Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Lex Credendi

It is a favorite expression of many, Lex Orandi Lex Credendi. Literally, it translates "The law of prayer is the law of belief." It means, in practical terms, that as people pray, so they believe. At its best it supports the idea that the Book of Common Prayer is a Formulary, and that by liturgical prayer the Church passes on its teaching through practice. This is why our service of Holy Communion is one of the best evangelistic and catechetical tools we have. It teaches the whole Gospel every time it is celebrated. Every part of it, the Creed, the Canon of Consecration, etc., is at one time prayer, worship, evangelism and catechesis. The offices of Daily Morning and Evening Prayer also instruct as they are practiced.

Nonetheless, it is not wise for clergy to depend so heavily on this concept that they fail to teach diligently. The Canon Law of the ACC requires, in full consistency with the practice of the Church from earliest times, that at the very least every Sunday the priest shall preach, or cause to be preached, a sermon in the church. This is the minimum standard for carrying out his work as a minister of God's word, not the maximum. A sermon is not a seven minute homily carried out as a necessary evil; it is the preaching of God's word with preparation and prayer, carried out with diligence, produced by true work of the most responsible kind. Yes, the truth is well expressed in the liturgy, but somehow the human mind cannot comprehend it without teaching and preaching. 

Repetition has both an advantage and a disadvantage. The advantage is that it enters the long term memory and stays there. Every priest who visits the elderly in nursing homes to bring Communion to them, when dealing with those who are barely able to speak and whose eyes can no longer read, sees that people raised on the Book of Common Prayer are joining in, praying from memory, moving their lips. It works. 

But, the disadvantage is that people who recite the words can shut out the meaning. One elderly woman, greeting a rector after a service in the Episcopal Church in 1980, unhappy with their 1979 book, complained: "If Jesus could hear that new book, he would roll over in his grave." She had said the words, "On the third day he rose again" thousands of times; but, somehow, she had ceased to hear those words. Lex Orandi is not enough, by itself, to produce Lex Credendi; the teaching and preaching ministry remains a chief responsibility of all priests.

Finally, at its worst, Lex Orandi Lex Credendi can be misused in theological debate. Individuals may insist that they can raise pious opinion to the level of dogma, or perhaps even argue erroneous opinion, by treating all approved or allowed prayers as if they were equal to the Canon of Scripture; though the latter may involve twisting the meaning of prayers or failing to think them through. This approach does not work, however, on orthodox theologians. 

For me, the slogan is more accurate if we reverse it: Lex Credendi Lex Orandi: As I believe, so I pray. After years of reading and studying the word of God, by which I mean the holy Scriptures, I am able to pray only according to my convictions. Eventually, for every student of theology, this must become the case. And, this too is a strength of our Book of Common Prayer tradition. Those who really know the Scriptures have no qualms about saying "amen" to the prayers in that book. C.S. Lewis pointed out that this is an advantage to having a proper liturgy instead of public prayers composed by a minister or improvised: No one fears to say "amen." Our Book of Common Prayer is so good and sound, that the more we know the Bible the more easily and readily we use our liturgy, and the more readily we say "amen" to it.


Anonymous said...

Fr Hart

At last after some years I fully agree with something you have written.

Amen Amen and again Amen.

Fr Christopher

Fr. Wells said...

The original form if this expression was "ut legem credendi statuat lex supplicandi," ("so that the law of praying determines the rule of believing"). It comes from Prosper of Aquitaine, a 5th cent. disciple and defender of Augustine of Hippo. In its original context, it expressed a perspective contrary to the equally popular Vincientian canon (ubique, semper, et ab omnibus).

The Vincentian canon was used against Augustine, whereas Prosper's slogan was used in Augustine's defense. For example, Augustine's view of man's need and God's grace is emphatically stated in the Sunday Collects in the Prayer Book, e.g., "Almighty God, who seest that we have no power of ourselves to help ourselves..." or "by reason of the frailty of our nature we cannot alsways stand upright..."

Unfortunately, "lex orandi" has been reduced to a cliche, invoked to defend propositions where the basis in Scripture and tradition is weak or absent. One should not cite the "flowering of the cross" devotion to prove that Anglicans hold a "pious belief" in favor of nature worship, or claim that the Blessing of Animals proves that dogs have souls.

Derril said...

What could be finer than:

And here we offer and present unto thee, O Lord, our selves, our souls and bodies, to be a reasonable, holy and living sacrifice unto thee. (based on Romans 12:1)

And that we show forth thy praise, not only with our lips, but in our lives, by giving up our selves to thy service, and by walking before thee in holiness and righteousness all our days.

My bounden duty is to follow Christ, to worship God every Sunday in his Church; and to work and pray and give for the spread of his kingdom.

Jack Miller said...

Fr. Hart wrote: Yes, the truth is well expressed in the liturgy, but somehow the human mind cannot comprehend it without teaching and preaching...

Amen, Fr. Hart... timely and well-tuned essay. Your point of the dangers of "repetition" is, as you note, avoided by the above.

Reinforcing your point this from Dr. Kurt Marquart in an article entitled, Liturgical Commonplaces:
Liturgy is the worship and distribution of Christ in Word and Sacrament.

And he goes on to quote H. Sasse in the same article:
The sacrament and the sermon belong together, and it is always a sign of the decay of the church if one is emphasised at the expense of the other.

charles said...

This needed to be said, Fr. Hart. Amen!

Matt Andrews said...

Very well said.

Fr Matthew Kirby said...

"For me, the slogan is more accurate if we reverse it: Lex Credendi Lex Orandi: As I believe, so I pray. After years of reading and studying the word of God, by which I mean the holy Scriptures, I am able to pray only according to my convictions."

My problem with this presentation of the principle is that, if taken too literally, it runs the risk of turning a Catholic principle into an excuse to trump the Church's judgement with private judgement. It veers in this direction, if only verbally, by translating what literally says "believing law [is] praying law" into "As I believe, so I pray". Neither the law of believing nor the law of praying are equivalent to or subject to personal belief or prayer. They are instead dependent upon the authority of the Church in its interpretation of Revelation and understanding of what is and is not orthodox doctrine.

So, if the Church's authorised liturgies contain implicit or explicit expressions of teaching that are nevertheless not dogmatic, this does not mean that the teachings and prayers can be demeaned or repudiated as heretical by an individual on the basis of that person's personal decision that the said teachings are "erroneous". The person can legitimately refrain from affirming the non-dogmatic teaching de fide, and can respectfully give his reasons for this in a discreet way. He can refuse to observe optional feasts and or optional prayers related to the disputed teaching.

However, such individuals should, before they simply refuse their assent and liturgical cooperation, seriously consider their theological position, and explore whether there is a way to interpret the purportedly problematic prayers in an way that addresses their scruples.

Otherwise we change the venerable Catholic principle into "The law of praying is the law of believing until I decide the former law conflicts with my personal opinions". Such a re-formulation is a slippery slope to liturgical and doctrinal anarchy.

So, where a teaching such as the Immaculate Conception is expressed in our authorised liturgies but not elsewhere in authorised formularies, and the Propers containing the doctrine are part of a non-obligatory feast and there are prayers provided in other authorised liturgical sources that do not explicitly contain the doctrine, the status of the doctrine is clearly not dogmatic. However, it is just as clear that the doctrine has been approved by the Church as a respected part of its theological tradition. It is more than just a permissible opinion which some orthodox Catholics happen to hold as individuals, precisely because it has been given corporate and liturgical expression. That is why, as stated above, refusal of assent should stop short of "doctrinaire" and disrespectful public rejection.

I should note that I am not accusing Fr Hart or other contributors of such extreme action, but merely sounding a warning against going too far in a particular direction which I see as dangerous.