Prayer Book Revision and General Convention, Part Three

By Matthew S. C. Olver

General Convention Resolution 2018-A068 directed the Task Force on Liturgical and Prayer Book Revision (the absurdly abbreviated, TFLPBR, of which I was a member) to propose to the 80th General Convention revisions to the Episcopal Church’s 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.”

A key question we must ask is this: Does the resolution that was passed actually accomplish that goal? This is the third essay in a series of four that explores Resolution 2022-A059, the first reading of a complete revision to Article X of the Constitution, the section that establishes the Book of Common Prayer and outlines the process for its amendment and possible revision (for the previous essays, see here and here, along with my initial reflections). In this essay, I take us through the history and process of the resolution that was actually passed and what it means.

The first thing to keep in mind is that the resolution that passed at the 2022 Convention is an alternative twice-over to the one proposed to the 80th General Convention by the TFLPBR. This history is just a little complicated, so hang on.

Advertisement

The original resolution that came from TFLPBR incorporated a related revision to Article X that had already been passed as a first reading at the 2018 General Convention as A063 and then passed on second reading as 2022-A145, meaning that Article X was already revised once at the 2022 Convention. The motivation for this revision of Article X arose from the SCLM’s conclusion that the church had been “working without a canonical net” for many years with respect to certain widely used liturgical texts. As we have seen in the previous essays, there is nothing in the Constitutions and Canons that gives the General Convention the authority to authorize rites in addition to the prayer book (Lesser Feasts and Fasts, The Book of Occasional Services, and some of Enriching Our Worship) or rites that are alternatives to the rites contained in the prayer book (such as Enriching Our Worship 1), except if they be used under the direction of the bishop or authorized for trial use with the intention that they be considered for inclusion in a forthcoming prayer book revision. The closest thing to legal permission is found, oddly, in the prayer book itself, in the second paragraph of “Concerning the Service of the Church”:

In addition to these services and the other rites contained in this Book, other forms set forth by authority within this Church may be used. Also, subject to the direction of the bishop, special devotions taken from this Book, or from Holy Scripture, may be used when the needs of the congregation so require. (BCP, p. 13)

The SCLM argued that the “Constitution and Canons are silent on whether General Convention can authorize liturgies not included in the Book of Common Prayer, short of amending Article X. Further, it doesn’t authorize a process for authorizing liturgies.” All this, as we have seen, is clearly true. The SCLM went as far as to claim that “texts that churches use every Sunday, across the breadth of the Episcopal Church, have very tenuous constitutional and canonical authorization.”

To this, we can add an additional problem in need of a solution. Not only is there no basis in the Constitution and Canons for authorizing additional texts beyond the limited provisions of Article X. This study has shown that there is also not a clear logic that governs the language that is used when authorizing texts, nor which alternative and additional rites are subject to the bishop’s authority, and thus we are left wondering what sort of authority they do or do not enjoy. In short, when the General Convention has authorized a rite that is not subject to the bishop’s authority or is not authorized as for trial use with an eye to prayer book revision, it has acted outside the bounds of the Constitution and Canons.

It remains a mystery why some version of the sentence from the 1979 BCP about “other forms set forth by authority within this Church” was never added to either the Constitution or the Canons since 1979. Nonetheless, there had been three abortive attempts to amend Article X prior to the successful first reading in 2018 and the second reading in 2022. Below are all three proposals to add a third caveat to the Two Convention Rule in Article X:

1994-A016 2000-A132 and 2015-A066 2018-A063/2022-A145
Provide for limited use for other forms of worship on an experimental basis for such periods of time and upon such terms and conditions as the General Convention may provide.

 

Provide for use of other forms for the renewal and enrichment of the common worship of this church for such periods of time and upon such terms and conditions as the General Convention may provide. Authorize for use throughout this Church, as provided by Canon, alternative and additional liturgies to supplement those provided in the Book of Common Prayer.

 

The 1994 proposal uses the word “experimental” which was used just once by General Convention (authorizing Changes: Prayers and Services Honoring Rites of Passage “for experimental use and for publication and distribution by Church Publishing” 2006-A067) and states specifically that the authorizing Convention may specify the length of time for which the rite is authorized and what other terms and conditions apply. The second proposal is quite similar in that is contains the same qualifiers, but replaces “other forms of worship on an experimental basis” with “other forms for the renewal and enrichment of the common worship of this church.” The proposal that was adopted on a second reading in Resolution 2022-A145 adds the following as section (c) to Article X (i.e. creating the third exception to the Two Convention Rule): “Authorize for use throughout this Church, as provided by Canon, alternative and additional liturgies to supplement those provided in the Book of Common Prayer.”

Unfortunately, this is not the solution that we need, and there are a number of good reasons for this. First, it collapses the difference between supplemental rites and those that are alternatives to the prayer book. If we are trying to solve the problem that our canon law does not provide clear permission for the authorization of texts beyond the BCP, our solution should address the complexity of our needs. Second, it is too vague. “Supplement” would seem to imply a resource for things not in the BCP, but the language of “alternative” that precedes it cuts in the opposite direction. Unlike the previous proposals, this revision does not specify that Convention may set the terms and conditions for its use, which seems especially necessary if the rites are alternatives to the two “regular services appointed for public worship in this church,” namely, Morning and Evening Prayer and the Holy Eucharist (“Concerning the Service of the Church,” 1979 BCP, p. 13).

But back to TFLPB’s proposal, the original A059. The proposal was subtle. The first thing it did was incorporate the revision to Article X that was just discussed and which was passed on second reading by the 2022 Convention (A145). Beyond that, the rationale for A059 describes the fundamental change that this revision would bring: “A second sentence is added to express the understanding that all liturgies that General Convention authorizes following the protocol of Section 2 are part of the Book of Common Prayer.” The protocol to which they refer is simply the normal process of adopting amendments of or additions to the BCP: the intentional action of two sequential General Conventions. The purpose of the change is described as follows in TFLPBR’s report to the 2022 General Convention:

The amendments attempt to shift the Church’s awareness that contemporary and future methods of publication may not be restricted to the form of a book. What General Convention adopts as a prayer book is not a form of publication (a book) but rather the content, i.e., the text of the liturgies.[/end]

The logic seems to be that the prayer book transitions from being a collection of texts that can always be found in a physical instantiation that a person can open and read, to the name given to all texts that receive two sequential General Conventions to authorize their presence in this collection.

Before we turn to consider the strengths and weaknesses of this proposal, I will describe briefly the alternative to this proposal which was passed by the House of Bishops, and then the final version of A059 that passed both houses.

Resolution B011 was submitted by a number of bishops as an alternative to the original version of A059. B011 took a very different approach than the original proposal from TFLPBR. The rationale explains that, “[s]ince no re-printing of new prayer books is envisioned [by A059], it would become all too easy to add continually to the new “prayer book in the cloud,” a theoretically infinite virtual three-ring binder that would rapidly become internally inconsistent and incoherent.” “If adopted,” the rationale argues,

TFLPBR’s proposal would weaken the prayer book’s historic status as the “standard and normative text for worship in this Church,” by including numerous new texts that will never be printed in the books sitting in our pews. No other province in the Anglican Communion has taken such a step, for good reason. A059 does provide a canonical net for other authorized texts not given prayer book status; but the canonical status given to them would not be well-suited to their nature as texts undergoing a process of reception.

Instead, B011 proposed “a four-part structure that basically corresponds to the actual use of liturgical texts in our church.” Here is how those categories are described in the Rationale for B011:

First is the Book of Common Prayer. We propose that no alteration or addition shall be made to the prayer book unless it has been studied and affirmed by the SCLM and passed first as a Trial Use text.

Second, we suggest a new category, Authorized Liturgical Rites. Such texts would be available for use throughout the church as specified by canon, allowing for texts to be authorized churchwide without needing to amend or add to the prayer book. While some Anglican provinces have retained their historic prayer books alongside a comprehensive prayer book alternative (such as in Canada, New Zealand, England, and South Africa), other provinces (such as Scotland) have established a process for authorizing additional rites on a more ad hoc basis without producing a complete alternative service book. Our proposal is akin to this second approach.

Third, there would be a category of Experimental Use Liturgical Rites, as additions to or alternatives to the BCP or Authorized Liturgical Rites. These rites would explicitly be subject to the diocesan Ecclesiastical Authority’s permission, as currently specified by former Presiding Bishop Frank Griswold in the preface to the first volume of EOW.

Fourth, there would be a category of Supplemental Liturgical Rites, corresponding to texts such as The Book of Occasional Services and Lesser Feasts and Fasts. As the SCLM recognized in 2018, we have no canonical category allowing for such texts, and canonical clarity for their status is desirable.

This alternative was discussed extensively in the House of Bishops, though it was clear that there was a lot of misunderstanding, both about what the current Article X allows and also what would be the effects of B011. It was then put to a vote and passed by just two votes. After the vote, the Presiding Bishop addressed the House and indicated that, in his opinion, the discussion had revealed just how significant a matter it is to consider changing how the Episcopal Church thinks about the Book of Common Prayer. In light of this and of how close the vote was, he suggested that a working group be formed to craft an alternative resolution that might be able to garner much wider support amongst the bishops.

An alternative was crafted overnight and it too was discussed extensively the following day by the bishops, after which it was passed unanimously (or nearly so).

The full text is placed below in parallel to the version of Article X before the 2022 Convention:

The first thing to say is that I don’t really see how this alternative is a compromise between the original A059 and the proposed alternative, B011. I believe that many of the bishops thought it was a compromise, and believed such in good faith. But I think that a careful reading of the texts simply does not bear this out.

The most substantial way in which the original version and the bishop’s “compromise” are the same is that both move from viewing the BCP as a stable book to the BCP as a collection of texts that have received General Convention authorization. This might not be self-evident but for the clue in the very first sentence: “The Book of Common Prayer is understood to be those liturgical forms and other texts authorized by the General Convention in accordance with this article and the Canons of this Church.” The reason this explanation is necessary is because it is changing the use of the term “book” to be used in a way that no one would assume: to refer to an immaterial collect that may never be printed. This is a subtle but an essential point that must be understood and considered carefully. Do we wish to change the very idea of the Book of Common Prayer?

Another essential point that was lost during the debates about this resolution: Article X has always allowed for the General Convention to continue to add liturgies to the Book of Common Prayer. Let me repeat: It always had the potential to be used in the manner that both versions of A059 want Article X to be used, namely, to allow the General Convention to continue to add liturgies to the Book of Common Prayer. The framers of the pre-2022 Article X, of course, would never have considered the idea that the Book of Common Prayer could refer to an ever-changing set of authorized text that might only exist as a collection in a digital form “in the cloud,” so to speak. But (and this is a key point) the pre-2022 version of Article X did not prevent that from happening. What this means is that we have given first reading of a Constitutional amendment whose purpose is to do something the Constitution already allows: namely, keep adding things to the prayer book.

Of course, the church has been extremely reticent to either revise particular rites piecemeal or to add rites to the prayer book. As the evidence shows: the Episcopal Church has never done so. As the bishops’ rationale to 2022-B011 noted, there have been two basic approaches throughout the Anglican Communion. One approach was to keep their prayer book (1662 in England and 1952 in Canada, for instance) but then authorize a collection of texts that contains alternatives to all the rites in those prayer books (Common Worship and The Book of Alternatives Services, respectively). The other was to keep the prayer book but, through a deliberate process, authorize alternative rites to those in the prayer book in a more ad hoc fashion, as the Scottish Episcopal Church has done.

The second problem with A059 is that the nature of the language does not seem appropriate to the Constitution. The problem is the introduction of aspirational language: “The Book of Common Prayer in this Church is intended to be communal and devotional prayer enriched by our church’s cultural, geographical, and linguistic contexts” (emphasis added). As I explained in my before, the Constitution functions to set legal guidelines for the more specific laws of the canons. This proposed amendment amounts to a genre confusion, the sort of expression that belongs in a General Convention resolution, but not a constitution.

Notice too that the second sentence also changes the character of the prayer book: “The Book of Common Prayer shall contain both public worship and private devotion.” The full title of the 1979 BCP is, “The Book of Common Prayer and Administration of the Sacraments and Other Rites and Ceremonies of the Church, Together with the Psalter or Psalms of David.” Outside of the very brief Daily Devotions for Individuals and Families, there are a few other parts of the prayer book that can be used in private devotion, and often are, especially the offices and the collects, as well as the prayers for use by a sick person. But historically, the prayer book was not conceived as a book whose purpose was private devotion. Rather, its purpose is ordered public worship. To change the character of the prayer book so that we can add private devotions to it seems like too much for too little. If the General Convention wishes to authorize private devotions, it does not need to raise them to the level of the prayer book to express that they are good and useful. We can authorize supplemental rites that aid in personal devotion.

The intention of this addition seems to be connected to the change in the nature of the prayer book as the name for a collection of authorized texts, not a fixed book. But why do we need to call everything (or lots of things) “the Book of Common Prayer” in order to ensure we indicate its worth or usefulness? We don’t need to do this. Instead, we need clear, logical categories in the Constitution and Canons that preclude confusion, bring order, and preserve the character and nature of the Book of Common Prayer.

In this essay, I have outlined the rather obscure history of Resolution 2022-A059, the remarkable alternative proposed in Resolution 2022-B011, and the problematic “compromise” that emerged and was passed by both Houses as a first reading to revise Article X of the Constitution. In my final essay, I will provide some suggestions for a fruitful way forward.


This essay has been updated to correctly identify Resolution 2018-A068 and the name of the Scottish Episcopal Church.

About The Author

Fr. Matthew S.C. Olver (PhD, Marquette) is associate professor of liturgics and pastoral theology at Nashotah House Theological Seminary, the assistant director of liturgy at St. Mary’s Chapel, the 2022–2023 Alan Richardson Fellow at Durham University, and a priest of the Episcopal Diocese of Dallas. Fr. Olver’s research interests include liturgical theology, the place of Scripture in early liturgical composition, ecclesiology, sacramental theology, and ecumenism.

Related Posts

Subscribe
Notify of

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

2 Comments
oldest
newest most voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
C R SEITZ
1 month ago

Scottish Episcopal Church. There is a Church of Scotland and it is Presbyterian.

Admin
1 month ago
Reply to  C R SEITZ

This has been corrected.