By Jordan Hylden and Keith Voets
We write as priests of the Episcopal Church, which through its 78th General Convention has now institutionalized doctrinal disagreement on the nature of Christian marriage. We find ourselves on opposite sides of this painful division. We are near the beginning of our careers in ministry, and it is possible that decades from now we will still disagree, perhaps arguing in some retirement home for curmudgeonly priests. And yet we hope to continue serving together in this church until that day, and hand on to those who will come after us a church that embodies genuinely Christ-centered comprehension.
That there will be such a church in 30 or 40 years is no foregone conclusion. The Episcopal Church continues to lose members at an alarming rate. Tens of thousands of conservative Episcopalians have left, but they are not the only ones. Moreover, some members of our church, like George Clifford at Episcopal Café, have argued that bishops in the conservative minority should not be permitted to prevent same-sex marriages in their dioceses. Given such pressures, is there a case for maintaining a “mixed economy” in our church on this serious issue?
At least three questions bear on this issue. First, what does a genuinely Christ-centered comprehensive church look like? How to avoid shuffling off into a confused muddle, sacrificing truth for unity?
Second, what ecclesiology does this imply? What role do bishops play in our polity, those who stand in the apostolic succession and are charged with guarding the faith and unity of the whole Church Catholic?
Third, what does this imply for the Book of Common Prayer? For we are a church that relies upon the dictum lex orandi, lex credendi like few others. If we cannot pray in common about Holy Matrimony, can we continue as a church bound by common prayer?
We addressed the first two questions over the past two days (see “A way forward together (1): Christ-centered comprehension” and “A way forward together (2): ecclesiology“). The third is addressed below.
A book of common prayer for a divided church
We turn now to perhaps the most neuralgic of issues: revision of the Book of Common Prayer. Rites for same-sex marriage were passed at General Convention for “trial use,” which means that they have been placed on a trajectory for inclusion in the BCP. This was the only constitutional way to proceed, as Article X of our constitution forbids parallel rites for BCP services, except for trial use (Enriching Our Worship notwithstanding, which the SCLM report this year finally recognized is unconstitutional).
The rites were passed alongside the beginning of a process — which is still only a process, and not a declaration of inevitability — for a comprehensive revision of the BCP (Resolution A169-2015). Although we both think prayer book revision is a mistake at this juncture, we also recognize many of the pressures that are behind it. Marriage revision, of course, is one of them. But so are proposals to remove gendered and purportedly patriarchal language for God, pressures for the “open table,” desires to emphasize in eucharistic prayers elements of God’s work other than the paschal mystery and the cross, pressures to do away with the expectation of a formal confession of sin each Sunday (apart from the Lord’s Prayer), and so on.
We recognize that these proposals will persist in the near future, but there are many reasons to avoid codifying them in the Book of Common Prayer. Few seem likely to carry the future of the church’s worship. The large majority of active clergy in our church are older than 55 (65.4% to be precise), with only 16 percent under 44, but traditional worship is much more valued among our cohort than revisionary liturgies. Indeed, both of us — along with Jordan’s spouse and Keith’s fiancé (also Episcopal priests) — are zealous advocates of east-facing Rite I worship, the Daily Office in Cranmer’s English, and traditional Anglican Evensong. This is not surprising, we think, as younger people who attend church find themselves doing so more and more in sharp distinction from their generation. The distinctiveness of something holy, solemn, beautiful, and reverent, in a place and with words in which prayer has long been valid, stands out in a distracted and shallow culture. We at least have found it to be so, and we know that many of our similarly aged friends agree.
The same is true with respect to the prayer book’s theology. We fear that a revised prayer book would not be written for the church committed to the Bible and the faith of the apostles, but for the church of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism, with all particularistic and judgmental edges shorn off. It is less and less culturally necessary for young people to attend church now, and this trend will likely continue. If one can worship the god of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism from the comfort of one’s own home, and perhaps also from the shopping aisles at Whole Foods and the local yoga studio, then why bother with church? A prayer book written to suit such a god will be an exercise in futility, not to mention idolatry.
It is clear to us that the church of 20 and 30 years from now will be a very different one from the church of today. Frankly, we would rather not build a new prayer book upon a temporary theological foundation, unlikely to be around in 20 years’ time.
There is, moreover, the issue of recognizability. The Book of Common Prayer is, in the end, not our book alone, but the common possession of 80 million Anglicans around the globe and many more Anglican ancestors of the past five centuries. We should not assume that the proposed changes will be recognized as authentic developments by our communion-wide sisters and brothers.
We do not have a magisterium; nor do we have a confessional document other than the creeds. The liturgy and forms of the prayer book provide a focus of unity for the Episcopal Church and Anglican Communion, in a way unlike the liturgies of most other churches. And priests are bound to teach what the prayer book teaches; we should be wary of turning the BCP into a smorgasbord from which clergy are free to pick and choose doctrines and emphases as they will. While Lutherans may well understand themselves to have more freedom to do so in their polity, firmly united by the Augsburg Confession, we have no such luxury. If the BCP becomes a smorgasbord book, we become a smorgasbord church with it.
As The Living Church recently editorialized, we would do well to consider the example of our siblings to the north, in the Anglican Church of Canada. They have lived for 30 years now with a kind of mixed economy: a traditional Cranmerian Book of Common Prayer (the 1962) alongside the 1985 Book of Alternative Services, which has become the de facto prayer book for most Canadian parishes. Such an alternative book could provide space for parishes and dioceses that believe they are called to press the boundaries of our tradition, without codifying the idiosyncrasies of today in the prayer book. Who knows? Perhaps in 30 years such parishes and dioceses will be shown to be right, and young curmudgeons such as us shown to be in the wrong. Then, it might be time for a new BCP that learns from their innovative gifts. We will by then be secretly pleased to have something to grumble about.
A modified “Canadian option” is moreover an important part of what it will take to be a genuinely Christ-centered comprehensive church in years to come. For if priests and bishops are bound to teach what the prayer book teaches, a revision that moves beyond the traditional wing of our church will in effect unchurch traditionalists. It is not simply a matter of retaining a boutique option for eccentrics who to want to use the dear old 1979 BCP, at the suffrage of indulgent bishops. It is rather a matter of theological integrity. A boutique option has no theological or constitutional status. It is not a lex credendi, but a museum piece. Preserving the 1979 BCP, alongside a Canada-style Book of Alternative Services, would give conservatives something real to conserve, and allow progressives to press forward on various fronts.
Such an option, we must emphasize, would not itself have theological integrity if alternative services pressed beyond Nicaea and Chalcedon or the primacy and centrality of our Lord Jesus Christ in worship. There are some options that the Church of the apostles simply cannot have on its menu. And we strongly contend that alternative services, in whatever form, should be rooted in the Catholic tradition and not bound to passing fads.
So too, if we proceed with an alternative book, its use should be “at the direction and with the permission of bishops diocesan,” as the current phrase has it. This is the necessary modification of the Canadian option, especially if the proposed book contains services that are not recognized by the wider Anglican Communion. No diocese should be bound to order its life according to anything beyond what is contained in the Book of Common Prayer, and the prayer book should not contain anything that is not in fact common to all Anglicans.
Whatever we as a church decide to do with the BCP, we should not do it on our own. At the 1988 Lambeth Conference, it was resolved that an advisory body be created with a focus on “Prayer Books of the Anglican Communion,” in part to ensure that as revisions take place throughout the Communion they are undertaken with appropriate “concern for how the Church celebrates the sacraments of unity and with what consequences” (resolution 18, “The Anglican Communion: Identity and Authority”). While this seems not to have happened, it may now be time.
We have at hand a way forward that would allow every Episcopalian in the pews to go on worshiping and praying together, even with our painful and scandalous divisions and distinctions, until such time as our Lord chastens us all. It would be easier, more tidy, to impose a uniform code upon all dissenters. And it might be easier to finish the secession once and for all, so that we all can live in a church in which everyone agrees with us.
But the Gospel of John testifies that “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14). A church full of grace without truth is a live-and-let live church of liberal pluralism, in which love amounts to leaving each other alone. A church full of truth without grace is a church that demands conformity now, and bullies and coerces the recalcitrant. Both are easy and tidy and conventional. Being a church full of both grace and truth is a much more difficult and rare thing. The Word who is sharper than any two-edged sword, the plumb line of the world, is the one who stands at the door and knocks. If we are to remain his Church, there is no easy way forward. But there is a right way, a narrow way, a “more excellent” way.
The Rev’d Jordan Hylden is a doctoral candidate in theology and ethics at Duke Divinity School, and an instructor at Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary. His other posts for Covenant may be found here.
The Rev’d Keith Voets currently serves as Associate Rector at the Church of St. Barnabas in Irvington, NY. He is a 2012 graduate of The General Theological Seminary and an active member of the Society of Catholic Priests. He blogs at The Means of Grace.
The featured image is “A Clear Path” (2008) by Michael Loke. It is licensed under Creative Commons.