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Lex orandi lex credendi Revisited

Lex orandi lex credendi Revisited


 by Lisa G. Fischbeck

An open letter to the Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music


For those who like change and uncertainty, this is an exciting time to be Church. The Spirit is moving, nudging us off of our complacency, calling us to consider anew our customs and our ways. It seems as if nothing is too sacred for us to re-examine: marriage, the Eucharist, ordination… Now the General Convention has called for a process for a comprehensive revision of the Book of Common Prayer. This is good.


As early as the fifth century, the church proclaimed Lex orandi, lex credendi, the law of praying is the law of believing, or more commonly put, “as we pray, so we believe”. This means if you want to know what Episcopalians believe, you study what and how we pray. It also means that how and what we pray not only expresses what we believe and also forms what we believe. Because of this understanding, liturgical sacramental churches do not change their liturgy unadvisedly or lightly, but rather choose words and actions prayerfully and expertly, carefully scrutinizing any proposed innovations.


The Episcopal Church of the Advocate, where I get to serve as Vicar, was launched in the Diocese of North Carolina in 2003 to be a church for those who are not likely to be drawn to a more established way of church, for those who have never been to church or whose experience of church was long ago. As a result, when we plan our liturgy we are ever mindful of two characteristics of our congregation. First, many were not raised in regular attendance of the Episcopal Church. Second, many will not attend more than once a month.


From our beginning, therefore, we have been keen to create a liturgy that is welcoming, informative and “user-friendly”. We don’t do “Power Point”, but neither do we have Sunday bulletins. So we announce and explain a lot as we go along. We don’t want to interrupt the flow of the liturgy, but we do want people to be able to be formed by it. So we script our information as much as possible, repeating the same guidance and instruction week after week. These explanations become, in effect, part of the formation, as those who come regularly hear them over and over again, while those who come less often really need them.


Faith traditionally formed by the liturgy is formed slowly, over time, the worshipper marinating in the liturgy Sunday by Sunday, Season by Season, year by year. Words become familiar and comfortable, they are “inwardly digested”, shaping thought, faith and action. Seasonal changes can be subtle – a psalm tone in minor key rather than major, the Kyrie instead of the Gloria, purple instead of green vestments.


But our liturgical creed, “As we pray, so we believe”, may not be true for those who only participate in our liturgy 6 to 12 twelve times a year, as is increasingly the case in our early 21st century landscape. With a once-a-month attendance pattern, a “regular” attender may only hit one Sunday in Advent or Lent, and only experience the Day of Pentecost once in three to five years.


By the time the next “new” Book of Common Prayer comes out, we will be yet another generation away from weekly church attendance and the formation it brings. Increasing infrequency of attendance calls us to sharpen our liturgical tools.


Those who brew the liturgies in our future congregations need to be really clear about why we do what we do when the people gather. Every bit of it. Just as important, we need to help people know why were are doing what we are doing with verbal guidance and instruction, Sunday by Sunday, season by season, year by year. We need to work, hard, to explain it and teach it, not just in what is written in the bulletins (if there are any) or on the Power Point screen (if it is there), or in the rubrics of the rites.


In order to do this, welcoming scripts may need to be written, offertory sentences may need to be expanded, and announcements may need to include more.


It is my earnest hope that in whatever notes accompany future rites in a future Book of Common Prayer, the Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music will include notes that recommend, encourage, even expect explanatory and descriptive commentary, carefully crafted and tightly edited, to explicate those rites.


Less frequent attendance requires more frequent explanation if lex orandi will continue to lex credendi in the century ahead.



The Rev. Lisa G. Fischbeck is the Vicar of The Episcopal Church of the Advocate, a mission of the Episcopal Diocese of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, NC.


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John Backman

To all these thoughtful comments, I can only add my joy at the word choice in this sentence: “Faith traditionally formed by the liturgy is formed slowly, over time, the worshipper marinating in the liturgy….” MARINATING. Accurate and magnificent.

Robert A Gallagher

I attend a parish that has gone from an ASA of 89 to almost 300. When I look at the three most attended liturgies on Sunday what I see is at least half of those present are in their 20s and 30s. My impression is that most of them are there every Sunday. The only announcement during the Eucharist is one of welcome after the Peace.

“Worship that swept us off our feet and modeled what we might hope for in many more churches across the Communion.” The phrase is from The Hospitality of God: Emerging Worship for a Missional Church by Bishops Mary Gray-Reeves and Michael Perham. In it they share their learnings from a “pilgrimage of grace” based on visiting fourteen Anglican emergent churches in the US and Britain.

“But it was at St. Paul’s Seattle ( )that we experienced most fully the power of shared gesture for building up a sense of the body of Christ and of a community intent on God.” They then described the liturgy and then asked themselves a question, “What was special about this worship?” More on Saint Paul’s -

They noted that it was fundamentally “familiar” and “conventional” and went on to share three elements that “contributed to its being a stunning and moving experience.” First, “a deep spirituality of engagement by the entire congregation.” Second, it was carefully choreographed and rehearsed, yet it did not feel precious or stilted; the whole liturgy was a beautiful dance.” Third, “the non-verbal participation by the entire congregation” referring to acts of mutual reverence that had the effect of “creating a sense of a community engaged in something entirely corporate and significant for them.”

A good bit of my professional education has been in the field of organizational development and organizational psychology. In those fields what would be likely to do with these two images of a different churches is create a hypothesis – given the attendance behavior pattern in those two communities, what are ways of doing things, the espoused values, and the deeper underlying assumptions that give rise to these patterns? My reflection on that might lead me to shape other churches in one way or another. What I would not do is assume that either church is the future.

Paul Fromberg

It may be worth saying that the trope, “Lex orandi, lex credenda” is a reduction of the original trope, “Ut legern credendi lex statuat supplicandi” – that is, “The law of supplication establishes the law of belief.” This statement is an argument against semi-pelagianism – the belief that humans have some initiative in coming to God’s grace. Another way of saying it is that we may want to believe that we can “learn” our way to faith on the basis of the ways that we pray, instead of seeing faith as God’s freely given gift to us. When we ask for God’s gift of faith, God is already giving it to us. God’s grace is given to us despite the poorness of our prayer. It is when we recognize our inability to pray apart from the empowerment of the Holy Spirit that we are formed in belief. And, of course, the word “belief” needs to be heard as something beyond an intellectual ascent to a set of propositions; it means that we place our heart and our trust in the promise of God, revealed in Jesus Christ, through the power of the Holy Spirit. The way that we worship does matter, but it is always relative to what God is doing, right now, in our midst. God works with whatever we bring in supplication to God. That’s why our common worship – whether it is guided by the 1662 BCP, the 1928 BCP, the 1979 BCP, the 2027 BCP, or the 2102 BCP – can be counted on to stir us to belief. It’s all about God, and not about us. It is the presence of the Holy Spirit, empowering us who are in the Jesus Movement, that must guide us in prayer book revision.

Rod Gillis

Some time ago, during a conversation here on this subject, I posted a link to a theological paper written by Nicholas A. Jesson at St. Michael’s College at U.T. (University of Toronto) titled, Lex orandi, lex credendi: Towards A Liturgical Theology. The paper has an ecumenical angle. One section deals with the origin of phrase and the debate over its meaning. Clearly, it is not just a bumper sticker. The paper may be found here for those interested:

Rod Gillis

Just to clarify, University of St. Michael’s College is a member college of TST (Toronto School of Theology) and TST is affiliated with U.T. (University of Toronto).

Day Pritchartt

Thank you for this insightful challenge! While I have grown accustomed to parents in my congregation having very similar formation needs to those of their children, this solution of integrating “back to basics” teaching into liturgy is most relevant and useful. If the Day of Pentecost is experienced only once every three to five years, we must plan for and lead the celebration of it not from our seasoned perspective, but by imagining how the contemporary heart would receive it. I would add a plea to the SCLM to write liturgy notes in language that is accessible to all.

John Backman

Jon, your wishes for the liturgy feed into one particular change I dream of seeing someday in the Nicene Creed: from “and was made man” to “and was made flesh.” From where I sit, this change would be not only more inclusive, but also more faithful the core message of the Incarnation.

Rod Gillis

Jon, some of the items on your wish list have been introduced or are being worked on by The Anglican Church of Canada. See the link below from the ACC website.

Conversely, Canadians will be watching with great interest any liturgical updating in TEC. Historically, The American BCP has influenced Canadian Liturgical renewal. The 1928 BCP influenced the 1959 Canadian BCP, and The Book of Alternative Services (1985), currently Canada’s de facto prayer book, has signiigant borrowing from the 1979 American BCP.

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