By Rev. Justin Comber
There is an old saying in our church. It Has come to be an Anglicanism, and I have used it often, particularly when explaining what Anglicans believe, mostly in ecumenical discussion. The saying in Latin goes "lex credendi, lex orandi.” It's been translated variously, but the most common among them is something like "the law of prayer is the law of belief."
Here's what we usually mean:
We lack the grand confessions of the reformed tradition, we often borrow (but do not possess) the Roman catechism. We are generally without a single authoritative source for dogma. Instead, if you want to know what Anglicans believe, look to what they pray. The law of prayer is the law of faith. In this particular way of speaking, "the law of faith" is the content of our faith; the things we believe, the ideas we teach. And I think that's beautiful. It really is true that our liturgy has been shaping faithful Christians for generations, and I hope that future Christians are formed in this way.
I say all that to affirm what we have been taught. But there wouldn't be much to say (let alone write) if we were to leave it there. Allow me to add to what is already true, and maybe play with words, too.
What about "lexis orandi, lexis credendi." The word (spoken in) prayer is the word of faith. I think (and you may soon come to see the irony of me thinking) that we place altogether too much emphasis on cognition and content when we talk about our faith.
Take, for example, the creeds. The most basic of our creeds begins this way; "I believe in God, the Father, creator of heaven and earth.” It continues, “I believe in Jesus Christ, God's only Son." Its later cousin concludes "we believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life who proceeds from the Father (and the Son?).
That’s what we believe. But what have we said? What is the object of our faith? Is it an idea? Do we believe that God is Father and Creator? Do we believe that Jesus is the Christ, the only begotten Son, and Lord? Do we believe that the Holy Spirit is Lord and giver of life? We can’t seem to agree (even between our prayer books) from whom the Holy Spirit proceeds. Does that mean we are divided in faith? Or perhaps we might better ask, are these ideas faith or understanding? And, if understanding, what is the object of our faith?
If we were to mark a difference between the content of our faith and its object, between faith and cognition, we might say "no" to the question of division in faith. We are not divided in faith, but in understanding. I understand that. I believe in. The person of God is the object of our faith. I believe in God (who is father and creator). I believe in Jesus Christ (who is our Lord, who is the only begotten son of God, who was conceived of the Virgin Mary). I believe in the person of the Holy Spirit (who is the lord, who is the giver of life, who is understood variously as proceeding from Father or from Father and Son). We put our entire trust in the person of God and we teach our understanding of God. And, to turn back to our original discussion, we pray to God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. To pray to God is to place your faith in God. Words spoken in prayer are themselves acts of faith in God.
We should turn, for a moment, to our scriptures. In the Gospel of Mark, the disciples see and hear what God is saying and doing but are often distracted by their own empty bellies or fear. That’s not faith. Not yet. The confession of an idea, “you are the son of God," in that particular Gospel is not a particularly clear act of faith, either. Unclean spirits are prone to say this kind of thing, as was the Roman soldier who killed Jesus (neither of them particularly good examples of faith). On the other hand, there is a string of people who appear in the Gospel only long enough to make their statement of faith before disappearing back into the crowd. A man with leprosy approaches Jesus and says "if you are willing, you can make me clean." His words are words of prayer. Those words are a clear expression of faith in Jesus. “You, Jesus, can make me clean” is “I believe in you.” A chapter later, a group of friends pick up shovels in prayer. They bring their friend to Jesus. They want Jesus to heal him. They can’t ask. Jesus is stuck inside of a house, and the way is blocked with the bodies of so many supplicants. Since they cannot ask (Lexis orandi) they dig a hole in the roof and lower their friend to Jesus (pala orandi “the spade of prayer”). To dig was to say “we believe.”
Others offer words of prayer. One says, ’My little daughter is at the point of death. Come and lay your hands on her, so that she may be made well, and live (6:23).” Another says, “Teacher, I brought you my son… if you are able to do anything, have pity on us and help us.’… ‘I believe; help my unbelief! (9: 17ff.). Bartimaeus says, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!’”(11:47). Some beg Jesus to lay his hands on them or others (6:54-56; 7:26, 8:22). Still another woman prays with her hands. She touches Jesus’ clothes, praying that she would be healed. Each is a prayer. Each is an expression of faith in Jesus. To pray is to believe. To speak to God is to believe. Sometimes, to reach out without words is faith, too. All of them are prayer.
There are lots of things to say about God. They are true, too. We are thought that only discipleship (allowing our understanding of God to be shaped in prayer, tradition, scripture, and (dare I say it) experience) will keep us rooted in our faith in God.
Now, I’d not like to abandon our first saying. The law of prayer is still the law of faith. We still lack a single authoritative source for dogma like the grand confessions of the reformed tradition or the Roman catechism. We shape our understanding of faith and are shaped by prayer. But allow me to add that; Prayer, any prayer, any expression of prayer, is an expression of faith. We trust God with our prayers. And that trust in the person of God is faith.
Rev. Dr. Justin Comber is the rector of St. George’s Goderich and Christ Church Port Albert, and lecturer in Biblical Studies at Thorneloe University.