Praying and Thinking
Our particular corner of the Anglo-Lutheran blogosphere has been in a mood on things liturgical over the past few days. *Christopher put up an expansive post responding to my request for thoughts on a certain parish practices. The locals with Lutheran connections have mentioned the whole RW (“Revolting Worship” as LutherPunk so delicately puts it). In the background, of course, the furor in the Anglican Communion is punctuated by the ELCA Church-wide Assembly which faces similar issues and will conclude with nothing concluded. In response, I’m feeling the need to say something about the prayer book as the central—functional—instrument of unity.
The prayer book is at the heart of Anglican practice. The Benedictine tradition from which it arose understands liturgy as a rhythm of ordering Scripture; the prayer book participates within this tradition, always pointing to the Gospel of Christ as he is revealed in the Scriptures and in the breaking of bread. In all of our discussions, speaking collectively, I have been amazed at how much theology talk there is, how much polemic there, and how little appeal is made to the BCP.
Pray Long and Prosper…
As *Christopher notes in his post, Prosper of Aquitaine’s words have gained much currency since Vatican II albeit in an imperfect form. The way in which most know them, lex orandi, lex credendi is rather imprecise. This statement is simply two noun phrases put into juxtaposition—what is the relationship between them? Is it purposely being left fuzzy? *Christopher properly gives us Prosper’s original phrase: Ut legem credendi lex statuat supplicandi. Much more useful—but still imprecise. We need the rest of the sentence (Embarrassingly, I don’t have it. What’s the citation for this quote anyway?? This seems like the kind of thing I ought to know…). In any case, the clause cannot be translated with certainty because of a lack of context. Latinists will note the initial “Ut” and the “a” hiding in the ending of “statuat” and will recognize it as a subjunctive—but which one? Is it an optative: May the law of praying establish the law of believing; or a jussive: Let the law of praying establish the law of believing; or using the “ut”: So that/in order that the law of praying may establish the law of believing… (clearly, the rest of the sentence is important here)?
Despite the confusion, there is no doubt that Prosper is has captured an essential connection. What we pray shapes what we believe but only if we keep praying and we keep praying the same thing… This phrase makes the most sense when discussing prayer not as an occasional activity or discussing the wording of any particular prayer but when looking at prayer as an established habit of life, a way of being. Repetition makes habits, repetition forms belief. The habitual use of certain liturgical forms imprints the theology inherent in them into our thought structure. We learn our theology most viscerally through the repetition of our liturgy, moving our mouths, moving our bodies in patterns.
And we do not move them alone. This is the importance of naming the book the Book of Common Prayer. We are not the only one’s praying in this way and with these words. We are not absorbing this theology as individuals but as communities. This is why I refer to the BCP as a true instrument of unity; it is not just the source of our common prayer but of our common theology rooted in that prayer. Too, this is why the Anglican Church does not have confessional documents like the Lutheran Church. Rather than legislating what we say that we ought to believe, we legislated what we do when we gather together for prayer. It is often said that it doesn’t matter what you think as long as you use the liturgy; this is rooted in the belief that if you use the liturgy faithfully it will shape what you think into appropriate channels.
What beautiful theory! Such a shame that things aren’t this tidy, though… Two main problems come immediately to my mind: 1) how common is common prayer, and 2) how do we account for the failure of formation?
The Failure of Common Prayer
First, our community of prayer is no longer common. In the American church this is seen mostly clearly in the struggle over the ’79 prayer book. Some like it, some hate it; some are exclusively Rite I, some are exclusively Rite II, some use both. Our common prayer book is at odds with itself, presenting two different liturgies with two different theologies. I don’t think I need to argue this point—it’s pretty evident. The theology of Rite I is more penitential on the whole; the awareness of sin and the concomitant need for salvation which we do not deserve is closer to the surface. Rite II focuses more on celebration; sin and penitence are further from the fore.
We know how this shakes out communally as well; we’ve probably all been to ’28 prayer book/’40 hymnal parishes. Universally, they’re at the margins of ECUSA or out of it entirely by their own choice. The selection of the prayer book signals that the parish has a different theological grounding than where the leadership of ECUSA is. Note that I’m not passing judgment here. And I’m willing to agree that certain changes between Rite I and Rite II have altered—I won’t quite say eviscerated, but certainly altered and not for the better—the theology therein to reflect a different theology.
To make things messier the opposition between Rite I and II is not just theological. The struggle between the rites is further complicated by issues not centrally related to the theology of the rites. That is, there’s the language issue. On one hand, it’s a stretch to call Rite I the vernacular of the people; on the other, it’s beautiful in ways that Rite II really isn’t. Then there’s the use of inclusive language for the congregation. Rite II reflects the common use of gender-neutral language to include both men and women. Some, however, see this as a slippery slope for inclusive language altogether and fear that any inclusive language will lead to naming the Triune deity in ways that describe Hecate better than YHWH and company. These aren’t central in my mind to the real theological differences between the two but they do play into the choice of one over the other.
Moving outside of America, the root problem remains but is even more complicated. Across the Communion the base prayer book is that of 1662. In theory. But enculturation and struggles against the legacy of imperialistic colonialism have led to indigenous liturgies with varying degrees of fidelity to the theoretical 1662 norm. America is just one example of these tensions. The ’79 prayer book moved us away from the 1662 book in dramatic ways. As we pull away from that book we pull away from our Communion neighbors even as they pull away in other, different, directions. If common prayer shapes common theology, what is the practical prayed difference between American and African theology? To put a finer point on it, how does the theology of Rite II stack up with the average Sunday liturgy as celebrated in Lagos? [NB: The thoughts in this paragraph are entirely due to one of M’s papers—just to give credit where credit is due. I feel this is a critical point and its been absent from all of the discussions on the matter that I’m aware of.]
The Failure of Formation
If my theory of liturgical formation is correct, there should be no such things as non-Trinitarian priests or people who cross their fingers as they say the creeds. A former prof of mine keeps pushing the beauty of liturgical formation in both the theological and moral realms to the point where I wonder: if he’s right how can there be indifferent or downright evil priests and monastics—and there are.
Perhaps it is because liturgical formation is fundamentally passive. It shapes us subtly over long periods of time. It can also be drowned out by alternate formation, especially by competing forms of intellectual formation. Thus we have our various sides of the spectrum: Bishop Spong, Bishop/Father/defrocked layperson David Moyer, Canon Kendall Harmon—they all use liturgies of an approved prayer book yet hold theological beliefs that are quite different if not radically different. In the last two cases, their theologies are not opposed to the prayer book of their choice as far as I know but their emphases within that prayer book are quite different from one another. With the first, his theology is opposed to a plain-sense reading of certain parts of the prayer book (especially the Rite I parts).
The Constructive Part
So, we have uncommon prayer and incomplete formation with regard to the text that should have the most potential to bring us together. What’s the answer? Of course, I don’t have any easy answers but I do have some provisional suggestions.
First, let’s be intentional about remaining in common prayer. Let’s take the common part seriously. Experimental liturgies are great and all, but why not really form ourselves in repetition of the common texts? The repetition of the common prayer is essential. Yes, this means using the same liturgies week after week, day after day. That’s the way that it gets into your body, your mind, your heart, your blood. You know you’re on the right track when the liturgy slips into your writing and conversation without it requiring any conscious thought.
Second, don’t let your liturgical formation be passive. Think about the texts that you’re repeating day after day. Consider what the theologies are in them. Consider how they fit within the rite as a whole and ultimately serve to point us towards the Book, the Font, the Altar and the Triune God that stands behind these. How do they point to the cross, the shattered gates of hell, the empty tomb, and the mysterious overflowing love of God? Take time apart from worship to examine and familiarize yourself with your prayer book.
As a contrarian, I’ll assert that alternative and experimental liturgies do play a part here. The occasional use or contemplation of these liturgies can reinforce these two disciplines. First, they may bring a fuller meaning to the common text by reframing it in different ways; repetition can lead to ruts in your theological thinking—the experimental can aid in keeping a full view of the Gospel possibilities. Second, interacting with them theologically and viscerally can help your reflection on the common texts. Something about a new rite doesn’t feel right? Reflect on why not. Don’t assume that your gut is wrong, but explore what boundaries are being pushed or crossed and how these are helpful or not.
Common prayer is a crucial link between common belief and common life or “life together” as one of our Lutheran friends styles it… By being common and being intentional, I think that we can come to a more balanced place that helps us focus first on the Gospel, and less on the troubles plaguing us.