Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Thoughtfully Reflective Prayer Book Revision #TractSwarm Three

This post is an answer to the call of the SCP for a third #TractSwarm, this one on the subject of prayerbook revision. 

A couple of months ago, I was at the Province V Synod meeting in Chicago. After a conversation about what is coming at General Convention, as we were walking to dinner, I was talking with a few bishops. I mentioned how I believed that the time was right to start the process of prayer book revision.

All three looked at me and said, in one way or another, "Not again in my ministry."

Having lived through the experience of the 1979 prayer book revision, none of these bishops were not keen living through another one. I could imagine they probably wanted to pat my head, "Oh you lovely young priest, if only you knew what it is you're asking for."

One of the reasons the 1979 Book of Common Prayer was a controversial revision, I believe, is that it was trying to be a prescriptive revision. Not only was it a significant reorientation of the shape of our liturgical practice, but it was trying to do things that only existed in a few places at the time. It took the best of mid-twentieth century liturgical scholarship and produced one of the finest liturgical texts to come out of the Liturgical Renewal movement, embodying the ideals and vision of that movement, particularly in the areas of ecumenical consensus and a return to historic texts.

To wit, it was trying to shift—rather significantly—the way the average Episcopalian worshipped.

I am one of those who believe it is indeed time to begin the process of preparing for revision to the 1979 prayer book. However, I don't think what is called for today is a revision of our liturgies in light of new advances in liturgical scholarship and theology—at least not primarily. I think we need prayer book revision because so many parishes in our church already are doing some things remarkably differently than the current BCP prescribes. We don't need to make significant changes to the way the average Episcopalian worships—we need a prayer book that reflects, in a considered way, the way the average Episcopalian today worships.

What we need is descriptive or reflective prayer book revision. We need revision that engages the actual lived practice of our various congregations and then places that practice into conversation with the current movements and streams of liturgical theology, a revision that places current practices in conversation with the broader community and the best of today's scholarship. Following that work, a revised prayer book could then articulate what the bounds, limits, and shape of our worship at the beginning of the 21st century should be.

And I believe there are two fundamental and significant issues pushing us to undertake this work.

The first issue is the question of what we believe about marriage. Same-sex marriage is increasingly becoming the norm and I heartily commend the Task Force on Marriage for, what I believe, has been excellent work. I used the provisional liturgy for blessing same-sex relationships last year and found the experience to be holy and a profound honor.

However, the current BCP is very clear that "Christian marriage is a solemn and public covenant between a man and a woman in the presence of God" (BCP 422). This makes me uncomfortable. I am uncomfortable with this line being in a prayer book that is supposed to be common to all Episcolians.

Furthermore, I believe that we have, in some ways, gotten the cart before the horse by moving forward all over the place with affirming same-sex relationships without addressing what our prayerbook says. Now this is often, of course, how the Spirit works. When the Spirit fell on the Gentile believers in Acts 15, Peter did not say, "Wait, we must first change the rules and get them baptized!" However, he did baptize them. He did regularize and normalize what the Spirit was already doing and then, going forward, a new practice was used.

It very could be that we wouldn't be where we are today if it weren't for bold and prophetic choices in the past couple decades. Absolutely. However, I also resonate with those who say they struggle with the church consecrating a bishop, for example, who is in a relationship the church has not also declared can be blessed. It's great for that bishop to be affirmed... but what about the thousands of GLBTQ members who are looking for the church to acknowledge the holiness of their relationships, too?

Now is the time to begin the process of regularizing. The marriage liturgy should be updated and, most importantly, it should be clear that we, as Episcopalians, believe that "Christian marriage is a solemn and public covenant between two persons in the presence of God."

That doesn't force anyone to affirm same-sex unions, it just enlarges the breadth of our prayer book. Those who hold a conservative view are not in disagreement with the idea that marriage is a covenant between two persons, they just want to add to that claim. They can have a gender-neutral liturgy and continue to hold their views—the change just gives rooms for those of us to disagree to do so and still use the same book. This is the genius and goal of the Anglican approach to liturgy, after all—to find ways to use language in worship wherein those with different, even contradictory, views can still worship together.

Our prayer book should reflect who we are and what we believe about God and the church. The current separate but equal approach is not, to me, tenable any longer.

Gendered Language
The other question that I do think we need to pick up is the use of gendered pronouns in our corporate worship. It is now very common to be at an Episcopal Church and hear the Celebrant call out, "Blessed be God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit," and the People respond, "And blessed be God's kingdom, now and for ever, amen."

Which is not, of course, what the prayer book says. The prayer book says, "And blessed be his kingdom, now and for ever, amen."

I want to be very clear, I strongly support the use of non-gendered pronouns to refer to God. I have no problem with the content of the substitution many people are making to the opening acclamation—however, I think this change needs to stop being a small (and minor) violation of the language of the prayer book and needs to be the actual authorized liturgy of this church.

The reason I don't use that language in my own worship is not only because of my personal beliefs about the importance of upholding the prayer book. It is also because if I do it, it is too easy for me to be content with what I am doing and forget that there are other places in the church where this change simply is not happening. There are other places in the church where little girls and boys grow up thinking God must be a "he."

So, I use our current authorized gendered-language because it makes me uncomfortable. It forces me to continue to ask why we haven't fixed this, why we haven't changed this yet.

Now, when it comes to actual gendered images of God—apart from pronouns—I am for more, not less. I believe in affirming the traditional image of the Trinity, while also holding up other orthodox images for God. Bob Hughes in his book Beloved Dust does this amplification of images in a way that is both lovely and orthodox. He describes the Father as the "Fount," leaning upon the tradition's understanding that the Father is the source of all things, including the eternally begotten Son and the for ever proceeding Spirit.

And though some would prefer us to move to entirely gender-neutral language, I don't think that's helpful either. Because the feminine images for the divine are also powerful and essential to the Christian tradition. Our liturgy should invite us to worship a God who is also mother. Other images in the tradition about Christ as the mother who nourishes us as pure milk (Anselm) or God as the woman who gave birth to a people (Hosea, among other prophets) are rich images to be claimed.

The problem with doing this in small pockets without engaging our authorized texts is that the theology and images get a little mixed up, at times. This is why we need the best contemporary liturgical scholars, Biblical scholars, theologians, poets, and writers to work together not only to cleanup unnecessary gendered pronouns in our liturgy but help us find good ways of amplifying and using the various images for God present in Scripture and tradition.

Other Important Questions
The questions of the marriage liturgy and gendered language are, to me, essential for consideration now because so much of the church is already operating in a way outside of the bounds of the prayer book. Revision is needed so that our official liturgy describes what our community actually thinks and believes about God and the world.

However, these are not the only questions that should be considered.

Multi-Cultural Realities
Attention should also be paid to the multi-cultural nature of our church. As I have begun moving among the Latino currents of the Episcopal Church, I have heard at times that Latino clergy and seminarians feel like the current book is more Anglo than it needs to be. No matter the language it is translated into, it still seems, to some, to reflect a specific culture that feels foreign. I am not qualified to make that assessment on my own, but careful attention should be paid to ensure that our authorized liturgy is one that is embracing of all cultures through more than mere translation of English idiom into Spanish. Liturgical scholars and clergy from other cultural realities need to be a part of leading this work.

Attention should be paid to the current confirmation liturgy. In one of the trial liturgies before the 1979 book, this was written as a simply liturgy for the Reaffirmation of Baptismal Vows. Bishops worried, however, that if that happened they wouldn't have anything to do. The current liturgy maintains a theology of reaffirmation (not completion) of baptism, but does so in a way that at times seems slightly confused about how important confirmation actually is or is not. Certainly, in the actual practice of parish and diocese, there is a good amount of confusion about how important confirmation actually is. (If you're interested in looking more closely at the practice of English Christianity on this question, I'd not so humbly commend the paper I wrote on the subject a couple of years ago as a part of my D.Min. work.)

Flowing from this, attention to be paid to our understandings of baptism. The 1979 prayer book was heavily influenced by the liturgical movement and the emerging ecumenical consensus on baptism. Thus, as many a confirmation class has heard, baptism is at the heart of our prayer book. The Book of Occasional Services took this one step further with the development of resources for the catechumenate. The current BCP encourages baptism to be limited to four baptismal days (and the occasion of the bishop's visit). That is, baptism is not seen as something easy to get into, but something that requires preparation of either the candidates or the sponsors of child candidates.

But there are streams starting to push against that. There are congregations of clergy and laity saying the rules have become too restrictive, asking, "Why wouldn't we baptize anyone who wanted to be baptized and let catechesis come after that?" And, of course, there are those who argue for reception of communion being at least allowed as an initiatory or converting ritual with baptism following later.

We need to (continue to) wrestle with these questions as a community. We need to decide if we hold up baptism as a moment of entry after a process of preparation, or if we hold it up as an entry point offered to anyone without regard to preparation–something to be offered freely and liberally, or if we hold baptism up as a proclamation of a reality that can come after one has already become a communicating part of the worshipping community.

The current confusion regarding baptismal practice is not helpful—particularly for newcomers who, thus, often feel as though they are at the whims of the proclivities of the clergy of the church they come into.

Concluding Thoughts
There are those who would prefer we move the direction of our sisters and brothers in the Church of England. Retain one authorized Book of Common Prayer but then authorize several supplemental liturgies that bring significant breadth of options to the church. That way everyone can kind of have what they want. And I suppose that is one approach.

But I know one thing that I have not enjoyed about my trips to England is never quite knowing what I will get in worship. If I go to a cathedral, I'll likely get the Anglican liturgy I largely know and with which I am familiar. However, the more one ventures into parishes across the country, the more diversity crops up. And I, at least, have not always found that diversity to be uplifting.

Don't get me wrong, I absolutely do believe that one of the riches of the Anglican tradition is our affirmation of diversity, of the idea that catholic and protestant, liberal and conservative, can all come together for worship. But that diversity is founded on the idea that we are, at the very least, united by our common prayer.

I don't think we are ready to finalize any of the issues I've raised. But I do believe it is time to begin, in earnest, talking about them not only as liturgical questions, but with a goal of reaching a point where we can come out with a revised prayer book that is indeed reflective of all the riches the Episcopal Church has to offer.


  1. That's going to be one big-ass book, Father.

  2. At the risk of being a bit controversial, I would like any revision to deal with another place where the words vary, and I think substantial theology with them. In the Nicene Creed, the Prayerbook retained the medieval insertion of the "et filioque."

    General Convention has ::sort of:: dealt with this by acknowledging that those of us (moi) who omit the words are within possible usage. In some parishes, one finds a worship folder with the words in parentheses. So, moving them to a footnote, outside the body of the creed itself, is not radicall.

    This matters, I think. How we describe the Trinity matters. I am about to post a reflection on this, but others probably more learned / credentialed than I have already done so. "We believe in the Holy Spirit, who proceeds from the Father, who with the Father and Son is worshiped....." describes a substantial shift in our geometry of belief.