Lex Orandi Lex Credendi

Obviously in a movement that values individual diversity of belief it is very difficult to describe to outsiders any unifying Unitarian theology. 'God', for example, can mean anything, or not be upheld at all.

Unitarians as much disagree on the meaning of principles. Does 'reason', for example, incorporate 'reasonableness' or can it be a direct, debating, result of any apparently superior argument? Take 'Liberal' - is this liberal as in basis, or liberal about something else, as in 'liberal Christianity'? 'Toleration' is often seen as a term of superiority: we have this and tolerate that, or it has a more active and level understanding.

There may be a way out of this. If you want to know what a set of people believe in general, see what they manage to say and sing when together. This is in fact an ancient Christian principle called 'Lex Orandi Lex Credendi'. It translates as The Law of Prayer [is] the Law of Believing. What, together, are Unitarians able to say liturgically and sing within a hymnody?

Some Churches have had this somewhat designed. So Charles Wesley made his hymns teach theology, which the Methodist classes and congregations duly sang. However, these do change over time, and Methodists as well as others have modernised their hymnody for words as well as musical styles. Arguably words of worship have become less sophisticated and more direct, like the tunes.

Lex Orandi Lex Credendi comes from the key formation periods of Christianity and remains crucial in Orthodox and Catholic communions; it is testament to the importance of popular devotion in the creation of doctrines: it is not true to suppose that doctrine was imposed 'from the top' but had much to do with common supernatural and magical beliefs that were expressed. Of course they became regulated but regulation is not the same as imposition. Jesus's titles and appropriated divinity were rapidly escalated in expectant faith groups, and patristics is a complex relationship of observation, refining and teaching.

In the nineteenth century Unitarians became more aware of the evolving nature of their practices and beliefs. They made a novel argument for change (the so-called 'Open Trust Myth') in order to make congregational finances legal in Parliament in 1844. Consistent with this came regular liturgical change: and despite the continuing nods to the Anglican 1662 Book of Common Prayer this approach to rewriting was quite different from the Church of England. Only last century did Anglicans themselves start adding to liturgies: intending to maintain similar beliefs via simpler, modernised language.

I have in my possession and have reproduced online a liturgical book of services for Unitarians from 1917. Without severe editing they are impossible to use today. The church at Park Street retains some copies of the 1932 Orders of Worship, and these are almost equally impossible to use. Interestingly, these 1917 and 1932 liturgies are not so different from nineteenth century liturgies but they are very different from what can be said now. They might retain a numinous quality, but they express beliefs few hold as a package; they are also routinely sexist and triumphant, but then so were worship materials produced even in the 1980s.

This was from May 1980, for young people and adults, called The Gathered Church, for any Sunday service:

We have read the unfamiliar face,
heard the foreign tongue,
seen the tiered city of other men's affairs
and the good fields of their husbanding.

Quite tolerant then - but of others; narrowly human-centric, and very sexist. This material is only usable now if completely rewritten, and not easily. Take this (from the same piece)...

An hour is not enough
to reach the bounds of creation,
nor tell the valient story of men,
nor mingle with our brethren of the earth.

What is it on about? Well, I have had a go and it is on my own website in the Spiritual area under Updating LiturgiesClick here for the originals and revision showing what is involved. Opens its own page..

Today there is a postliberal trend in so-called mainstream Churches that says we cannot know truth, or that truth clashes, but we can express identity, and identity is regulative. Expression itself becomes truth, dramatically, on its own terms. It is a collectivist approach and denies the place of individual experience. It tends to freeze culturally-arrived statements in the past.

Unfortunately, some of this has affected Unitarianism. There are those who worry that Unitarian churches are, well, less like churches in what they now do. Some fear that familiarity has been replaced by Pagan and Eastern practices. So there is an insistence on at least one Bible reading, the use of the Lord's Prayer, reference to God, and the deliberate maintenance of insight from the ethics of Jesus. This packaged behaviour is not maintained because of an agreed theology, but as a performative device. Some even kept using 1932!

This is not how nineteenth century and early Twentieth Unitarians saw revising their liturgies. They realised, post-Darwin, that truth was changing and also that much was individually impressionistic. Thus liturgical change was to provide common language for subjective impressions and changes in thought. Of course in those days there was a general Christian culture that provided the ongoing consensual language of Unitarianism. Collective liturgy is also quite normally conserving and 'behind the times' for theological diversity.

Fixing matters via postliberalism (and the Anglo-Catholic equivalent of Radical Orthodoxy) gets Lex Orandi Lex Credendi wrong. It does impose. Lex Orandi has to be formative. So how does it still work Unitarian-wise?

First of all most churches abandoned liturgies for variety. Sheffield wrote a worship book of services in the 1980s, but each seemed unrooted and haphazard and was soon out of date.

Another change was Hymns for Living, a 1985 push towards equal language and toleration, with a mixture of adapted traditional and modernist. Sing your Faith, of 2000, has a broader sourced set of words, inclusive, pluralist, more American in flavour, and uses folk music as well as hymn tunes. But this book followed a private initiative of Hymns of Faith and Freedom, a deliberately theist and Christian book, that was a reaction against Hymns for Living.

So if you want to tell people what Unitarians believe, attend! Or look at some of the services recorded online, and read through the hymn books.

Essex Hall, London, preface by Bowie, W. C. (1917, first edition 1900), Seven Services for Public Worship: With Special Prayers and Thanksgivings, London: The Lindsey Press.

General Assembly of Unitarian and Free Christian Churches (1932), Orders of Worship: For Use in Unitarian and Free Christian Congregations, London: The Lindsey Press

Upper Chapel Sheffield Members; Godfrey P. (eds.) (1976), Unitarian Orders of Worship, Sheffield: Upper Chapel.


Adrian Worsfold

Pluralist - Liberal and Thoughtful