Liturgy, Church, and the Individual, By: The Reverened Seth Snyder
Lex orandi lex credendi: the law of prayer is the law of belief. One hears this maxim often in Anglican circles, yet it is, I think, little understood, at least if one judges the state of things by the actual practice of ACNA clergy, which, I dare say, is wanting with respect to liturgy and ceremony. It is because of this want or lack that I am obliged, from both episcopal and personal concern, to write the following on the lex orandi lex credendi principle, or, more generally, on the role of prayer and liturgy for the life and theology of Christ’s Church in its Anglican expression. But before proceeding to the normative portion of this article, I will first briefly describe the principle and its merit.
Put simply, the lex orandi lex credendi principle maintains that the Church’s practices of prayer conditions her theology. By prayer, of course, is understood the practices of Christian devotion, liturgy and the office, though it is sometimes taken to include the whole of Christian praxis more generally, including almsgiving, fasting and the like (this inclusion is sometimes referred to by the addition of the Latin phrase lex vivendi [the law of living] to the principle). Belief is taken in a broad sense as referring to the Church’s theology, both dogmatic and speculative. On a weak interpretation, the principle makes the more modest claim that our practices of prayer ought to inform our theology rather than merely reflect it. On a strong interpretation, it holds that prayer is the primary ground or basis of theology, the primal data, so to speak, of Christian doctrine. According to either interpretation, however, prayer plays a dynamic role in the articulation and development of the Church’s theology, as opposed to a simply reflective or expressive one.
The Anglican treatment of the lex orandi lex credendi principle is a rare and beautiful gift. There are many Christian traditions that reject the lex orandi lex credendi principle altogether, most notably the Reformed (Calvinists). These traditions view theology, or, credendi, as a more or less independent and abstract exercise, making little to no reference to the historic Church’s practice of prayer and worship, i.e. the orandi. On such a view, primary theology (theologia prima) consists in “pure” biblical exegesis and the systematic exposition of its content, while prayer simply echoes the findings of primary theology. There are other Christian traditions, however, such as the Eastern and Oriental Orthodox, which overstress the orandi portion of the maxim to the point of giving prayer – in particular the liturgy, especially the Divine Liturgies of St. Basil and St. Chrysostom – a more or less independent and exclusory place in the life of the Church. This approach tends to insulate prayer from extraneous critique through the Church’s reading of Scripture and its practice of formal theology, giving to it an undue autonomy and license, and relegating theology to the status of a mere grammar or explanatory device for the liturgy. But the Anglican construal of the lex orandi lex credendi principle, erring neither deficiently nor in excess, maintains the central importance of prayer for the theology of the Church alongside and in concert with her practices of reading Scripture and formal dogmatics. This is the view and practice of the ancient and undivided Church, and a special grace and privilege for us Anglicans to have received.
Anglicanism’s commitment to and application of the lex orandi lex credendi principle is not only unique, it is also eminently wise and advantageous. No one does theology from within a vacuum. There are no neutral, objective approaches to doing theology, no universal or self-evident principles to which we can appeal in arbitrating between different theological positions. As Alasdair MacIntyre has ably shown, all modes of reasoning and inquiry (theological included) are both “tradition constituted and tradition constitutive”, that is, they take place against, and in turn shape, a background set of beliefs, values and sentiments, or, in a word, a tradition or Weltanschauung (worldview). Given this fact, in trying to better understand the teaching of Christ and the apostles (which I take to be the goal or telos of theology), what better tradition or worldview to appeal than that of the primitive and undivided Church, than to those who lived in the same intellectual, cultural and linguistic world as Christ and the biblical authors themselves? (The answer to the rhetorical question being obviously none). Thus, the Anglican Church, in her wisdom, and under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, has always made her appeal to the Church of antiquity and the middle ages in formulating her theology, especially to that Church’s practices of prayer, liturgy and worship. The beliefs and ideas embedded in those ancient prayers and liturgies reveal to us how those closest to the apostles understood their doctrine, and so, alongside the early Church’s reading of Scripture and Conciliar definitions, how we should understand the same as it was once delivered to the saints. Indeed, these prayers and liturgies are a wellspring of apostolic wisdom and teaching, one from which Anglican divines have drawn prolifically. Thus, Lex orandi provides us with a tremendous advantage in understanding the lex credendi of the primitive and undivided Church, and, in turn, how we ought also believe.
Beyond its use as a resource for theology as a sort of datum, and perhaps more importantly, prayer plays a formative role in how we understand, interiorize and assimilate theology. Through repetition, the liturgy and the office become part of who we are; their concepts and motions become second nature to us, even seething into our subconscious. This is not a particularly abstract idea, and is more familiar than we might at first think. For example, how many of us need to be told to place our right hand on our heart, or require words on a projector, in order to participate fully in the American liturgy of the national anthem at a Friday night football game, and to feel that sense of patriotism and national belonging by means of that participation? Who among us in the first world hasn’t felt that consumerist impulse to spend frivilously after walking through the grandiose entryway of a mall (its narthex), or had our choice of clothing influenced by one of the mannequins on display (the mall’s iconography)? Put simply, images, manual acts, rote songs and phrases, and other acts of prayer all affect us at a deep, personal level, shaping who we are and who we become. This is no less true for prayer and theology. The messages we receive and reinforce by our praying the set collects, reciting the creeds, reading scripture, and so on, make their way into the very fabric of our souls, forming our theological worldview. This happens to us whether we are aware of it or not. Either as self-conscious spiritual athletes or passive objects of subliminal messaging, prayer makes its way into our theology one way or another. Lex orandi, then, is identified with the lex credendi not solely as an inchoate or as yet un-systematized theology, or as a raw datum, but also because of its determinative impact on the way we in fact come to believe through its formative influence.
Hence, as is clear from the preceding, prayer is no peripheral or unimportant matter, no ornament or add-on; it is directly relevant to our theology. Prayer, when done well, leads to sound theology, and when done poorly results in bad theology. We have a responsibility, then, to maintain sound and orthodox prayer practices for the instruction and reinforcement of sound and orthodox theology. This is most imperative for those of us ordained to Anglican orders. As Anglican priests, we are stewards of the liturgy, called to protect and defend the ancient practices of prayer in Christ’s Church according to catholic principles. If we fail in this task, those seeking Gospel truth will be consigned to either an impoverished liturgy and theology (if they’re privileged to get liturgy at all), or an Eastern liturgical fundamentalism.
It is because of the profundity of this gift, and the high calling annexed thereto, that the current practice of the Anglican Church in North America is an occasion for such lament. The ACNA is fraught with what Fr. Dan Hardin has coined “liturgical licentiousness”, a cavalier disregard for rubrics and the authorized use of the BCP within the province. Innovations abound, private preference takes precedent to custom, and the general demeanor of worship lacks the reverence appropriate for worship of the Triune LORD. These trends are unacceptable, and must be reversed. But first, the root causes of these delinquent liturgical behaviors need be identified and addressed in order: they are 1) a spirit of individualism; 2) a general dislike and contempt for authority; and 3) an excessive emphasis on the autonomy of individual provinces.
First, concerning individualism, it is precisely the spirit of individualism that led TEC and other liberal ecclesial institutions into unprecedented liturgical and theological innovation earlier this century – including the redefinition of marriage – for which reason all ACNA clergy should be wary of this particular temptation. Indeed, as a rule, our private judgments concerning prayer and theology (and probably all things for that matter), being circumscribed by our limited experience and education, and often malformed by the darkening of our minds and the corruption of our wills brought about by the fall, ought always be held by us as suspect; and from this position of self-doubt, we ought always hasten to wise counsel when inquiring into things divine, particularly the counsel of the great saints and theologians of old, their thought and wisdom having stood the test of time and repeated study. Neither does the pretext of the Spirit relieve one of this responsibility towards previous generations of the Christian faithful for such inquiry; for those impulses and intuitions we take to be the stirring of the Spirit, should we insulate ourselves from the equally Spirit-filled and prayerful judgment of those lawfully ordained authorities, may just as easily turn out to be a projection of our own desires, the operation of some malevolent entity, or even an unruly affection brought on by a bit of undigested cheese from the previous night (our senses and affections are easily deceived, even by food). Not to mention, the pretense of individual inspiration of the Spirit against liturgical custom presumes that those of the ancient Fathers and Anglican divines who authored such customs were, well, themselves uninspired and lacking the Spirit, which would be most prideful of us and uncharitable towards our spiritual elders (and likely our betters). Our individual whims and liturgical inclinations, therefore, being subject to so many errors and vanities, ought never trump the wisdom of those venerable divines who, under the guidance of the Spirit, formulated those well tested and sublime prayers of which we are stewards.
Second, concerning the dislike and contempt for authority, it is the natural offspring and consequence of the above individualism. It is the delusion that we are sufficient of ourselves, that we alone have the wisdom and talent, or perhaps the special inspiration to make the liturgical or pastoral judgment at hand that leads us to disregard authority and tradition. But there are no Christian grounds for this kind of prideful and rebellious disdain of established authority. Even the apostle Paul, being well educated, and having received direct revelation from the resurrected Christ, nevertheless made himself accountable to, and availed himself of, the authority and counsel of the pillars of the Church, Peter, James and John (Acts 15). None of us, I presume, have received direct revelation from Christ on matters pertaining to liturgy or theology, so if Paul, who did, should submit himself to the established ecclesial authorities on such matters, we dare not relieve ourselves of our duty of submitting to the same. The endemic disregard for authority that afflicts our province, in addition to being unbiblical and against apostolic example, is also self-defeating. For in holding the authority of orthodox bishops and their predecessors in contempt we undermine our own priestly authority, as our authority is derivative of that of the bishop, and, antecedently, their predecessors in apostolic succession. Our pastoral and sacerdotal authority, then, being an extension of the bishop, is undercut when exercised in a manner contrary to its source and origin, thereby weakening our witness and influence over the flock. In fine, disregard for authority is both unscriptural and self-defeating, and has its source in the unhealthy, radical individualism characteristic of the Christian progressives and TEC, something we dare not duplicate in our own province.
Lastly, and a close cousin of the two above errors, the excessive emphasis on the autonomy of individual provinces. In introducing liturgical and doctrinal innovations, individual provinces will often justify themselves with the excuse of their autonomy. But it must be understood that this autonomy is relative and not absolute, being subordinate to conciliar authority and the liturgical/doctrinal definitions thereof. Autonomy is intended for the making of pastoral and liturgical decisions based on local circumstances and in accordance with the latitude permitted and outlined in the approved Books of Common Prayer and the accepted application thereof, not for the overthrowing of conciliar authority and the college of bishops. This is the proper and godly understanding of provincial autonomy, not that of TEC, which is more a sort of unbridled license than true liberty.
That being said, as Anglican clergy, as inheritors and stewards of the ancient and catholic faith, a faith embodied not only in creedal statements and theological formulae, but also in the prayer of the Church, we must do better. We must put aside our individualistic pride and vanity, and trust to the practices of prayer handed down to us by our spiritual forebears. We must submit to authority, as Paul did with Peter, James and John. We must use our autonomy for the local administration and use of conciliar rulings, not in defiance of those rulings. We must, in sum, die to ourselves (Romans 6:6), and maintain the traditions handed down to us (1st Corinthians 11:2). It is a shame that we have fallen short in doing so, but there is time for repentance. Wear your vestments; follow the rubrics; perform your manual acts, and perform them gracefully. Put aside your own works of pastoral savvy and liturgical ingenuity, and watch God work through the prayer of the Church. You will be blessed by it, of that I’m sure.
 See James K.A. Smith’s You Are What You Love: Learning to Read Secular Liturgies.
 For MacIntyre’s conclusive argument on this front, see his After Virtue and Whose Justice? Which Rationality?