One July, I disembarked from a train along the beautiful woodland Tyne River valley at Hexham. I travelled alone, in the rain, to see the Anglo-Saxon crypt at Hexham Abbey and compare it with its sister-undercroft at Ripon Abbey, which I had visited a few days before (http://www.hexhamabbey.org.uk/visits-history/crypt/). After a decade of studying Anglo-Saxon England, this was my first trip to England to experience Anglo-Saxon monuments and artifacts in person. Seeing and touching traces of this distant culture made the abstractions of scholarship tangibly real and deepened my deep affection for these ancient people.
Hexham Abbey was initially constructed in 674 by the Anglo-Saxon bishop Wilfrid, who wanted to identify this northern tip of Christendom with the centers of Christian authority and tradition. The early Anglo-Saxon Christians repurposed stones hewn by Romans at the nearby fort in Corbridge for their new place of worship, where they modeled the crypt after the catacombs of Rome and the shrine of the Holy Sepulcher at Jerusalem. With the prior’s permission, I descended the uneven stone steps into the crypt to the ante-chamber, where I could see a light flickering from alcoves in the inner chamber. Passing through the vaulted archway, I stood in the shrine next to the altar where the relics of a Roman martyr once rested. I felt a sense of abundant sacredness. This place was symbolically arranged for worship and communion with the divine, a place where heaven and earth meet. I felt echoes of the awe and wonder of newly converted Anglo-Saxon Christians, the reverence of the centuries of pilgrims who prayed for protection and forgiveness, and the pastoral care of bishops who sincerely accepted their responsibility to teach and preach the recta fides, the riht geleafa. The visceral nature of my emotion shifted my attention from the past to my own faith and future.
I was then and am now a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, a young religion that emerged in New York in 1830. A few weeks after visiting Hexham, I would become an assistant professor at Brigham Young University, America’s largest religiously-affiliated university, whose campus nestled along the bottom slopes of the sheer Wasatch Front in Provo, Utah, and was sustained by the legacy of Mormon pioneers. I had been hired to teach medieval literature to Mormon students. Yet I knew that my students’ associations with the Middle Ages would be shaped by ignorance, at best, and hostility, at worst. At the heart of Mormon religious community, not only would I be regulated to the fringe socially because of my marital status, but I would also be suspect for my education and professional scholarship.
My experience in Hexham was not the first time that I felt tension between dimensions of my childhood faith and academic interests. My scholarly and spiritual lives began intersecting profoundly in the generous ecumenical environment of the Catholic university where I did my doctoral work and the generous inclusivity of the local Mormon ward. There I encountered saintliness and learned that dialogic engagement with multiple religious traditions generates new insights, sincere commitment, and visions of possibilities and potential. Studying medieval Catholicism, playing Lutheran chorale preludes on the organ, and reading contemporary relational theology has strengthened, enriched, and enhanced my religious identity.
As I have studied the history and function of confessing the faith in early medieval Europe, I have learned that the act of confession or profession is an act of communal identification as well as an articulation of belief through propositional statements of doctrine, the transmission of tradition, and participation in narratives of salvation. In my confession of faith, I choose to identify with centuries of faithful Christians as well as my contemporary community of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. I will follow the structure of the Apostles’ Creed, long revered as the fundamental distillation of the tenets of Christian faith. According to tradition, it was composed by the apostles before they separated to evangelize Christ’s gospel message across the world. Yet I choose not to use the language of the councils of Nicaea, Constantinople, or Chalcedon but rather the simple language of my Mormon childhood in my exegesis to articulate my conceptions of relations between divinity and humanity. (I translate the Latin text of the Apostles’ Creed in italics.)
Credo in Deum Patrem omnipotentem, Creatorem caeli et terrae,
I believe in God, the Father Almighty, Creator of heaven and earth. I believe that God is the father of my spirit and that He loves me. As his daughter, I seek His guidance and understanding of the plan of salvation that He designed for His children to learn faith, hope, and charity.
et in Iesum Christum, Filium Eius unicum, Dominum nostrum,
qui conceptus est de Spiritu Sancto, natus ex Maria Virgine,
passus sub Pontio Pilato, crucifixus, mortuus, et sepultus,
descendit ad ínferos, tertia die resurrexit a mortuis,
ascendit ad caelos, sedet ad dexteram Patris omnipotentis,
inde venturus est iudicare vivos et mortuos.
And I believe in Jesus Christ, His only-begotten Son, our Lord, who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born from the virgin Mary; he suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried; he descended to the infernos, on the third day rose from the dead; he ascended to heaven, is seated on the right-hand of Father Almighty, whence he will come to judge the living and dead. I believe that Jesus Christ was born on earth as the literal son of God and of Mary and that He is my elder brother. He came to earth to suffer pains of humanity to succor and heal us, to atone for our sins, to orient us through His example of service, compassion, and love to our heavenly parents and each other.
Credo in Spiritum Sanctum,
I believe in the Holy Spirit. I believe that the Holy Spirit is the source of divine inspiration. In my limited mortal state, I seek His guidance and comfort as I seek to develop divine and human relations.
sanctam ecclesiam catholicam, sanctorum communionem,
The holy catholic church, the communion of saints. I believe that God loves all of His children and desires us to be gathered in loving relations in mortality and in eternity. These relations are strengthened by priesthood power manifest in ordinances restored by Joseph Smith. Participating in these ordinances permits me to make sacred covenants that build an eternal relationship with my Heavenly Father. I believe these relations also include enjoying friendships, sharing belief in Christ’s gospel, unifying ecclesiastical identity, as well as being sealed in eternal family bonds.
remissionem peccatorum, carnis resurrectionem, vitam aeternam.
The remission of sins, the resurrection of the body, life eternal. I believe that these are the gifts of salvation, gifts that my loving Father in heaven extends to me and all of His children, which are made possible by Christ’s willing, atoning sacrifice.
Propositional statements are not adequate to convey my belief that God’s love is far more expansive and radical than humans can conceive. Our understanding of the divine is mediated through our limited mortal perspective, our cultural assumptions and expectations. God understands this; He is patient and wise, and He works through human history and culture, through spiritual inspiration, through religious institutions, through scriptures, through symbols, through natural beauty, through loving human relationships, to communicate His love for His children.
Miranda Wilcox received a BA from Brigham Young University in Honors English; she completed a MMS and a PhD in Medieval Studies at the Medieval Institute at the University of Notre Dame. She is an assistant professor in the Department of English at BYU. Her research focuses on how Anglo-Saxon communities constructed Christian identity using narratives, metaphors, and ritual discourses. In 2007, she participated in the NEH Summer Institute at the York Minister. She is currently writing a book titled Confessing the Faith in Anglo-Saxon England and editing a collection of essays exploring Mormon conceptions of apostasy. She enjoys running, playing the organ, and making art.
Posted September 2011