The Lord said, “These people draw near with their mouths and honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me, and their worship of me is a human commandment learned by rote.” — Isaiah 29:13

Liturgical revision kills trees. It should be an obvious point; the 1979 Book of Common Prayer is just over 1,000 pages long. How many trees might be needed for a new batch of Prayer Books, such as those that might contain the new liturgies now called for by Ruth Meyers? According to the Sierra Club, you can get between 10,000 and 20,000 pieces of letter-size paper from a tree. The website estimates a slightly smaller number, proposing that a single ream of paper (500 sheets) uses 6% of a tree (meaning that you get just over 8,000 sheets of paper from the average tree). If a piece of paper is folded in half (i.e. in quarto), all 4 sides can be printed on; if the 1979 BCP’s ~1,000 pages are divided by these 4 sides, approximately 250 pieces of paper are needed to print just one BCP. If a single tree of 8,000 sheets is divided by the 250 pieces of paper needed to print a Prayer Book, then one tree will yield 32 BCPs. If you get 10,000 sheets from a tree, it will produce 40 BCPs, and 20,000 sheets from a tree will produce 80 BCPs.

The most recent statistics for the Episcopal Church state that it has 7,044 parishes and just under 2 million active members. If each parish were to buy just 50 Prayer Books, we would need 352,200 Prayer Books — thus roughly one BCP for every 6.5 members. This is unrealistic; clearly we need more. Assuming that two people can share a Book of Common Prayer in each service, we will need about one million Prayer Books (recognizing that such sharing is rather optimistic). If a single tree can give us 40 BCPs, we will need to kill 25,000 trees for the one million Prayer Books that contain our liturgy. If we get fewer pieces of paper from a tree, we will need to kill more trees; if we can get more pages from a tree, then we will need to kill fewer trees. Perhaps we should chop down the largest trees we can find, so that we end up chopping down the smallest possible number?

What is the wider cost of this devout deforestation? Let’s stick with the number of just 25,000 trees. An acre of land is 43,560 feet with an average dimension of 66 x 660 feet. If every tree were spaced at just 6 x 5 feet, we would have 1,452 trees on an acre. Consequently, we would have to get rid of just over 17 acres of trees for our new Prayer Books. According to the Living Tree Educational Foundation, a single acre of trees purifies 18 million cubic meters of air each year. Getting rid of our slightly more than 17 acres would prevent 309,917,355 cubic meters of air from being purified. Furthermore, there are matters related to the wider ecosystem, like soil erosion and the displacement of wildlife — and who can truly estimate such a cost?


Of course, all of this looks in just one direction: towards nature. What happens if we turn the other way round and look back at the Episcopal Church? We see a simple, sad truth: among Episcopalians, paper usage is the eighth sacrament, and paper waste the ninth. At my parish, we don’t even open the Book of Common Prayer. We instead print out our liturgies every Sunday. This is supposed to be visitor friendly. Of course, other reasons make these massive weekly print jobs a necessity. The Standing Committee on Liturgy and Music (SCLM) loves nothing more than to revise liturgies every triennium, publishing them in books that every parish must buy to supplement the liturgies found in the Prayer Book. There really isn’t enough space in the pew for multiple Prayer Books, hymnals, and the many volumes of supplemental liturgies produced by the SCLM. Nor, for that matter, can parishes afford so many liturgical “resources.” So, we buy just a few of these supplemental volumes, and print what we need each Sunday. I suspect that there is such a strong correlation between supplemental liturgical material and paper waste that the correlation actually points to causation: greater liturgical diversity necessitates greater environmental destruction. (But don’t worry, being the paper radicals that we are, we recycle our weekly liturgical handouts!)

Assuming that each liturgical handout uses just 5 pages, then an active church-going population of roughly 2 million people needs about 10 million pieces of paper each week. If we work again with the assumption that a tree can offer us 10,000 pieces of paper, then the Episcopal Church kills 1,000 trees each Sunday — this, in addition to the 25,000 trees killed to produce the Prayer Books that we don’t use each week. This weekly cost totals 52,000 trees each year, which entails almost 36 acres of deforestation and 644,628,099 cubic meters of unpurified air. To think — we have not even begun to estimate the many millions of pieces of paper that are necessary for trial and supplementary liturgies, Prayer Book studies, liturgists’ meetings, or personal Prayer Book ownership!

Consider the epic irony: Meyers believes that our new Book of Common Prayer should have a stronger environmental ethic. Liturgical revision kills trees — but liturgical conservation is green. Since actions speak louder than words, who do you trust?

Benjamin Guyer’s other posts may be found here. The featured image is “Deforestation” (2006) by Flickr user crustmania. It is licensed under Creative Commons. 

About The Author

Dr. Benjamin Guyer is a lecturer in the department of history and philosophy at the University of Tennessee at Martin. With Dr. Paul Avis, he is the editor of The Lambeth Conference: Theology, History, Polity and Purpose (Bloomsbury, 2017).

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