Sunday, July 8, 2018

Praying Shapes Believing. Or Does It?

In Episcopalian circles one often hears appeals to the idea that “praying shapes believing.” It is the title of a widely used commentary on the Book of Common Prayer written by Leonel Mitchell. I have come across the phrase, spoken or written, several times in reference to the current proposal before the Episcopal Church’s General Convention to revise the prayer book. But, the way it is often used misunderstands its meaning.

“Praying shapes believing” is a translation of an ancient axiom long used by Anglicans to express our approach to Christian theology and practice. The Latin phrase is lex orandi, lex credendi, literally, “the law of praying is the law of believing”. Episcopalians and other Anglicans often simply refer to this Latin phrase. It is a short-hand paraphrase of this passage from ‘The Call of All Nations’ by early Christian theologian, Prosper of Aquitaine (390-455):

Let us consider the sacraments of priestly prayers, which having been handed down by the apostles are celebrated uniformly throughout the whole world and in every Catholic Church so that the law of praying might establish the law of believing.

“Praying shapes believing" is an imprecise and ambiguous translation of that ancient axiom and thus misleading. It has led to what appears to be a widespread misunderstanding of its intent.

If “praying shapes believing” simply means that whatever we pray will shape our understanding, it is no more than a truism. Of course, if one prays regularly for God to increase one’s material prosperity, one will come to believe that God is primarily about doing so and that God has no problem with the accumulation of money and stuff. If a church fills its worship with images of God’s wrath and judgment, regular worshipers will come to believe that God is primarily angry and judgmental. But, some Episcopalians seem to appeal to the idea that praying shapes believing along these lines. We want to shape the way people believe. Therefore we need to revise our prayer and worship so they will come to believe better. But that is not what lex orandi, lex credendi means.

Some seem to use the phrase “praying shapes believing” in another way. Our prayers and, more specifically, our worship, should reflect what we believe. And if our belief has changed, it is time to change our prayer and worship to better reflect what we have come to believe. But that is also not what lex orandi, lex credendi means.

Lex orandi, lex credendi, the law of prayer is the law of belief, means that what we believe is determined by what we pray. More specifically, it means that our worship as expressed in the liturgies of our prayer book determine the parameters of our belief. It was common among earlier Anglicans to refer to the liturgies – especially those of Baptism, the Eucharist, and the Ordinals – as the definition of what we believe. What are members of our Church expected to believe about God, life, and humanity? The answers (and the limits) are found there. We are not free to believe contrary to our common worship.

Those liturgies are not simply our invention. They are something we have received. With the exception perhaps of Prayer C, the liturgies of the 1979 Book of Common Prayer are clearly rooted in ancient liturgies of the Church. We are not free to simply change them to reflect beliefs contrary to them. They predate and determine what we believe. Not the other way around.

And that is a major reason for my skepticism regarding current calls for revising our prayer book. One of the resolves of the current resolution (A068 Plan for the Revision of the Book of Common Prayer) indicates that the process of revision will include “providing space for, encouraging the submission of, and facilitating the perfection of rites that will arise from the continual movement of the Holy Spirit among us and growing insights of our Church.” There are lots of reasons to be wary of that phrase. Most of all I have seen little evidence that we can discern the difference between “the continual movement of the Holy Spirit among us” and the latest prejudice of American Progressives. We should not seek to remake God in our image. We should be wary of doing the same with our worship.

I am not in principle opposed to revising the Book of Common Prayer. I actually would welcome liturgies with more expansive inclusive language for humans and even more expansive language of God. But, I distrust and am opposed to the spirit under which it seems it is being proposed. I do not trust my own or others ability to discern “the continual movement of the Holy Spirit among us.”

Joseph Butler (1662-1752) was one of the great theologians of the Anglican tradition (in spite of his removal from the proposed revision of our calendar of Lesser Feasts and Fasts). He was once essential reading in the curricula of Episcopal seminaries. In a conversation with John Wesley, as reported by Wesley, Bishop Butler said, "The pretending to extraordinary revelations and gifts of the Holy Spirit is a horrid thing–a very horrid thing." Wesley insisted to the bishop that if that is what the bishop thought he was up to, he was mistaken. But, it seems that pretending to extraordinary revelations and gifts of the Holy Spirit is precisely what the resolution to revise the prayer book is suggesting. That might be how some understand “praying shapes believing”, but it is not lex orandi, lex credendi. And if that is the way we go, it would indeed be a horrid thing–a very horrid thing.

I could get behind a revision of the Book of Common Prayer if I trusted that we were committed to translating into contemporary idiom the prayer and worship (with its basic theology) we have received and that has indeed shaped us for generations. But, appeals to the continual movement of the Holy Spirit among us do not give me much confidence.


  1. Two quotes came to mind as I read this:
    "God created man in his own image and ever since, man has tried to return the compliment." - Attributed to various source

    "A God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of Christ without a cross." -H. Richard Niebuhr

    Also, talk of "the Spirit" is suspicious. Notice the absence of the word "Holy." When the ruling class of TEC talks about "the spirit," it seems they are talking about the Zeitgeist, which in turn brings me to another quote:
    "Whoever marries the spirit of this age will find himself a widower in the next." -W.R. Inge