Lex Orandi-Lex Credendi by W. Taylor Stevenson

(In Sykes, Booty & Knight, The Study of Anglicanism (Revised Ed); 1998)

Reading for an essay on the interrelationship of theology and worship I came across this gem and thought it worth sharing.  It is a really fabulous illustration of Paul Ricoeur’s theory of symbolic meaning in language.  If you’re familiar with a discussion on the place of worship in thinking theologically, or the distinctiveness of Anglican theology being mediated through our prayer books, this should be a really easy way into Ricoeur (who is definitely not easy!).

In a nutshell?  Words have meaning beyond their exact dictionary definition.  They take on subtle changes of meaning in different contexts – swear words being the classic example of that!  The flat, surface definition of words are not unimportant – the latin words of lex orandi lex credendi are useless to me without a translation into English, but the words also take on a life of their own when used in a real conversation.  I reckon it’s like they are let out of the school classroom into the yard for free play!

“‘Symbol gives rise to thought.’  First the giving, then the positing is crucial for the concerns of this essay.  Lex orandi has the priority, lex credendi is essential but logically and ontologically derivative.  The dialectical relationship between the two halves is intimate and pervasive.  When we first become aware of ourselves as human beings we are already engaged in thinking about the symbols.  Nevertheless, the order is crucial:  first the giving, then the positing.  It is this order which situates us individually and corporately within God, and not vice versa.  It is this order which is expressive of the intrinsically Anselmic character of Christian faith: faith in search of understanding, understanding in search of an adequate articulation of the faith which undergirds it, which is turn alters what is received.  It is within this process that Christian preaching finds its essential and indispensable role; and this process continues throughout the life of the individual and of the Church.

“For Anglicans, as for all Christians, this givenness of the sacred is manifested first and most fully in the symbols and mythic narratives which present the life, death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth as he is remembered through the activity of the Holy Spirit in the Church.  It is these given symbols and narratives which are enacted ritually, prayed, chanted and sung.  They constitute the icons of the Christian faith.  Meaning appears there, just in these symbols as they are assembled in narratives.  It is these symbols and narratives which are central and determinative for Christian faith.

“Within the staggeringly complex world of symbols, everyone must begin from somewhere.  Christians begin from the symbolic life of the ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus as summarized in the Apostles’ Creed.  This narrative is privileged.  Other narratives and devotional practices, such as those associated with the lives of the saints, may be drawn into this privileged symbolic-narrative orbit.  And, indeed, certain symbols and myths of other religions may be drawn into this orbit.  In such instances, however, that which is received can only be received legitimately insofar as it is congruent with the privileged narrative of the Christ.  It is from this given that positing proceeds, that the reflective articulation of faith begins.

“The privileged symbols and narratives of the Christ live most fundamentally within Scripture as it is remembered and prayed within the liturgical worship of the Church.  The individual’s use of Scripture and prayer is dependent upon the more comprehensive experience of the Church.  No Christian community or theology ever totally loses sight of the givenness of this dimension of Christian experience, and Anglicanism is most self-conscious and emphatic about it.  It is this which provides the experiential and theoretical ground and thus the justification for Anglicanism’s insistence upon the primacy of liturgy and the Book of Common Prayer in the life of the church, together with its particular articulation of lex orandi, lex credendi.

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