After twenty years of pastoral use, we have discovered that, like all its predecessors, it is not a perfect book and could stand some general improvement in some fairly critical places. But I believe the Church has other mission imperatives that require its energy and attention at the present time …. We are nowhere near being finished with what this book is calling us to do. For a variety of reasons, I suspect that most of the Episcopal Church is neither ready to abandon the 1979 prayer book nor willing to commit the time and resources required to replace it. — Neil Alexander, Leaps and Boundaries, pp. 183-184
The Episcopal Church was different in 1997, when these words were penned by Neil Alexander, then a professor of liturgics and preaching at General Theological Seminary. Average Sunday attendance across the church was over a third higher. We had more dioceses, seminaries, and central boards and agencies. There were no Millennium Development Goals. There was a great deal less anxiety about the future. And the cross-marked volume in the pews was still known, fairly universally, as “the new prayer book.”
Yet, in 1997, comprehensive prayer book revision seemed to be fast approaching. The 1994 General Convention had approved a resolution calling for “a rationale and a pastorally sensitive plan” for prayer book revision. Morehouse Press published a volume of essays by leading Episcopalian liturgical scholars called Leaps and Boundaries: The Prayer Book in the 21st Century, to which Alexander contributed the closing selection.
It’s interesting to read Leaps and Boundaries alongside last month’s address “Imagining a New Prayer Book“ by Ruth Meyers, Professor of Liturgy at Church Divinity School of the Pacific and the generally acknowledged dean of Episcopal liturgists. The agenda for reform and the confidence about its inevitability seems to have changed relatively little in eighteen years. Eliminating confirmation, maximizing inclusive language, and sidelining the Nicene Creed had all featured prominently in the opening essay of Leaps and Boundaries — “Unfinished Business in Prayer Book Revision,” written by Marion Hatchett, author of the definitive commentary on the 1979 BCP. Another essay, by Lesley Northrup, called for greater attention to ecological themes. Alexander alone sought to apply the brakes, though even he could barely imagine that we wouldn’t be using a new book by 2012.
Perhaps the time has finally come. After little further action in 1994 and the rejection of similar legislation in 2006, last summer’s General Convention passed resolutions calling on the Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music to prepare comprehensive plans for the revision of both the Book of Common Prayer and the Hymnal. Only revision plans were solicited. New books would perhaps lie a decade in the future, if they are to be books at all. And of course, the process could be delayed again, as it was in the late ’90s. Perhaps the time is not yet right; perhaps Bishop (and Dean and President) Alexander’s words remain as wise and timely as they did nearly twenty years ago.
Liturgical revision of some sort has been on the agenda of most General Conventions since the very beginning, mostly in the form of slight rubrical alterations or the provision of supplemental resources. But the Episcopal Church has had only four prayer books over the past 226 years, relatively few for an American denomination. This is not an easy process for us, which is why two of the three resolutions for major reform over the last twenty years called for “pastoral sensitivity.” The latter phrase has been dropped in last summer’s resolution. Hopefully, the omission was accidental, but one does wonder.
I, for one, would be among the last of Episcopalians to sign up for a “Society for the Preservation of the 1979 Book of Common Prayer.” The book has clearly aged, and I don’t just mean the “Star Wars canon,” Eucharistic Prayer C. The current Prayer Book’s liturgies were built on scholarly assumptions that have not worn well, especially Dix’s fourfold shape of the liturgy, along with strong confidence about uniformity in patristic worship. Its signature note, a radical baptismal theology, has been embraced in subsequent liturgical revisions by a few sister churches, but decisively rejected by others. It may smack too often of the hectoring schoolmaster, sometimes more intent on giving us our marching orders than inviting us into the presence of the living God.
The 1979 Prayer Book will need to be revised. But not yet.
Reading the “signs of the times,” seeking God’s wisdom about the right way forward requires deep spiritual insight. We do well to “count the cost” for any new initiative in our common life, and when it comes to weighing when the times are right for major liturgical revision, I’ve not seen a better summary of the relevant factors than the one Alexander provided 18 years ago.
Alexander’s last criterion is probably the most timely. “For a variety of reasons,” he said, “I suspect that most of the Episcopal Church is neither ready to abandon the 1979 prayer book nor willing to commit the time and resources required to replace it.” I suspect he’s still right. Liturgy ought not, of course, be decided by popular vote, but are we really hearing much of an outcry about the inadequacy of our liturgical and musical resources?
Well-done liturgy, after all, seems to be the one thing that really unites Episcopalians these days, as John Thorpe noted recently on this blog. The comprehensive survey of the Task Force for Reimagining the Episcopal Church asked, “What one thing should the Church hold onto?” The top four answers were “liturgy,” “tradition,” “Eucharist,” and the “Book of Common Prayer.” Together, they constituted 26% of responses in an open response field. Similarly, though an extensive survey conducted by the Church Pension Fund in 2012 found that 48% of clergy in their 50s were in favor of a comprehensive hymnal revision, only 24% of lay people were supportive and 61% of clergy under 30 were opposed. Overall, only about a third of respondents were in favor of revision, and of those who were in favor, the report noted, “an examination of their comments fails to point to a consistent direction that revision should take.” General Convention, very wisely, ditched the project (for three years, anyway).
There are, though, other ways of assessing consensus that are significant and that make a revision at the current moment especially ill-timed. The revision of the Book of Common Prayer in the 1970s was much more radical than any previous revision. But it came at a time of deep ecumenical agreement about the focus and shape of the Church’s worship, following the changes pioneered by the Roman Catholic Church in the aftermath of the Second Vatican Council. Many in the 1970s believed that common prayer would be the prelude to lasting structural unity and deep cooperation in common mission. Those hopes have remained largely unrealized, and the liturgical academy is currently in disarray, with little consensus about future directions for the Church’s worship.
As a generation of long-serving and influential liturgical scholars reach retirement age, so does the governing class of the Episcopal Church. The 2014 Report on the Age Distribution of Active Priests found that 65.3% of clergy actively serving in domestic dioceses were over the age of 55. If prayer book reform is to take at least a decade, then perhaps half of currently serving clergy will be retired by the time a new prayer book would be issued. This kind of demographic shift, at a time when so many parishes are barely able to sustain salaried clergy, will almost certainly lead to massive changes in the way we worship over the next decade or two. In the midst of these rapid demographic changes, it is difficult enough to evaluate what might be liturgically appropriate ten years from now, much less forty or fifty years from now when such a prayer book might still be in use. Won’t we be in a better place to make that judgment in a decade’s time, when some of these demographic changes have run their course?
Going into last summer’s General Convention, there seemed to be some consensus among Episcopalians that the needs of the moment called for evangelistic renewal. This points to Alexander’s second criterion, that the Episcopal Church still has “other mission imperatives that require its energy and attention at the present time.” The Task Force for Reimagining the Episcopal Church (TREC) issued a bold plan for simplifying our structures and encouraging more grassroots collaboration. Episcopal Resurrection’s passionate Memorial to the Episcopal Church, signed by hundreds of church leaders, called for “expansive funding for evangelism initiatives” and
refocusing our energies from building up a large, centralized, expensive, hierarchical church-wide structure, to networking and supporting mission at the local level, where we all may learn how to follow Jesus into all of our neighborhoods.
We also elected Michael Curry as our new Presiding Bishop, perhaps the most gifted evangelist among our senior leadership in decades, who summoned all of us into that work in his installation sermon.
Will prayer book revision assist us in the ministry of evangelism? Forty years ago, when the attendance freefall was beginning, some reluctant parishes were sold promises of church growth if only they embraced the “new” prayer book and its accompanying ceremonial apparatus: freestanding altars, offertory processions and “real” bread. Current advocates for change are careful not to make similar promises. Ruth Meyers’s recent book Missional Worship, Worshipful Mission (2014), for example, is based on a study of five Episcopal congregations who are doing both experimental liturgy and innovative mission work. If she found much direct correlation between the two activities, it goes unmentioned. The congregations’ mission activity was often expressed in their worship, she noted, but congregations cannot be turned missional by adapting a set of techniques. Meyers quotes a member of All Saints, Chicago, a congregation renewed through an innovative feeding ministry, who said, “The engine that drives All Saints’ but … doesn’t come across in worship … is our outreach” (14).
Of course, there’s every reason why the messy and contentious process of prayer book reform might make evangelism even more difficult for us. Confident, joyful Christians share the gospel and begin the kind of bold ministries of justice and peace that transform their communities. Evangelism is risky, and congregations do it best when they are united and convinced that they have something good and beautiful to share with the world. Prayer book revision suggests that one of our greatest treasures is sadly deficient, and the process will inevitably polarize congregations and drive people away, just when there are so many hopeful signs of reconciliation as we try to move past our bruising battles over sexuality. Few Episcopalians I know remember the 1970s as an era marked by concord and confidence, and the statistical tables don’t give us much room for encouragement.
Of course, it will also be very expensive. As Ruth Meyers rightly pointed out, the online meeting tools which have been increasingly used as cost-saving strategies are inadequate for crafting good liturgy. Prayer book reform means gathering talented and representative leaders, extensive polling and use of trial liturgies, and multiple full-time staffers devoted to this task for over a decade. But we do not have unlimited resources. If we are to get serious about evangelism, this should be a time for church-wide boards to fund church planting and innovative mission strategies, to design new media platforms and sponsor conferences about congregational transformation. Above all, it should be a time when hierarchical structures are simplified, to free up more funds for local congregations to use as they “follow Jesus into the neighborhood.”
Alexander’s remaining question is whether we are finished with what this book is calling us to do. As Dr. Meyers noted in her address, many of the 1979 Book of Common Prayer’s more progressive themes have become part of standard teaching and practice in the Episcopal Church over the past forty years. A robust theology of Baptism, a more egalitarian understanding of ministry, the use of gender-inclusive language, and prayer surrounding ecological themes appear constantly in official statements. Even though the Enriching Our Worship materials have allowed new possibilities for emphasizing these themes in places where there is a need and desire for this, contemporary reformers believe that even more radical changes are demanded.
But one wonders if we are really finished with other things that the 1979 Book is calling us to do. Have we, for example, truly lived into this book’s Catholic potential? Are the full liturgies of the Paschal Triduum celebrated in every parish with care? Is the reconciliation of a penitent a regular part of pastoral practice? Do all of our people pray the Daily Office, using one of the book’s manifold forms? Does its excellent catechism shape our approach to Christian formation and preaching? The recent revision of the Saint Augustine’s Prayer Book has awakened me and many others to the deep possibilities for sacramental and devotional renewal present within the 1979 BCP. It would be singularly bad timing to pursue changes like eliminating Confirmation and minimizing usage of the Nicene Creed, which would drive us farther from the mainstream of Catholic faith and life at a time when the potential of this helpful new resource has been barely explored.
Stephen Sykes may have been overstating the case a bit in The Integrity of Anglicanism when he remarked “the decision-making process whereby liturgies are changed … is the basic seat of authority in the Anglican church.” But the power currently held by scholars who have fought for many decades for a revision of the 1979 Book of Common Prayer is real. Some among them may feel the temptation to use that power as decisively as possible over the next decade. But a truly wise exercise of that power may call instead for patience and charity, with a kind glance towards those of us who have been called to serve as leaders in this Church for many decades to come. So many centuries of common prayer must surely have taught us this much.