Tuesday, July 10, 2018

To the House of Bishops: Thoughts on Prayer Book Revision from a Millennial, Anglo-Catholic, Convert Priest doing Latino Ministry & Church Planting

Hi Bishops,

It was an interesting experience, watching your debate on Resolution A068, the plan to begin the process of prayer book revision. I'm sure you are spending tonight resting and have many things on your plate in the morning, but if you have a moment, I hope you will read this blog post to hear some more fulsome responses to the questions raised in the debate.

First, let me be honest about my perspective on this question. I am a millennial, anglo-catholic (really, more accurately, a prayer-book catholic) priest who converted to the Episcopal Church while I was in seminary as an evangelical. Though I'm approaching ten years of ordained ministry, I'm only 36 and so thankful still get to claim the title of a young priest. I'm also honored to be leading one of the church plant grants you funded as a part of General Convention in 2015. The ministry at my congregation is the El Corazón Latino Ministry Initiative, and we have been working for nearly three years now to cultivate a Latino worshipping community at the heart (el corazón) as opposed to the edges of our predominantly Anglo worshipping community.

But, after telling you my perspective, I need to let you know something else. I don't speak for any of the groups I just listed, groups I am honored to identify myself with. Honestly, one of the most frustrating parts of the debate this afternoon was hearing people talk about what young people want, about what the next generation needs, in the Book of Common Prayer. It was frustrating, first off, because I was sitting right there along with several of my colleagues. But even more than that, it was frustrating because it assumes that we are a monolith. Some bishops talked about their experience of young people as a reason for revision and some spoke about their experience of young people as a reason not to do revision.

I do believe my own generation, including my generation of clergy, is divided on this question. Likely just as divided as you are as bishops.

But we are looking to you. We are looking to you to lead and shepherd us at this moment in the life of our church.

One more thing: when I first looked at this concept, I was opposed to Prayer Book revision. But the more I studied the approaches in the Blue Book and the more I listened to testimony in committee hearings, my mind changed on this question.

Let me give you a few reasons why that has happened, as you consider how best to lead us as the Episcopal branch of the Jesus Movement in this moment.

Revision or Deepening Study
I know you are all very busy, and you probably haven't had a chance to read through the entire proposal put forth by the SCLM (often referred to as the Option One of Revision and Option Two of Deepening Study). If you would allow me, let me give you the Cliff's Notes on the two options: they are largely the same in actual process. You'll notice that if you skip down to the budget session (you can also read my essay I wrote as a summary on the whole report online here).

Both assume revision in the future, but the deepening study one assumes it will take at least another triennium (or several!) to get there. Do you know the big difference between the two? The amount of listening that will happen. In A068 (Option One of Revision), there will be listening sessions in every diocese—not just in some parts of our church. In A068, there will also be a "Grounded Theory" Research Project that seeks to study the question of revision without preconceived notions of what it might look like.

So, if I may be so bold, I would invite you please to consider spending this next triennium in a time of listening. Listen to the broader church to figure out what revision might look like to be faithful. Truly listening isn't cheap. The SCLM has created an amazing process that would bring all voices of our church to the table. But isn't that worth the investment?

Inexpensive Surgical Revision
Rather than engaging in prayer book revision, another idea being proposed is that we instead engage in a relatively inexpensive process of "surgical" or "incremental" revision to the prayer book. We make the Eucharistic prayers of Rite II gender-neutral with a light touch. Maybe we also pass a first reading revising the marriage rites. But we don't spend $2million on a study because probably any one of us could sit down and do that on our own in an afternoon with Microsoft Word.

This is a bad idea.

The reason I was told it was a bad idea was because if we are going to revise the prayer book, it should not be done "piece-meal." Rather, it should be done in a comprehensive and studied manner. This is also the argument made by the SCLM in their report on same-sex marriage liturgies, by the way. They argued that the BCP shouldn't be revised just to put those liturgies in, but that those liturgies should be considered in the context of full prayer book revision.

But that's not why I think surgical revision is a bad idea.

Surgical revision is a bad idea because it is contrary to what I have heard so many of you say. Over and over again you tell us about the importance of grass-roots ministry. You tell us that it is important to listen to and be attentive to our flocks. But for those gathered at General Convention to, on their own, without any time listening to the broader church, simply revise the prayer book... this would be an elitist act.

Surgical revision might solve what many of would say are some of the most glaring problems but it won't do what we really need: bring all the rich voices of our church to bear on what our common prayer should look like.

I bet you were all rectors at one point, with a building issue that someone knew how to quick really fix for not a lot of money. My guess is that you've all seen how that generally works out.

But What About Evangelism & Racial Reconciliation?
Once more, you've all been priests at one point who heard someone say we shouldn't do one thing because something else is important. You all have experienced the presentation of that false choice.

Let me be clear: this is a false choice.

We can engage in a triennium of robustly funded study and listening when it comes to our prayer book and at the same time engage in a triennium that is boldly devoted to continuing the work of evangelism and racial reconciliation.

In fact, my guess is that we'd do it better.

What could be more evangelistic than removing unnecessary barriers to worship in our church that exist in a prayer book that nearly forty years old? Almost as soon as the 1979 BCP was published, people in our church recognized that the language remained very masculine—even in places the original language of the liturgy didn't include masculine language! We added it in! Don't you think that getting rid of that barrier might be an aid in evangelism?

Every time a new family joins our church, so thrilled to finally find a form of Christianity that truly welcomes all people—including our LGBTQ sisters and brothers—I have to give a caveat, warning them that the prayer book doesn't reflect the actual practice of our church on this question. I normally wind up doing this after I gave them a prayer book to take home, telling them this is who we are.

Well, most of this is who we are.

Yes, this is not compelling evangelism.

But even more importantly, the current prayer book is the product of white, western-european culture.  Imagine with me, dream with me bishops. Imagine a revision process that invited the rich and amazing diversity of the Episcopal Church to contribute to the creation of a shared book of truly common prayer. Imagine the gift we would receive from translating indigenous prayers and Spanish-language worship and customs into English and spreading them broadly in our church. Imagine the gift we would receive from drawing deeply from the often ignored but rich heritage of African-American Episcopalians, letting their heritage shape the book we all use.

And imagine, if you will, the way that a new marriage rite—one that drew honestly and humbly from the many things the same-sex marriages in our church have taught us, the way these marriages have shown us more clearly what God's true design for marriage actually is—imagine what that rite could do for reconciliation and evangelism in our church.

Like I said above, for the past three years I have been leading a Latino ministry church plant in the midst of our Anglo congregation. Our Latinx sisters and brothers have brought SO MUCH to the rest of their congregation (and I'm not just talking about the food, though that has been pretty stellar). They have shared their cultural heritage with us. They have shared their prayers and customs, the way they see and talk about and pray to God. And we are so much better for that.

Rather than simply translate the current book for them into better Spanish (something that would still be an improvement on the current translation), I would love to invite them and all our Latinx members to contribute to a new book, one where they are actually shaping our common prayer.

A prayer book revision process that put racial reconciliation and evangelism as top priorities in the process could produce a book that is far superior to the 1979 BCP.

And let's not forget why so many people in our church are passionate about racial reconciliation... because the revisions of the 1979 prayer book—particularly the baptismal covenant—invited us to see our calling as Christians differently. What might a new revision invite us into?

But Isn't This Turning Us Inward When We Should Look Out
It could. This could be a futile exercise in inward naval-gazing.

But it doesn't have to be. This process of listening and revision could spin us outward even more. We could engage with those who have converted to our church and ask them what brought them in and what, if anything, made them hesitant? That would probably tell us a lot about how our liturgy can better enable us to be more evangelistic.

We could even engage in a process of deep listening with those who are not churched. We could find out where they already see God in their lives... and then find how we could revise our prayer book to name that divine presence.

We could do this with an outward view... we just have to chose to do it that way.

We Should Do This for Theology, Not Sociology and Demographics
I have to be honest, every time I have heard this argument against revision put forth I have winced.

First off, theology for Episcopalians is first and foremost about how we pray. So anytime we talk about changing how we pray we are talking about the theology we hold as a church.

Even more importantly, when women in our church tell us that our masculine language has obscured their ability to experience God... we are talking about theology. We all know, as Prayer D says, that our God is one who dwells in light ineffable. We know that God is not a bearded white guy in the sky... so why don't our prayers better reflect that.

And this is theological. Because all of humanity was carried into the divine through the Ascension—not just Jesus' maleness, but the totality of humanity. As St. Gregory Nazianzen reminds us, "What has not been assumed has not been healed." We believe that all of humanity—male, female, cisgender and transgender—all has been assumed into God through Christ... shouldn't our prayers reflect that.

And in the age of #MeToo, after just a few nights ago we all heard the powerful testimony of the experience of the victims of sexual misconduct in our church, particularly that of women, isn't it theological to ask if our worship has in some ways enabled the continuing exploitation and oppression of women? It sounds like theology, like God-talk, to me.

Furthermore, by ensuring our prayer book pays more careful attention to the richness of who we are as a church (as I noted above in the section on racial reconciliation), we are making a theological argument: one St. Paul himself made. We are insisting that every part of the body is important to us. Every part of the body has value. And every part of the body should be included in determining what exactly common prayer looks like.

It's Too Much Money
Yes, I will admit. $1.9 million dollars for this triennium is a lot of money. $8 million over the whole course of the project is a lot of money.

But do you know how much it is in relation to the rest of the budget of The Episcopal Church?

Less than 2%.

Don't you think everything I've charted above, all the opportunities in front of us as we face the prospect of revision... don't you think all of this is worth 2% of our budget?

Isn't bringing our prayer book in line with who we are as the Episcopal Church today worth 2% of our budget?

I think it is.

Oh, But We Don't Know What Church Will Look Like in Twelve Years
You do know, I hope, that this argument could be used never to engage in prayer book revision. We will never know what the church will look like at the end of a prayer book revision process. That will always be impossible.

But we do know who we are today. We know what our prayer book needs.

In fact, I have yet to find a single person—lay, priest, deacon, or bishop—who is opposed to prayer book revision but doesn't, when asked, have a list of revisions that they would like to see happened.

And furthermore, if you are really worried about this, here is an idea: ensure that the SCLM that shapes the next prayer book has a wide variety in its composition, including young people who may indeed think very differently about what is important in revision than you do!

Who Needs a Book?
Our church needs a book. Sure, we may not need a hardcover bound book—but we do need, as so many bishops pointed out, a gold standard for our liturgy. We need something we can all look to, something that unites us as a church even as it draws from our rich diversity.

My guess is that a new BCP will still be published (e-book sales have largely plateaued, if you look at the data). Even if we use full bulletins, we still need a common source those bulletins are drawn from, whether that source is digital or analog.

And there are parts of our church that do need regular books because they cannot afford to print full bulletins. Here I'm thinking of the testimony of the bishop from Honduras, about how the 1979 BCP is used in his diocese and throughout Province IX.

If we came up with a new book, one that finally included the voices of Province IX in its creation... wouldn't be awesome if someone did a Kickstarter campaign to provide books free of charge to every parish in Province IX. I have a feeling we'd raise a lot of money for that very quickly.

Trust Our Church
All of this leads me to the most depressing view I heard in the course of your debate: the idea that some of you simply don't trust the church or the process to create a good prayer book.

You do know that you are the House of Bishops, right? You do know that you exist at the highest echelons of authority and power in The Episcopal Church. Sure, I know that some days as you struggle to midwife growth in your diocese and as you struggle with issues of conflict and asset allocation... you may not feel like you have authority.

But you do.

You are the ones in charge. And if the ones in charge don't trust the ones in charge... well, then we have some larger issues to deal with.

Let's talk in specifics with this one. You don't know who the SCLM is that would guide this process. That's scary.

Sure, I get it. (It actually scares me a little, too!) I'm a prayer-book catholic, deeply devoted to the Anglican expression Christianity in all its ancient richness, grounded in the creeds, and centered in the practices of daily prayer and regular Eucharist. I want to be sure all of the richness of our heritage, all the great parts of the 1979 BCP, that all of that is deepened in a new revision... so, yeah, it's a little scary to offer my beloved prayer book up to the wider church.

But do you know this guy named Michael Curry? He's pretty awesome. Do you know this woman named Gay Jennings? She's pretty awesome too. You do know that they are the ones who will appoint the SCLM for this process, right?

Can you trust them?

And, even more importantly, can you commit to talking to them, honestly and clearly, about the voices you want to be a part of this drafting process? You know they will listen, right?

I believe they will. They want this to work just as much as everyone else.

Don't Be Afraid
All of this brings me to my final encouragement: don't be afraid. One of my favorite things to tell my congregation is that, no matter what, we should never be afraid. God is always doing something and if we are feeling afraid that usually just means we haven't yet figured out just what in the world that is.

Don't be afraid. Open our church—and yourselves—to this first triennium of listening. See what comes back after the first phase of this process is complete. See what you hear from the church about our prayer book when we all spend the time truly to listen carefully to one another about it.

God is doing something in this. Over the course of this week, I watched the winds of the Holy Spirit blow through Committee 13. I saw as the minds of their members were changed through prayer and testimony. As I sat in the House of Deputies, I saw the same thing. I saw the minds of Deputies changed as the Spirit moved in their hearts.

And I saw a rustle of that Spirit in your House today. Let go of any anxiety and fear you have and open yourself to that gentle breath. I have a hunch God is bringing us somewhere very new... and very good.

No matter what, know this: you are all very much in our prayers.

Please, as one of your number said, take this as an opportunity to stop being a hospice bishop and start being a midwife bishop.

Let's work together, all of us, to bring a new prayer book into our common life.

Your Brother in Christ,

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