Taking Worship Seriously: Toward an Anglican Social Ethic

Anglicans are fond of the motto Lex Orandi, Lex Credendi:  the law of prayer is the law of faith.  We invoke it most often to mean that we pray as we believe and we believe as we pray.  It summarizes the inherently reciprocal relationship:  belief shapes prayer and prayer shapes belief.  If you want to know the particular shape and contours of Anglican faith, read and actually worship with The Book of Common Prayer and with the community that uses it.  But, be warned.  If you do so for any length of time, it will challenge and shape your narrative:  Lex Orandi, Lex Credendi.

But the motto is, as it stands, incomplete; prayer and faith must inform life also.  Lex Orandi, Lex Credendi, Lex Vivendi:  the law of prayer is the law of faith is the law of life.  As we believe and pray, so we live.  Worship that resides only in the nave — that does not go out into the world to do the work it has been given to do — is incomplete worship, if it is worship at all.  Serious worship — worship of the Prayer Book sort — implies and demands a certain social ethic.

What, in particular, informs an Anglican social ethic?  Time and space do not permit a full answer — books would be required — so I will mention three elements of Anglican worship that, if taken seriously, necessarily shape our social ethic:  the Summary of the Law, Confession, and the Eucharist.

Each week the gathered people of God rehearse God’s Law:

Hear what our Lord Jesus Christ says:

You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.  This is the first and great commandment.  And the second is like it:  You shall love your neighbor as yourself.  On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets (BCP 2019, p. 106 quoting Matthew 22:37-40).

The second commandment — which is the foundation for an Anglican social ethic — is absolutely dependent upon the first.  If we are not committed fully to God, then to hell with our fellow man; let the strong devour the weak and the devil take the hindmost.  But, if we love the Lord our God as revealed perfectly in the person of Jesus Christ who summarized and fulfilled the Law, then love of neighbor is incumbent upon us.

Now, two questions arise immediately, especially for all of us who are looking for some loophole:  (1) What is love? and (2) Who is my neighbor?

St. Thomas Aquinas defined love as willing the good of the other as other.  That is a fine definition, particularly useful as a check and challenge for love as cleverly disguised self-interest.  But, Jesus’ neighbor language challenges the Thomistic definition of love.  The neighbor language puts the lie to the notion of “the other” altogether.  Love your neighbor as you love yourself.  In a fully Christian social ethic, there is no other; there is only a neighbor whom I am to love as I love myself.  The total identification with neighbor erases his or her otherness.  

This ethic is clearly opposed to our culture that creates and emphasizes otherness.  When immigrants to our southern border are characterized as murderers and rapists, that is a clear attempt to cast them as other — not like us, not our neighbors.  This is not a partisan observation; it is a Christian one.  When black men are portrayed as dangerous thugs after having been deprived of rights and even life, that is a clear attempt to cast them as other.  When Asians are disparaged or beaten as carriers of the “kung-flu”, that is a clear attempt to cast them as other.  When the elderly or infirm are denied adequate care — or worse — because they are no longer productive or no longer, in society’s estimation, have “quality of life,” that is a clear attempt to cast them as other.  The list goes on, all in contravention of Jesus’ own words:  Love your neighbor as you love yourself.

And who is my neighbor?  Surely, we don’t need to go there.  Who isn’t your neighbor?  Jesus made it crystal — and painfully — clear in his parable of the Good Samaritan:  the one for whom you have the opportunity to do good is your neighbor.

There are certainly political implications to this:  immigration policy, racial reconciliation, and a host of other third-rail social policies.  As Christians, we can and should argue over the best course of public policy; some will favor Republican policy and some Democratic.  Fair enough.  But what we cannot argue over — if we take Anglican worship seriously — is that any public policy supported and advocated by Christians must reflect Jesus’ summary of the Law, must treat the other as neighbor, and must love our neighbor as we love ourselves because we love God with all our heart, with all our soul, and with all our mind.  Any Anglican social ethic must start here.

After we hear the Summary of the Law — a bit later in the service — we kneel before God to confess that we have failed to keep it, by what we have done and by what we have left undone.  How does this confession, and the absolution of all those who sincerely repent and with true faith turn to him, inform an Anglican social ethic?  It demands a two-fold acknowledgment:  (1) we are all sinners in need of mercy, and (2) none of us is beyond God’s mercy and grace.

Here I must go where angels fear to tread.  In whatever ways critical race theory — or critical theory of any kind — might be right, it is fundamentally wrong in this:  it divides people into two groups, victimizers and victims, the guilty and the innocent, with the guilty beyond absolution.  And that is not allowed by Anglican worship; it is specifically disallowed by the confession.  We are all guilty before God and none of us who sincerely repents is beyond mercy or is denied forgiveness.  Now, prepare to hurl your tablet or smash your computer at this next sentence.  The foregoing applies to Derrick Chauvin.  If that doesn’t make you angry, then you have not begun to understand or to appreciate the radical nature of grace.  Any social ethic based upon unremitting condemnation for those who are truly sorry and humbly repent before God is not an Anglican social ethic; more to the point, it is not Christian.

And this leads us to the Eucharist which is the principal service of worship on the Lord’s Day.  Before reading farther, I recommend a brief excursus in 1 Corinthians 11:17-34.

After chastising the church in Corinth for its factions, after reminding the people of Jesus’ own words of institution at the Last Supper, Paul issues this sobering warning:

1 Corinthians 11:27–30 (ESV): 27 Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty concerning the body and blood of the Lord. 28 Let a person examine himself, then, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. 29 For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment on himself. 30 That is why many of you are weak and ill, and some have died.

Much ink has been spilled on “unworthy” reception of the body and blood of the Lord, and much needless worry has resulted.  Paul is clear.  Look around you.  These people gathered at the table with you — people from every family, language, people and nation who are gathered around any such table — these people are the body of Christ.  If you do not discern this to be so, if you cannot see in all this glorious diversity the actual body of Christ, then you are not ready for the body and blood of Christ present in the Sacrament.  Eat and drink at your own peril, to your own condemnation.  Better still, do not eat and drink at all, but leave the gifts at the altar until you are reconciled with your brother or sister.

What does this mean for an Anglican social ethic?  Simply this:  factions must disappear at the table and as we leave the table.  At the table there is neither Republican nor Democrat, socialist nor capitalist, lifetime NRA member nor gun restriction advocate, black nor white, rich nor poor, nor any of the countless other dichotomies by which the world gives us a false sense of identity.  There is only the body of Christ, that sacred mystery for whom he was willing to die. 

Because we are one body in Christ, we must “rejoice with those who rejoice, [and] weep with those who weep” (Rom 12:15).  We must have the same mind and the same love, doing nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility counting others as more significant than ourselves.  We must have within us the mind of Christ who, for our sake, made himself nothing (cf Phil 2:1ff).

As with our salvation, so with our Anglican social ethic; we must work it out with fear and trembling.  But it starts with taking worship seriously:

With loving God with all our heart, with all our soul, and with all our mind, and with loving our neighbor as ourself;

With confession and absolution;

With discernment of the body of Christ.

Taking worship seriously is the first — and necessary — step toward an Anglican social ethic.

About johnaroop

I am a husband, father, retired teacher, lover of books and music and coffee and, as of 17 May 2015, by the grace of God and the will of his Church, an Anglican priest in the Anglican Church in North America, Anglican Diocese of the South. I serve as assisting priest at Apostles Anglican Church in Knoxville, TN, and as Canon Theologian for the Anglican Diocese of the South.
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