and what is still to be brought into being (the performance of this specific actor, at this specific moment) in order to engineer the moment on the stage when the play becomes a living thing interacting with its audience. The actor is searching the text for what the philosopher J.L Austin called a ‘speech act’ - using words not simply to state something but to do something, to have an effect upon someone or something.
Declan Donellan is the clearest exponent of the theory of unblocking actors (and indeed, anyone at a creative standstill). The search for the action, for the performative speech act, is, he points out, the search for a target. ‘There is always a target. You can never know what you are doing until you first know what you are doing it to. For the actor, all “doing” has to be done to something.’ We cannot access what goes on inside a character; the result of the internal process, however, can be shown through the body or the voice. An actor cannot play ‘Hamlet dies’ or ‘Hamlet thinks’ or ‘Juliet falls in love’ – but they can identify the target the character sees and the action that they take towards it. It is possible to play ‘Hamlet welcomes death’ or ‘Hamlet fights death’ or ‘Hamlet confides in the audience.’ Until the very end, the target will keep changing, and the actor’s actions will change with it. Juliet teases Romeo, until she sees the love dawn in his face; at once the target changes; Juliet now sees a Romeo she must act upon differently - to cherish, or warn to leave, or persuade to stay. The energy of the performance, then, is derived not so much from the actor as the target – the actor forgets the self in order to respond with action to the constantly changing ‘something’ that they see.
To treat the Creed in this way is to treat it not as a set of words to ‘do something with’ but a text charged with the possibility of change – a story to re-present, and to present; we can acknowledge that our own personalities (‘persona’ is the word for ‘mask’ in Latin) are constantly in a state of change, conscious or otherwise; we can stop fighting the words as intractable and make the constant re-negotiation of their meaning part of our performance of this service on this day. At any one moment as we move through the narrative, the action might be ‘I celebrate this congregation’ or ‘I question the Council of Nicaea’ or ‘I reach out to God’. The next time we enter the different here and now that the narrative creates in us, it will be different. We will change; so will our understanding of the targets. (That latter target in particular is notorious for striding on ahead of us while we struggle to catch up.)
If this sounds cerebral, I would like to end with a theatrical image of ‘the resurrection of the dead’ that seems to me to embody a reality that I can share and celebrate as I utter that line. Shakespeare’s last plays are all about resurrection : the characters lose everything they value - family, home, identity - through their own fault, through malice, or through storms and disasters, but they are given a second chance through events only possible in a tale of magic and miracle. The plays have become key texts for Flute Theatre, a company that works with autistic individuals. Flute’s signature technique is the crystallisation of pivotal scenes into moments when actors work with individual audience members to explore the experience of a major character, repeating movements and short phrases that carry meaning for both the story and the individual. In Pericles, for example, Thaisa has apparently died in childbirth at sea, is put in a chest and thrown overboard, and then washed ashore to be revived by Cerimon. The actors playing Cerimon and his assistant work with individual members of the audience playing Thaisa, to explore her resurrection. At the heart of the moment is a basic actor’s trust game in which the spectator-as-Thaisa is gently rocked to and fro, a sensation autistic individuals can find grounding and pleasurable.
The power of this scene for the actor/spectator is explained by Kelly Hunter, pioneer of Flute’s unique methodology. She cites a text by 13-year-old Naoki Higadashi about his daily struggle with autism: ‘ Your vestibular and proprioceptive senses are ... out of kilter, so the floor keeps tilting like a ferry in heavy seas and you’re no longer sure where your hands and feet are in relation to the rest of you.’ For those feeling this kind of disorientation, Hunter’s resurrection scene involves four actors to assist the spectator-as-Thaisa – two to rock them gently, two to press on the arch of the foot so that they feel connection to the ground. To rock and tip and yet feel this support – or to be trusted to give it – is, Hunter points out, ‘miraculous’, and yet it is dependent on the simplest of actions. It brings to life a story which ‘awaken[s] our deepest desires and our deepest instincts for miracles. And for everyday miracles to happen, you have to trust other people.’
The Flute actor is in essence playing ‘I bring Thaisa to life.’ The spectator is playing ‘I trust the person bringing me to life.’ The narrative of Pericles (Shakespeare’s rival Ben Jonson called it ‘a mouldy tale’) allows for these actions, these targets, to be chosen; the result is a genuine ‘resurrection’ into a better and freer mode of living. ‘I look for the resurrection of the dead’ can be difficult to say if we treat it as a simple assertion. To sing or say it as a speech act, a performance of ‘I offer life’ or/and ‘I trust the person who brings me to life’, is potentially a way of singing our lovesong – to make God, or one another, or the church community through the ages (including the Council of Nicaea) a living target that will always change, always be there for us and opens up the possibility bringing us into a better life.
Marcus Borg, The Heart of Christianity, HarperCollins 2003
Conversation with Christopher Hitchens, https://www.pdxmonthly.com/arts-and-culture/2010/02/atheist-hitchens-0204
Mike Alfreds, Different Every Night: Freeing the Actor, Nick Hern 2013
Declan Donellan, The Actor and the Target, Nick Hern 2002
Naoki Higashida, The Reason I Jump, Penguin 2013
Kelly Hunter and Pericles, https://flutetheatre.co.uk/how-to-play-at-home/