By Matthew S. C. Olver
You may not understand what happened at the Episcopal Church’s recent General Convention in Austin, but you probably know that it was big news. Stories on liturgical revision ran in Washington Post, Juicy Ecumenism, CBN, Religion News Service, GetReligion, and First Things, among others, plus many articles at Episcopal News Service and The Living Church.
An article in the Washington Post seemed to get the facts wrong: “The Episcopal Church will revise its beloved prayer book but doesn’t know when.” But the Post was following the headline of Episcopal News Service (ENS), which declared, “Deputies agree with bishops on new plan for liturgical and prayer book revision.” On the same day, The Living Church — which also publishes Covenant — led with a nearly contradictory headline: “Changing Trains on Liturgical Revision” (TLC’s earlier article was even more stark: “Bishops Kill BCP Revision”).
It turns out that when you move past the headlines, most of these articles acknowledge the basic facts. The difference comes in the angle. As Matthew Townsend of TLC summarizes things in “Changing Trains”: “Both houses of General Convention have approved a resolution that will move the Episcopal Church closer to liturgical revision, but not closer to a revised Book of Common Prayer.”
ENS put these same facts somewhat differently, in a sequence of two nearly contradictory sentences:
In an overwhelming voice vote, the House of Deputies on July 11 concurred with a plan for liturgical and prayer book revision that had been adopted by the House of Bishops the day before. This sets the stage for creation of new liturgical texts to respond to the needs of Episcopalians across the church while continuing to use the Book of Common Prayer that was adopted in 1979.
The Plan for Revising the Book of Common Prayer
This tension has everything to do with the seemingly contradictory language of the revised version of resolution A068. The original version of this resolution was very brief:
1. Resolved, the House of ________ concurring, That the 79th General Convention approve the Option One plan for the Revision of the Book of Common Prayer 1979, which is included in the report to the 79th General Convention of the Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music Subcommittee on Revision of The Book of Common Prayer; and be it further
2. Resolved, That the Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music be directed to implement this plan; and be it further
3. Resolved, That the sum of $1,917,025 be appropriated the Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music for the completion of this plan.
(To read the details of Option One, click here and scroll down to p. 56.)
Option One was a plan for a full-scale revision of the prayer book, which the Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music (SCLM) estimated would cost nearly $2 million in the first triennium alone. This form of resolution A068 passed by the House of Deputies on July 7.
But this was not the approach to liturgical revision that many of the bishops (and a coalition of deputies) felt was best. Bishop Andy Doyle of Texas described his approach to me, which he felt resonated with many of his fellow bishops. His clergy are
engaging in mission [and] … desire quality texts for new services. And, I have almost all of my congregations who wish to continue to use the 1979 BCP. We in Texas do not want an either-or plan. This is the way the current canons set out liturgical revision. I began to get concerned we would walk away with nothing.
He and a coalition of nearly 50 people from both houses began crafting an alternative version of resolution A068, gathered around several principles. Presiding Bishop Michael Curry called the approach “a new dynamic way forward on liturgical revision.”
It is worth noting the parliamentary care that marked the revision. The bishops waited three full days to vote on A068. This not only indicates that they deliberated with significant care. This also meant the House of Deputies did not have much time to respond to the revised version of A068. There was simply no time for deputies to amend it again and send it back to the bishops a second time.
What A068 Means
Interpretations of the revised resolution are wildly varied. As reported by ENS, the Very Rev. Sam Candler — one of the chairs of the committee that considered the original version of A068 — admitted that the House of Bishops did “not give deputies everything they had wanted when they had voted on July 7 for expanded prayer book revision in the original A068.” Nonetheless, he claimed that the House of Bishops did respond to the resolution passed by the House of Deputies that authorized a full-scale revision. The bishops “heard us,” he explained, “and responded with a process for prayer book and liturgical revision.” But did they?
I checked with Bishop Doyle, who introduced the revised version of A068 on the floor of the House of Bishops, and who was a catalyst for its adoption, to ask if his intention was to pave the way for the revision of the 1979 BCP, or whether the purpose of the resolution was to affirm the desire for liturgical revision, but to make the current prayer book the foundational basis for other rites. He confirmed that his intention, and that of the House of Bishops, was the latter, and I think a plain reading of the resolution bears this out.
A068’s Accomplishments (1): A New Task Force
Derek Olsen has a great piece on this resolution and I agree with him that “there’s enough fluidity in the language and potential gaps in understanding” that the final effects of the resolution remain unclear. But there are a few critical things to note in the revised version of A068. Primarily:
A new task force was created (the Task Force on Liturgical and Prayer Book Revision—TFLPBR) (for an explanation of what a task force is, see Rule IX of the “Joint Rules of Order of the House of Bishops and House of Deputies, which is amended to the end of the Constitution and Canons).
First, note that this task force will exist alongside the Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music. As Derek notes, “[e]xactly how they will relate to one another is unclear at the present time.” It seems that matters relating to liturgical revision now sit with TFLPBR, not with the SCLM.
Also note that this task force will be appointed, jointly by the presiding bishop and the president of the House of Deputies. I take this as an indication that the bishops wish to see this task force constituted in a way that is somehow different from the SCLM, where bishops on the commission are appointed by the Presiding Bishop and other clergy and lay members are appointed by the President of the House of Deputies.
The tasks of TFLPBR, however, are not totally clear. Members are to receive the alternative texts created by “worshiping communities in experimentation and the creation of alternative texts to offer to the wider church.” But they are to receive them via diocesan liturgical commissions, which the sixth resolve clause urges be created in each diocese. TFLPBR is to report to the 80th General Convention. But as Derek Olsen also notes:
here’s the thing: the resolution doesn’t say what it is to report on … It is not tasked with “presenting a new prayer book” and there are no timelines for anything like that. General Convention has given the TFLPBR a very open-ended charge.
There may be an unfortunate weakness, however, in A068’s language about the membership of the task force: “a group with leaders who represent the expertise, gender, age, theology, regional, and ethnic diversity of the church, to include 10 laity, 10 priests or deacons, and 10 bishops” As Andrew McGowan, dean of Berkley Divinity School at Yale and a liturgical scholar of significant renown, wrote in a piece published during General Convention (and I quote at length):
Prayer Books have, of course, been revised and even just written from scratch before. History suggests, however, that there are some conditions for success. This process has always involved scholarly as well as faithful and prayerful people. Given our history, in the past this basically meant white men. There is no way that can continue in a future process of revision. However, that doesn’t mean that any commission will be made adequate to the task simply through diversity from among our own constituencies, or that even such a commission would reflect those constituencies’ opinions accurately. Unless there is some deep recognition of the place expertise and scholarship play, not in determining every outcome but in shaping the questions, we will fail.
So we can’t solve all the problems or grasp all the opportunities of liturgical revision just by looking inwardly. We might need people of color (in particular) as expert consultants who are not Episcopalians at all, but Anglicans from elsewhere, as well as Roman Catholic and Protestant, and even Pentecostal scholars who have reflected on their own and other traditions profoundly. Yet we can’t be satisfied with borrowed insights — these have to be based on real relationships, not just the appropriation of attractive elements. (emphasis added)
Diversity in the committee is only one of a number of critical elements that go into the construction of liturgical texts. Serious scholars trained in liturgical history, liturgics, liturgical theology, and other disciplines are essential, of course, and the SCLM could use more in this category. But we need to draw from both within and outside the Episcopal Church. I’m thinking of people like Maxwell Johnson (University of Notre Dame; ELCA), Karen Westerfield Tucker (Boston University; United Methodist), Andrew McGowan, Paul Bradshaw (University of Notre Dame, emeritus; Church of England), Jeremy Driscoll, OSB (Mount Angel Abbey and Seminary; Roman Catholic), Frank Senn (ELCA), and Mark Galli (editor-in-chief of Christianity Today; ACNA).
A068’s accomplishments (2): Memorializing the 1979 Prayer Book
In A068, the Convention resolved to “memorialize the 1979 Book of Common Prayer as a Prayer Book of the church preserving the psalter, liturgies, The Lambeth Quadrilateral, Historic Documents, and Trinitarian Formularies ensuring its continued use.”
The language of memorial is noteworthy. At first I read the term as intending to pick up on the Memorial to the 79th General Convention (see the explanatory essay by Covenant’s Jody Howard). Indeed, the heart of the memorial is summarized nicely in this fourth and eighth resolves of A068.
To me, this stands in stark contrast to the reading of the resolution given by the Rev. Ruth Meyers (dean of academic affairs and Hodges-Haynes Professor of Liturgics at Church Divinity School of the Pacific, and former chair of the SCLM) in her recent interview with Sojourners. The language of the Memorial to General Convention was very careful to place the gendered language for God that is used throughout the 1979 prayer book as fundamental to a desire to retain the current prayer book:
We affirm that the Trinitarian language of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is not simply metaphorical but is an important part of the inheritance of the catholic faith grounded in the revelation of Jesus, who himself referred to God as “Father” and taught us to pray in that manner. … the Fatherhood of God is not a platonic form for human fatherhood, nor is it an extrapolation from human fatherhood. It instead grows from the identity of Jesus as the Son who prayed to the Father, and commanded that his disciples baptize in his Father’s name, his own name, and in the name of The Holy Spirit. Retaining the Trinitarian language revealed by scripture and tradition is essential for us as part of the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church, for our ecumenical commitments, and for our faithfulness to the Apostles’ teaching.
Meyers, on the other hand, links the #MeToo movement to a deadly weakness in masculine language for God. In so doing, she makes a provocative claim:
I think there’s a big connection because when we have a strongly masculine image of God, a strongly patriarchal understanding of God, that creates a world and a worldview that is more patriarchal and hierarchical. This then allows for abuse of women, sexual harassment, sexual exploitation, and a sense of entitlement by men to women’s bodies.
This is a serious claim indeed, and it implicates the entire Christian tradition, in fact, along with the Jewish tradition from whence it springs. A separate essay will appear on Covenant in coming days that tackles this claim more directly.
I do not mean to claim that God is a man or is gendered. Rather, the language of Father and Son is inherent to the Christian tradition’s understanding of the nature of the Trinity, what systematicians often call the “subsisting relations.”
I have argued elsewhere that profound theological fissures open up (especially in Trinitarian theology) when the names of the Divine Persons as received in Scripture and the Tradition are set aside (see the three-part series that begins here, and the scholarly version published in Anglican Theological Review).
To be sure, the revised version of A068 resolves that “our liturgical revision utilize inclusive and expansive language and imagery for humanity and divinity.” But given the resolution’s nod to the memorial, I think it’s fair to assume that the memorial’s perspective on gendered language for God may also be part of what it commends to us: “We affirm that balanced, expansive, and gender-neutral language for God ought to be explored, and the whole range of Biblical images for God should be made use of in our worship, within the bounds of the scripture and the Apostolic Catholic faith.”
This is what Andrew McGowan was getting at in his final paragraph: “Last, but hardly least, this is a God thing, and a Bible thing. Liturgy is our attempt to serve the living God, not to suit ourselves. The greatest claim of Anglican liturgy is not its aesthetic beauty but its scriptural heart.”
This gets us to the question of principles: What are the principles that should undergird liturgical revision? Calvin Lane has written well on these points here at Covenant (see here and here). And another Covenant writer, Timothy O’Malley, wrote about this marvelously a little while back. “The question that Christians today must ask about liturgical reform is more fundamental: why do our churches continually seek such reform?”
At the very beginning of any liturgical revision, we must provide a substantive answer to this question and an answer to the question of our principles. Without these answers, liturgical revision is, as O’Malley described, marked by a modernity that the Polish sociologist Zygmunt Bauman “characterized as a liquid age, one in which structures dissolve as quickly as they are created.” Substantive, prayerful answers to these questions, however, will result in what O’Malley described as “a deeper liturgical formation that allows the liquid person to fruitfully participate in a prayer that transforms the body into a living icon of divine love.”
We must settle for nothing less.
 A068’s Plan for the Revision of the Book of Common Prayer
1. Resolved, the House of Deputies concurring, That the 79th General Convention, pursuant to Article X of the Constitution, authorize the ongoing work of liturgical and Prayer Book revision for the future of God’s mission through the Episcopal branch of the Jesus movement. And, that it do so upon the core theological work of loving, liberating, life-giving reconciliation and creation care; and be it further
2. Resolved, that our methodology be one of a dynamic process for discerning common worship, engaging all the baptized, while practicing accountability to The Episcopal Church; and be it further
3. Resolved, That the 79th General Convention create a Task Force on Liturgical and Prayer Book Revision (TFLPBR), the membership of which will be jointly appointed by the Presiding Bishop and the President of the House of Deputies, and will report to the appropriate legislative committee(s) of the 80th General Convention, ensuring that diverse voices of our church are active participants in this liturgical revision by constituting a group with leaders who represent the expertise, gender, age, theology, regional, and ethnic diversity of the church, to include, 10 laity, 10 priests or deacons, and 10 Bishops; and be it further
4. Resolved, That this Convention memorialize the 1979 Book of Common Prayer as a Prayer Book of the church preserving the psalter, liturgies, The Lambeth Quadrilateral, Historic Documents, and Trinitarian Formularies ensuring its continued use; and be it further
5. Resolved, That this church continue to engage the deep Baptismal and Eucharistic theology and practice of the 1979 Prayer Book; and be it further
6. Resolved, That bishops engage worshiping communities in experimentation and the creation of alternative texts to offer to the wider church, and that each diocese be urged to create a liturgical commission to collect, reflect, teach and share these resources with the TFLPBR; and be it further
7. Resolved, That the TFLPBR in consultation with the Standing Commission on Structure, Governance, Constitution and Canons is directed to propose to the 80th General Convention revisions to the Constitution and Canons to enable The Episcopal Church to be adaptive in its engagement of future generations of Episcopalians, multiplying, connecting, and disseminating new liturgies for mission, attending to prayer book revision in other provinces of the Anglican Communion; and be it further
8. Resolved, That liturgical and Prayer Book revision will continue in faithful adherence to the historic rites of the Church Universal as they have been received and interpreted within the Anglican tradition of 1979 Book of Common Prayer, mindful of our existing ecumenical commitments, while also providing space for, encouraging the submission of, and facilitating the perfection of rites that will arise from the continual movement of the Holy Spirit among us and growing insights of our Church; and be it further
9. Resolved, That such revision utilize the riches of Holy Scripture and our Church’s liturgical, cultural, racial, generational, linguistic, gender, physical ability, class and ethnic diversity in order to share common worship; and be it further
10. Resolved, That our liturgical revision utilize inclusive and expansive language and imagery for humanity and divinity; and be it further
11. Resolved, That our liturgical revision shall incorporate and express understanding, appreciation, and care of God’s creation; and be it further
12. Resolved, That our liturgical revision take into consideration the use of emerging technologies which provide access to a broad range of liturgical resources; and be it further
13. Resolved, That the SCLM create a professional dynamic equivalence translation of The Book of Common Prayer 1979 and the Enriching Our Worship Series in Spanish, French, and Haitian Creole; and that the SCLM diversify the publication formats of new resources, liturgies and rites to include online publishing; and be it further
14. Resolved, That this church ensure that, at each step of the revision process, all materials be professionally translated into English, Spanish, French, and Haitian Creole, following the principles of dynamic equivalence and that no new rites or liturgical resources be approved by this church until such translations are secured; and be it further
15. Resolved, That the TFLPBR shall report to the 80th General Convention; and be it further
16. Resolved, That there being $201,000 in the proposed budget for the translation of liturgical materials, that the Executive Council be encouraged to identify additional funds in the amount of $200,000 to begin this liturgical revision.