Thursday, July 18, 2013

Prayer Book Christianity and Structural Reform

Seeking to come to a common sense of our core identity as Christians in the Anglican tradition is a remarkably fraught process. Almost immediately we have a tendency either to fall into existing camps that represent only one aspect of our tradition. We rehearse and recite shibboleths and slogans heard round the church, often unaware of the distinctive context that gave them expression.

The Task Force for Reimagining the Episcopal Church (TREC) has been hard at work since their creation by General Convention and membership appointment in the ensuing months. In their July 2013 Meeting Report they have published two working papers: "Working Draft Notes on Episcopal Identity and Structure" and "Interim Report of TEC Structure for Dummies Committee."

It's largely good work, representing some thoughtful research and careful articulation. However, there is one point in the "Working Draft Notes on Episcopal Identity and Structure" that I found profoundly problematic—the section on the arts, liturgy, and mystery. It reads:
The arts, liturgy, and mystery: This sacramental and incarnational view leads to affirmation of the arts and music as means to express the sacred. Rooted in deep traditions of Christian practice over the centuries, Episcopalians treasure liturgy and embrace mystery. At its best, this is a deeply participatory value, not merely performance.
  • Structure encourages new liturgical expressions for mission and creates accessibility to a wide variety of materials for prayer and song electronically. Such expressions should be unhampered by required slow processes of canonical approval or the processes of printing, thereby enabling quick dissemination of much-needed resources. 
I affirm with my whole being the first part of this section. Indeed, our sacramental and incarnational approach to the Christian life does indeed lead to a strong affirmation of the arts and music. We do indeed treasure liturgy and embrace mystery. The whole of the community, in the best liturgical practice, fully participates in their gathered worship.

However, the second half of this section goes off the rails. It assumes that this affirmation of the arts, liturgy, and mystery leads to a need for structure that encourages new liturgical expressions. Further, it insists that these expressions should be "unhampered by required slow processes of canonical approval."

I worry sometimes that we, as a tradition, our losing the value of being a "prayer book church." While other churches were drawing up confessions of faith, we were creating a Book of Common Prayer. When we had been racked with sectarian controversy and violence, the Elizabethan settlement exemplified by the 1662 Book of Common Prayer sought to bring both Catholic and Protestant together in united worship using shared and comprehensive liturgical language.

Indeed, interestingly enough, the only place the BCP shows up in the "Working Draft Notes" is in the first paragraph where we are described as having "a sacramental and incarnational faith as expressed in the Book of Common Prayer." And yet, in the section explicitly on liturgy the document seems to jettison the importance and centrality of prayer book liturgy to our identity, even suggesting changes to structure that I believe would further undermine the role of the prayer book in our church.

While it is important that we are always looking carefully at our liturgy, never afraid of what reformation of our shared worship might look like, liturgical innovation and reform must be carefully circumscribed. Even resources that are already approved by General Convention, specifically the Enriching Our Worship series, are explicitly not intended for Sunday corporate worship without approval of the Ordinary. This is, I believe, deeply intentional. While our liturgical resources should always be open to reform, that reform should be done carefully lest it run the risk of creating liturgy that is only beholden to whatever the current trends are instead of creating liturgy that comes from a renewed appreciation for the history of the church and the implications of our faith.

One of the best and most important things taught me by Marion Hatchett, one of the key framers of the 1979 Book of Common Prayer, was, "The rubrics of this book exist to protect the laity from the whims and eccentricities of their clergy." I would argue that much of what passes for liturgical innovation these days is remarkably clergy-centered. It is foisted upon the laity without their input. Indeed, while clergy are bound to follow the rubrics of the prayer book (not doing so is, at least theoretically, grounds for deposition!) they are given significant authority when it comes to the worship of a local parish. The rector is the sole person who holds that authority. One of the reasons for the BCP and an importance upon the rubrics is that the rubrics of the Book of Common Prayer are the fundamental place where the laity have a legislative voice in the worship of the church. To violate those rubrics in the name of innovation it to violate the voice and expressed will of the laity, expressed through General Convention.

But the problem goes even deeper than subtle—or not so subtle—clericalism. The Book of Common Prayer brings a level of unity to our identity. An increase in liturgical innovation outside the bounds of the prayer book would further increase the already frustrating congregational inherent in so many of our parishes. I was challenging a colleague of mine recently on the subject of Communion Regardless of Baptism (CROB). I used the above argument about the canons and prayer book being a place where the laity have a legislative voice to direct the clergy. She insisted that in her congregation, the laity had been in favor of moving forward with the process, that they had been a part of the decision.

But it is not just the laity in your local congregation who have a voice. We are ordained as clergy for the whole Christ's Church. We have made vows of obedience not only to our bishops as a symbol of the unity of the church, but also to the doctrine and discipline of the church—a discipline that includes clear constitutional and canonical arguments that the whole of the laity must be consulted when it comes to authorized liturgy, not just those in your own congregation.

Thus, liturgical revision should be slow. It should be careful. It should include the voice of all orders of the church, drawn from across the wide variety of our church. It should include liturgical experts who can help us understand the implications and history of our liturgical structures and rites. It should include careful and practical trial use of rites, use that is rigorously accountable to the whole of the church.

And I would ever so gently suggest that we do not need "new liturgical expressions for mission." If we need new liturgical expressions, it must be because our current ones are failing to clearly inculcate and form people after authentic Christian belief. Look at all the other churches and denominations that, when seeking to do good liturgy, draw from our prayer book tradition. Let's not jettison that in the favor of that which is new, streamlined, and able to be quickly approved and thrown up on the internet.

Indeed, I would argue the opposite needs to happen.

I'd like to see this Task Force invite current liturgical scholars into its work. Not so that we can do exciting and innovative liturgy—but so that our liturgical scholars can teach us about how our structures need to be reformed so that they more accurately follow the teaching and theology of the 1979 Book of Common Prayer. Because almost any liturgical scholar worth her or his salt, including Marion Hatchett of Blessed Memory, will tell you that we as a church have only barely begun to realize in practice the theology that amazing prayer book espouses.