Lex Orandi, Lex Credendi
Luther and Lutherans have the market cornered on justification, sola fide. Calvin and Reformed thinkers spend all their time trying to elaborate on the notion of election (I wish I had a nice Latin word for it, but I digress). Baptists, well I guess it would be sola Scriptura, at the very least something about the individual conscience of the believer and reading Scripture. These are all traditions that I have been shaped by in my theological journey. Seven years ago, almost to the month, I was confirmed in the Episcopal Church. I have never been able to get a grasp on what precisely is the subiectum theologicae for Episcopalians. What is the focus of theological conversation and speculation?
I’m new to Conciliar Post. And, without knowing anything about me, it might be hard to understand the spirit or background with which I come to this difficulty of understanding what makes Anglican theology… well, Anglican.
So, by way of introduction, both to the question at hand, and because I’m a new author on this blog, I will provide you a quick sketch. My parents raised me as a Southern Baptist, my dad’s family having ties to Jerry Falwell and Independent Fundamentalist Baptists. In sixth grade, my parents sent me to a Reformed school based on the Westminster Confession because apparently Baptists are not into specialized secondary education. I studied philosophy at Oklahoma Baptist University, received an M. Div. from Princeton Seminary and and currently study at St. Louis University for my doctorate. Oh yeah, and I was confirmed in the Episcopal Church while studying at Princeton. Why did I tell you all that? Well, I have been shaped and “tradition-ed” by such a diverse set of theological, political and social commitments, that I am not sure either, where I belong or where I want to stay.
I recognize that I over-simplified the above theological traditions, who clearly had more to say than what I reduced them to, but–when in a pinch or when a non-theological trained person asks me what makes each distinct–I can resort to those simple ideas. Yet when it comes to Anglicans, I’m stumped. When I tried being Presbyterian in high school, I was taken in by the sheer logical force and air tight reasoning of the arguments given to me by my Reformed teachers. When I quit going to church in college, I hated the God I had come to believe in because I thought I had everything figured out in my air tight Reformed system (man was I wrong). I think the reason I became Episcopalian was because I loved hymn music and a more conservative liturgy. Despite the fact that I loved philosophy, theology, and thinking, I came to the Episcopalian church for other, less rational reasons. This has always bothered me because I love a good logical, rational debate. The Episcopal church gave me the freedom to argue or consider pretty much whatever I wanted. As long as coffee was being served after the service, Episcopalians don’t get their feathers ruffled by much. At first this was liberating. Then, I started to wonder what actually people were committed to.
To this point in my life, the best summary of Episcopal theology I know is the dictum lex orandi, lex credendi. Literally, this means “law of praying, law of believing”, or, in a more idiomatic translation, “as one prays so one believes.” This emerges from the Anglican commitment to the Book of Common Prayer as the standard form for prayer, worship, and piety for Anglicans. Reformed people have the Institutes. Lutherans have Luther’s Catechism. Baptists have the Bible (and the Sinner’s Prayer). It always seemed odd that in an Episcopal church you are more likely to find a hymnal and the Book of Common Prayer than a Bible in the pews. But, if the primary concern of theology for Anglicans is derived from how the pray, of course they would only have the Book of Common Prayer!
Some of my more knowledgeable readers might recognize that usually the via media is the traditional shorthand way of summarizing Anglican theology. While that certainly is a portion of it, I personally find the lex orandi, lex credendi, to be somewhat more binding, as well as a better interpretation of what is going on in calling Anglican theology via media. The reason Anglicans are looked upon as the via media–as I understand it–is basically due to the middle ground position taken in the 1559 Book of Common Prayer on the question of what is happening at Eucharist. Basically, the route taken in this iteration was that you could read into the liturgy a more Reformed view of the Eucharist, as an “outward sign of an invisible grace.” This did not require the parishioner to hold to a view of transubstantiation, as in the Catholic Church. I don’t bring this up to go through various views of communion, but simply to illustrate the meaning of via media.
But, if this is all it means to be Anglican, we have essentially committed ourselves to the logical fallacy of the false middle. Whereas, if you look at lex orandi, lex credendi, as at the core of the Anglican identity, there isn’t a theological battle to be had over the nature of the Eucharist, except to say, “We believe what we pray, in the liturgy.” Two sides can disagree on the particulars, but we all share one bread. This ability to stand for something, while also standing for unity is a beautiful thing. Sometimes the drive for unity can lead to a position that is essentially the least common denominator and the only goal is to make everyone happy. At its best, the Anglican can continue to pray with a unified voice, even though those gathered at the table understand its meaning in different ways.
Maybe more to the point, Anglicans are committed to a spiritual identity rather than a purely systematic theological identity. A student of mine asked me why I went to the Episcopal church, and the best answer I could provide was, “When I wake up on Sunday morning, the place I feel most at home is at St. Michael’s.” I didn’t always like the preaching. I disagreed with people on a number of theological issues. But, we shared one prayer, one creed, one baptism and one bread.
This identity that I have lived in for about seven years now, I have continued to explore and struggle with, but it has also shaped me more than I realized. As a youth director at a church, I had to do a funeral for a student who committed suicide. I was asked by well-meaning youth and friends what I believed about where this student would go after their death. I told them, quite frankly it wasn’t up to me, but as the prayer book says, “God’s property is always to have mercy.” Now, of course, this is a quote from the book of James, but I had it memorized as the prayer we say before communion in the older Rite One liturgy. We acknowledge before we approach the altar that the only reason anyone is able to receive grace and the healing gifts of the sacrament is due to God’s unfailing mercy. We can’t know for certain what is the future of this child who was created in the image of God, but we affirm what we know in through prayer and the liturgy that our God is a God of mercy, always.
When my grandfather (“Papaw” as I call him) was in the hospital with a heart attack, my sister and brother asked me how we should pray. We were raised Southern Baptist where the most authentic way to pray was extemporaneously. Needless to say, I didn’t know what words to say when we had just heard this awful news and were sitting together at my parents counter. When I went to pray, in my head were the words from compline in the Book of Common Prayer:
“Keep watch, dear Lord, with those who work, or watch or weep this night, and give your angels charge over those who sleep. Tend the sick, Lord Christ; give rest to the weary, bless the dying, soothe the suffering, pity the afflicted, shield the joyous; and all for your love’s sake. Amen.”
Even still, I know I could not have come up with words more beautiful or true. To me prayers of this kind provide great comfort, because I don’t have to have the perfect word on the tip of my tongue. I can pray with the great crowd of witnesses, how Anglicans and Christians have been praying for centuries. It is not about me, but how a community prays together, as one.
Image courtesy of Tadekk.