Why be liturgical? Garwood Anderson’s recent post draws attention to a faddish liturgical understanding that has taken hold, not just in some evangelical churches, but in the Episcopal Church as well (and, no doubt, other liturgical churches). This understanding claims that liturgy acts upon its participants in such a way that they become better Christians. Like Anderson, I loathe the erroneous assumption that liturgy necessarily produces some sort of salutary effect (I further loathe the application of this assumption to the Bible and to the sacraments, especially the Eucharist). Conversion is a conscious choice to live in accordance with a consciously chosen set of norms. Insofar as our understanding of liturgy does not drive us to choose Christian ideals, our understanding of liturgy is fundamentally flawed. But what if liturgy — or, a particular understanding of it — is itself inimical to the Church’s very wellbeing? In what follows, I propose that the Anglican Communion has become the home of a pervasively unhealthy liturgical anti-intellectualism. To cast out this spiritual malaise, we must return liturgy to its proper place: as one — but only one — of the activities that defines the Church of God in via.
Lex orandi, lex credendi?
What is liturgy? Let us first guard against a popular misconception. Liturgy is often defined with the simple Latin phrase lex orandi, lex credendi. This is sometimes translated, “the rule of praying is the rule of belief.” Is this translation accurate? Most people do not know Latin and therefore cannot speak to the matter. But in fact, this popular translation is only half true. Unlike English, Latin is an inflected language. This means that word order does not matter. Instead, the case of a noun (e.g., whether it is the subject, the direct object, etc.) determines its meaning. Lex orandi means “the rule of praying,” and lex credendi means “the rule of believing.” In each phrase, lex is in the nominative case (and is therefore the subject), while orandi and credendi are gerunds in the genitive case. Importantly, no verb is technically present in the phrase lex orandi, lex credendi. How then have some people teased a propositional statement (“the rule or praying is the rule of belief”) out of this Latin phrase?
In Latin, no noun is needed when two words or phrases are in the same case. Rather, the verb esse (“to be”) is implied. Because the two halves of this phrase share identical cases, the two terms are shown to be equivalent (e.g., A = B). Consequently, one could just as accurately translate lex orandi, lex credendi as “the rule of belief is the rule of prayer.” Because the English language privileges word order, this second translation has a very different meaning than “the rule of prayer is the rule of belief.” But if we wish to be accurate (and there is no faithfulness without accuracy), we need to recognize both the richness and the difficulty of translation. One-sided translations do not inform: they mislead. Lex orandi, lex credendi does not claim that liturgy determines belief. Rather, it claims that liturgy and belief are both laws and that each law supports the other. The rule of prayer is the rule of belief, and the rule of belief is the rule of prayer. Subsuming one of these rules to the other actually renders meaningless the popular liturgical proof-text lex orandi, lex credendi.
Other, more recent books have translated lex orandi, lex credendi in even more erroneous fashions. Consider the following examples. In their co-authored volume The Hospitality of God, bishops Mary Gray-Reeves (USA) and Michael Perham (England) gloss lex orandi, lex credendi as “Our doctrine is derived from our liturgy,” and they further explain that “liturgical texts define doctrine.” And yet, lex orandi, lex credendi contains nothing that might be used to so privilege liturgy over doctrine. Regrettably, this error is not unique to Gray-Reeves and Perham. Mark Earey writes in his recent monograph Beyond Common Worship that lex orandi, lex credendi is “usually freely translated as something like, ‘The law of praying establishes the law of believing’, or more simply as ‘Worship establishes doctrine.’” Earey actually opposes this popular liturgical shibboleth, but here again we have inexcusable mistranslation, for lex orandi, lex credendi also contains no Latin verb that might be translated as “establishes.” It is clear that lex orandi, lex credendi has taken on an increasingly wayward life of its own.
On liturgical anti-intellectualism
What is gained by elevating liturgy to such an exalted status? The answer is bound up with Anglican historical ignorance — ignorance of ourselves but also of other Christians. In the popular essay collection The Study of Anglicanism, W. Taylor Stevenson opens his article “Lex Orandi—Lex Credendi” by writing:
There is not now, and there never has been, a distinctive Anglican theology. We have no Thomas or Luther, no Calvin or Zwingli. Nor is there any authority in Anglicanism which corresponds to the magisterium of the Roman Catholic Church or the theological themes which provided the touchstones of theological inquiry of the Protestant Reformation.
The same view can be found in the recent volume Anglican Theology by Mark Chapman. Anglicans, however, might be interested to know that none of these four figures ever held a position like that which Stevenson imagines. Zwingli was always marginal in the Reformed tradition; Calvin was just one authority among many others (and it is only neo-Calvinists of the last fifty years who seem to have become ignorant of this). The same is even truer of Luther’s relationship to Lutheranism. Many of Luther’s ideas — from his rejection of free will to his views on the sacraments — were rejected by his colleagues in his own lifetime. Reading Melanchthon’s 1559 Loci, as well as the Lutheran confessions collected in the Book of Concord, will rapidly resolve any lingering doubts on this matter. Finally, as far as Aquinas goes, his current elevation via Neo-Thomism occurred only in the late-nineteenth century; Neo-Thomism ceased being a matter of import at Vatican II. If having a “distinctive” theology depends upon having a major theologian who is the sine qua non of one’s tradition, then like Anglicanism, neither Lutheranism nor Calvinism nor Roman Catholicism have a “distinctive” theology.
Let us turn now to Anglican self-understanding (and the lack thereof). Bishops Gray-Reeves and Perham concisely explain their elevation of liturgy by writing, “we have never been a confessional church.” Patrick Malloy, Associate Professor of Liturgy at General Theological Seminary, argues the same but elaborates:
[W]e Anglicans do not have confessional documents that define who we are and what we believe (like the Presbyterians, for example, who have the Westminster Confession) or a magisterial hierarchy (like the Roman Catholics, who have the Pope and the various related officials and curial bodies); our liturgy is our agreed-upon self-definition. What we do in the liturgy and how we do it declares what we believe and impresses an identity upon us. The liturgy is foundational for us.
It is not clear why Malloy thinks that we have no confessional documents. By elevating the Book of Common Prayer to the status of uncontestable theological authority, it becomes a confessional document. More importantly, Anglicans have historically relied upon a number of theological texts. The most well known of these are the Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion, which were used for nearly three hundred years as a way of preventing non-Anglicans from attending and graduating from Oxford, Cambridge, and other Anglican institutions of higher learning in the British Isles. No eighteenth-century Dissenter would have believed that Anglicans lacked confessional documents! But other texts have also been important, such as the canon law, the two books of homilies, and the Paraphrases of Erasmus of Rotterdam. Let us not forget the legal realities that defined most of Anglican history; all of these confessional documents were established and maintained by Crown, Parliament, and Convocation.
Let us also not forget the history of Anglican educational curricula. Here in the United States, Bishop White set in place a theological curriculum that lasted into the late nineteenth century. Furthermore, a study of the print history of Anglican texts would reveal that a number of works were of abiding import for centuries, such as Bishop John Pearson’s Exposition of the Creed, Richard Allestree’s The Whole Duty of Man, Robert Nelson’s A Companion for the Festivals and Fasts of the Church of England, and Bishop Butler’s The Analogy of Religion. Each of these works was reprinted dozens of times for centuries, and Butler’s works entered Anglican curricula in the nineteenth century. Contemporary ignorance about these texts reveals much about the present state of Anglican/Episcopal education, but nothing at all about our tradition’s past.
Today, the liturgy is to Anglicans what the Bible is to evangelicals: a debilitating intellectual crutch used to excuse indifference to — and even hatred of — the ecclesial commitments borne and sustained by rigorous and thus humbling study. In our laziness, we cast off accountability both to our fellow Anglicans and to the wider body of Christ. We cannot teach what we do not know; we cannot defend what we do not understand; we cannot give what we do not have. And thus we shuffle off to mumble prayers to an unknown God, convinced that our inarticulate incoherence is an effectual sign of uniquely privileged grace. We defraud other Christians — but we deceive only ourselves.
Christian liturgy is one of the few facets of Christian existence that neither begins with nor belongs to the Church. Liturgy directs us beyond the early Church and back to ancient Israel, but it also directs us beyond ancient Israel to the God who transcends both time and space. In Exodus, it is written: “In accordance with all that I show you concerning the pattern of the tabernacle…so you shall make it” (25:9). This revelation is the beginning of liturgy. Whether one reads the third-century Apostolic Tradition of Hippolytus or the sixteenth-century Lawes of Richard Hooker, the revelation of divine worship has always been both the ideal and the norming norm of Christian worship. This is true throughout the New Testament; the earliest Christians participated in the Temple’s liturgy and the same liturgy formed the backdrop of later New Testament works, notably the Letter to the Hebrews and the Apocalypse of St. John. But none of these texts portrays the liturgy as the font of Christian identity — and how could liturgy be thus, when liturgy did not and does not begin with Christianity? Liturgy is one of the great aids of discipleship. Liturgy is the Church’s inspired emulation of heavenly worship. Liturgy is not a first principle from which we deduce all doctrine. Liturgy is not and cannot be a substitute for discipleship. Liturgy does not and cannot exhaust the Church of its many other duties. In the words of the Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom: “In wisdom, let us attend!”
 See W. Taylor Stevenson, “Lex Orandi—Lex Credendi” in John E. Booty, Stephen Sykes, and Jonathan Knight (eds.), The Study of Anglicanism, second edition (SPCK and Fortress Press, 1998), pp. 187ff.
 Mary Gray-Reeves and Michael Perham, The Hospitality of God: Emerging Worship for a Missional Church (SPCK, 2011), pp. 13–14; ch. 2 as a whole is concerned with liturgy.
 Earey, Beyond Common Worship, p. 100.
 Stevenson, “Lex Orandi—Lex Credendi,” p. 187.
 Mark Chapman, Anglican Theology (T & T Clark, 2012), p. 4.
 Gray-Reeves and Perham, The Hospitality of God, p. 13.
 Cited in the May 2011 pastoral letter by the Rt. Rev. Mark Sisk: http://archive.constantcontact.com/fs039/1102067254998/archive/1105586716868.html. Accessed September 10, 2014.
 For Erasmus’ extensive influence in England, see Gregory D. Dodds, Exploiting Erasmus: The Erasmian Legacy and Religious Change in Early Modern England (University of Toronto Press, 2013).
 See Robert W. Prichard, The Nature of Salvation: Theological Consensus in the Episcopal Church, 1801 – 1873 (University of Illinois Press, 1997).
 For the later influence of these authors and their writings, see the respective entries in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.
To clarify the argument: In paragraph 1, I raise the possibility that one popular understanding of liturgy is a.) wrong, and that b.) it leads to a form of liturgical anti-intellectualism. In paragraphs 2 – 4, I note the ways that liturgical anti-intellectualism depends upon various mistranslations of the Latin phrase “lex orandi, lex credendi.” In paragraphs 5 – 7, I note the ways that liturgical anti-intellectualism also depends upon a twofold neglect of historical data, both by way of misreading other Christian traditions and by way of simply ignoring our own tradition. In paragraphs 8 and 9, I conclude… Read more »
A quite excellent post, but before I get to my positive engagement, I must take exception to one minor part of the early discussion on liturgy. James K.A. Smith is perhaps the current center of thinking about the role of liturgy in formation. But he uses the word liturgy in a somewhat technical sense, meaning (just about) any habitual practice. I think he would agree with “… I loathe the erroneous assumption that liturgy necessarily produces some sort of salutary effect.” What he would say is that liturgies produce *some* effect – salutary or otherwise. His more recent work has… Read more »
Thanks so much, Charlie, for your kind words. I don’t know the volume by Smith that you refer to; what is the title? As for liturgies being chosen, yes, if liturgy refers to any consciously repetitious act. But is not liturgy bound to ceremony? The Reformed historically opposed such ceremonies without opposing set order in a church service. Does Smith mention this?
Maybe you are right about painting with too broad a brush; I should specify that for Western Anglicans, liturgy is generally an intellectual crutch. Does that help?
While I share Guyer’s concerns, and support much of his conclusion, it founders on the same rocks of of liturgical anti-intellectualism, or possibly on the similar, and equally uncharted liturgical pseudo-intellectualism. Guyer gives a literate and correct exegesis of the oft-repeated patristic dictum “lex orandi, lex credendi.” However this catch-phrase of ill-informed liturgical groupies is no more real patristic Latin than is “ethay uleray ofway ayerpray isway ethway uleray ofway aithfay.” A minor functionary in the curia of Pope Celestine, Prosper of Aquitaine, made an argument in De Vocatione, a not particularly well-written refutation of late semi-pelagianism, and excerpted in… Read more »
Thank you so much for the response and for the comments about the history of the phrase. I have learned much from your post! I will check out your suggested reading, too, when I get the chance. Allow me, however, to briefly play the devil’s advocate. In your second paragraph, you point out that “this catch-phrase of ill-informed liturgical groupies” is hardly Patristic (and you argue the point admirably). But I wonder: does this matter? If poor understanding or sheer misunderstanding are widely disseminated, does that not become part of the story of the Church’s theology? In other words, erring… Read more »
I wouldn’t want to posit a Patristic golden age either, and were someone to counter me by asserting that the maxim is a long standing part of tradition, I would feel well put down. However, the earliest Anglican mention of the maxim that I can remember, off the top of my head, is in (Roman Catholic, but former Episcopalian and University of the South alum) Aidan Kavanagh’s (of blessed memory) 1981 Hale lectures at Seabury Western, published in 1984 as On Liturgical Theology. For those counting, that’s 33 years ago, and five years after the BCP 1979 had been essentially… Read more »
Let’s do a book!!! *grin*
If liturgy is the Church’s “inspired emulation” of heavenly worship, then Jesus Christ is the “inspired emulation” of the Father and not a first principle from which we deduce all doctrine. If the latter is offensive (and it should be, because it is heretical), then the former is likewise offensive. Liturgy gathers Christ’s Body, at least five ways: 1. The gathered baptized, incorporated into Christ’s Body 2. The proclaimed Word from scripture 3. The person(s) of the ordained clergy 4. The offered bread and wine, recapitulating all creation generally, which become, 5. The Body and Blood of Jesus, in the… Read more »
I think you’re equating “liturgy” too easily with “sacraments” here, but that’s not the usage implied above. I’m entirely with you on “Christ himself, in his mysterious abundance” being given in and through the divine liturgy, and therefore yes, in that sense, the liturgy contains the summit and source of Christian life. But to say that the liturgy “contains” that, because it contains the most holy sacrament of the altar, does not allow us to say that the liturgy is itself first principle. Insisting on the Real Presence does not allow us, in other words, an escapist mysticism. Yes, Jesus… Read more »
Liturgy most certainly teaches. As do Sacraments. They teach through encounter. All of the Christian faith begins with being confronted by Jesus, that encountering. Liturgy is the way we do that today. Theology, and all the rest, come out of that encounter, that praying; and through that reflection that we call theology, we are called back to prayer, to encounter again.
Matthew, please forgive the criticism. My first reaction to this post was very similar to yours. I am entirely in agreement with what you say above. But (this is important), again, to say that the liturgy “teaches” in the way you say above, through “encounter,” is a bit vague, isn’t it? I firmly believe it to be true, but “encounter” is a bit slippery, because it is entirely experiential, and doesn’t necessarily lead us to the real Jesus. Yes, Jesus is there, but saying he’s there, metaphysically, doesn’t mean that everyone will “encounter” him. So sure, liturgy teaches, liturgy catechizes,… Read more »
Because liturgy expresses doctrine and requires discipline, and from liturgy we are given bishops, and to remedy disputes and quandaries, we begin with prayer (which means Devotion, which means Regula, which means Liturgy), then the issue here is not that I am suggesting we reduce everything to liturgy (which I have never done). The issue here is expanding what liturgy means, and what it involves. Liturgy is God’s theology: it is His work of making Himself intelligible to us. If the biblical account is accurate (and I believe it to be), then even encoutering Jesus in his earthly flesh did… Read more »
Ok, I don’t want to belabor this, but you seem to want a much expanded notion of “liturgy” (as, really: liturgy=Church) which may be fine. I’m not sure. I guess I don’t really see what the point is, for example, of saying that the liturgy “gives us bishops.” Huh? How does that help us understand anything, much less to counter the kind of anti-intellectual escapism that Benjamin warns us about above. No, I haven’t studied Thornton, sorry. Nothing against him. (I know, I know, how could I possibly not have? Well, I spend a great deal of time reading things… Read more »
No, Christ is not inspired; rather, Christ is the divine substance united with neither division nor confusion to the human substance. Among the five things you mention, the first three are not substantially identical with Christ. The gathered baptized share the same human substance, but they are not themselves incarnations; the Word is inspired and thus not consubstantial in any way; the ordained clergy signify the priesthood of Christ. The gathered baptized and the clergy are indeed emulations – and if we are not thus, what are we? The priest is in persona Christi – and persona means precisely persona… Read more »
Then we are not actually incorporated into Christ by baptism, nor actually eat and drink Him, nor is “For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in the midst of them” anything but a nice sentiment. I take the opposite view on all fronts. Our sin prevents our fully becoming in this life what God wants us to be; but by committing fewer sins, we can grow in holiness and become more like Christ. And, yes, catholic and orthodox Mass means Christ is present in all ways, because Christ is an event and activity and… Read more »
Hi Walter! Good to see you here. I’m glad that some of the more substantial history of lex orandi has been brought out. I agree that the phrase is nearly useless, though perhaps we can avoid burning anyone at the stake who uses it, since it has become so very common. For what it’s worth, most of the time I have heard it used, it means something more basic and innocuous like “prayer and belief are intimately related to one another.” Pace Charlie, the first sentence of the Conclusion was my favorite line in the whole post. But that is… Read more »
Yes, liturgy has been use to shape doctrine – but has not the doctrine (or at least the doctrinal conviction) been the foundation? In other words, Basil uses baptism in On the Holy Spirit – but baptism itself does not establish the doctrine of the Holy Spirit’s divinity so much as offer an apologetic for it. Liturgy, like Scripture and the Sacraments, is both an inspired and a limited (re: particular kind of) good. We could put this all teleologically; all three have particular ends, but these ends are not the same. Liturgy is divine worship; Scripture is divine pedagogy;… Read more »
No, the foundation of doctrine is the Person of Christ Jesus.
Ok, sure, but the foundation is the person of Christ Jesus as dogmatically defined by a series of councils, etc.
I’m not interested in burning anything on a stake (except maybe very, very slowly doing it to a pork shoulder in a very smokey auto-de-fé!) I’m entirely happy with “prayer and belief are intimately related to one another” and it’s been a long-standing debate in liturgical theology on the place of liturgy as a locus theologiae. Anatolios is good stuff, isn’t he, and I think that glorifying God is that which stands behind both formal communal worship (liturgy, if you will) and theology (my favorite definition comes from Alejandro Garcia-Rivera: “Saying good things of God”). And, pace Matthew, I think… Read more »
Completely wrong about Thornton. Liturgy — more precisely, regula — is not prior to, nor an expression of, but actually is the ascetic activity. It is the response on the part of the called to Almighty God. Regula is threefold as an ascetical application of trinitarian dogmatic, as I wrote above. He rejected the dualism you are suggesting.
Is liturgy coterminous with regula? They don’t necessarily seem so. Benedict’s regula presupposed liturgy, for example, but was also distinct from it. Of course, I have not read Thornton. But there is no obvious reason why liturgy and regula would be one and the same.
I’m afriad I have a quibble regarding the origins of “lex orandi, lex credendi.” The phrase is actually a shorthand phrase for a longer phrase, ut legem credendi lex statuat supplicandi. Literally each word means: Ut conjunction = “as, as being, so that” Legem noun accusative masculine singular of lex = “law” Credendi noun gerund genitive neuter singular of credo = “of belief” Lex noun nominative masculine singular = “law” Statuat verb present indicative 3rd singular of statuo = literally “causes to stand, set up” or “establishes, settles” Supplicandi noun gerund genitive neuter singular from supplicare = “[of] kneeling, beseeching,… Read more »
This is all very fascinating and I thank you for it. Having not read Prosper on this matter, I can’t offer much comment. I do, however, wonder whether we might not be placing a bit too much upon this single statement. On the one hand, what precedes thus ‘ut’? On the other hand, particularly in the Church Fathers, it is difficult – in my mind – to justify reading them for signs of some sort of theological method. That wasn’t their interest or their concern. The scholastics were certainly concerned with it, and sixteenth-century patristics wrangling too often projected this… Read more »
I understand the concerns expressed in this article, as well as the accusation of liturgy “not working” (or at least as much as we would like it seems) articulated in Garwood Anderson’s blog. However I have a few comments. First though I would like to point out some of the embrace in liturgy per se is honestly a reaction from us ex-evangelicals who found a certain profound truth in Anglo-Catholicism and from those evangelicals who added to their theology a more important role for liturgy. For some of us the years of anti-ritual embedded in American evangelicalism has made us… Read more »
I agree with your first two points. The sacraments are effectual signs of grace. Perhaps this should lead to a larger discussion about what it means for liturgy to “work” – and liturgy is not a form of technology. But that is a discussion for another day.
As far as your third point: what would it mean for a liturgy to not be true unless there were a criterion of truth external to the liturgy? There is no hr-liturgy that we know of, so it must be something other, yes? But what is it?
It occurred to me today in the middle of my sermon on Phil. 2 that possibly the soi-disant “Christ Hymn” that scholars think Paul quoted from existing, possibly Phillipian, liturgy might very well be one of the first examples of lex orandi, lex credendi: an existing liturgical text was used to make a post-hoc theological point. FWIW.
Well, yes – but assuming it was liturgical. It is a fascinating speculation, but without some other external evidence, it can only remain a fascinating speculation.
Faithful and steadfast God,
nourish your people in this wicked world,
and, through prayer and the Scriptures,
give us our daily bread;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.
I am late to the dance on this article, but this is well said and a true encouragement to this priest who sees our Liturgy being treated like an optional and easily manipulated entity to be changed or used in worship as we see fit (and the Holy Spirit gets blamed for it). Even to those who believe our central beliefs are found in our liturgy, would it not be true, then, that this same liturgy was shaped by God’s faithful covenant people in community regarding their theological understandings of God’s character and salvation before a word of the prayers… Read more »