What follows is a little paper I wrote this morning in reflection on a couple of questions given by my professor for class tonight for discussion purposes. It's my first attempt at analyzing Anglican theology, especially in light of the lex orandi lex credendi principle.
While there is no denying that Anglican doctrine is indeed encapsulated and expressed within its liturgical forms (since its commitment to other articles of faith is rather ambiguous and tenuous at best), the question to be asked is whether this expression is definitive. By virtue of its need to appease conflicting convictions from the very beginning (where adherents to the Reformation and Catholics were completing for control of the same church), the prayer book has become over time either a sign of current changes in process (which may or may not remain, depending on the monarch or political force in power), or a compromise to maintain peace and an outward identity of unity. Thus, sometimes multiple theologies may be expressed leaving the decision ultimately to the worshiper’s own interpretation, rather than a clear confession that unites the church in one voice.
Lex orandi, lex credenda, “the law of worshiping founds the law of believing,” a phrase, it is believed was first coined by Prosper of Aquitaine in the fifth century, constitutes the focus of how Anglican doctrine is expressed and developed. Yet, a question arises as to whether Anglicans fully honor the true intent of this dictum, or whether they have misunderstood or misapplied it. Or, for that matter, whether it is even helpful. Unfortunately Prosper’s original dictum is used only in shorthand form, at best, and thus its interpretation and application may not even be true to the original. In fact, it has been shown that the current phrase may actually be coined from the late nineteenth century by Dom Prosper Guéranger. However, using the dictum as is for the sake of argument, the question therefore is whether the form of the liturgy determines the content of what the church believes, or more so, if it should.
It is vogue today, especially within Lutheran circles, to insist on this principle as a way of defending the ancient liturgical forms over and against current change or outright abandonment of the forms (as in much of the so-called Contemporary Worship movement.) However, might there be a deeper issue at stake here of form and substance, the formal and material aspects of theology itself? Technically, from a Lutheran point of view, placing form over substance is backwards. We begin with the source and central doctrine of the faith (Scripture and Gospel) which then informs the shape of its expression (the confession, the liturgy.) Even Pope Pius XII believed that dogma should inform worship, not the other way around, as Herman Sasse once observed.
So, in regards to the Anglicans, what are we therefore to make of the lex orandi lex credendi principle? As much as I have been intrigued in the past by the principle as a defense of the ancient liturgical forms, I now wonder if the dictim, in this order, is even right. For should it not be, lex credenda lex orandi just as much? In other words, should not sola scriptura rightly inform what the church prays and preaches? Again, this is a form and substance argument, one that may indeed get to the heart of what appears to be the great Anglican weakness. For Anglicans debates over substance between the Evangelicals and the Catholics was never resolved on that basis, but rather the attempt at resolution was simply to change the form and leave the substance indeterminate. Thus, they may work hard to determine the poetic quality of verse and response, but what is their view of the primacy of scripture and what it teaches? We can see the inherent weakness here played out in the debate on sexuality. Anglicanism utilizes a ‘three-legged stool’ as part of its theological formation: scripture, reason, and tradition. The ideal is that all three would be kept in balance. However, from a Lutheran/Reformation/Biblical point of view, should ‘reason,’ as such even be used in such a primary way? And regarding ‘tradition,’ how should this hold equal footing with the inspired scriptures? Lutherans have always understood the ministerial, not the majesterial role of reason. To place reason above scripture results in much of the issues played out in liberal theology. To place tradition in the mix equally lessens the voice of scripture as well, for tradition, at best can only be a witness and commentary, not an authority. A question my professor from England posed to us this week was “If Anglican doctrine is enshrined, proclaimed, inherent in, implied by its forms of worship is it a fudge, a compromise or genuinely, consciously comprehensive?” Aside from feeling a bit ‘baited’ by this question as the lone Lutheran (I’m doing my best to hold my own!), my answer would in the end have to be “Yes, I’m afraid that in the end it is fudged and compromised.”
Don’t get me wrong. The worship is beautiful. And it is true that they attempt to express their faith through their worship forms as opposed to formal creeds. But the weakness remains and the frustrations I hear voiced in the Anglican/Episcopalian community ultimately arise from this weakness of form over substance, a need to put the material form of their theology before a clear conviction of its form.
(P.S. -For further reading on lex orandi, lex credendi, I would heartily recommend the articles on a website by James Waddell: "The Lex Orandi Lex Credendi Question." They informed much of the thinking in the above post.)