Prayer Book Revision and General Convention, Part 4

By Matthew S. C. Olver

This is the final essay in my four-part series on the place of the Book of Common Prayer in the Episcopal Church, the establishment of the prayer book in our Constitution and Canons, and the proposals to change the Constitution that were given a first reading at 80th General Convention in Resolution 2022-A059 (for the previous essays, see here, here, here, and here). In this last entry, I look to the future in two movements. First, I consider the rather extensive Rationale that accompanied 2022-A059, which outlines some intentions and hopes for the next General Convention in Louisville, Kentucky, in 2023 by the bishops. Finally, I will offer some specific proposals for a moderate path forward.

What’s in a Rationale?

The Rationale in the revised A059 states that one of the purposes of the amendment is “to bring the marriage rites forward for consideration for Book of Common Prayer Status.” If by this they mean that they wish to add the new marriage rites to the prayer book, it is absolutely clear that the General Convention is completely within its legal right to do so without the amendment of A059 (as I showed in part 3). The term “Prayer Book Status” is rather unhelpful, as it seems to imply that something could have the “status” of the prayer book without being in the prayer book, which is rather nonsensical. Sort of like calling something a book when it is not a book.

The Rationale goes on: “We also recognize that part of the frustration is there remains no distinctive path for Book of Common Prayer revision. There is concern that even with the above outlines in the constitution [i.e. the changes of A059] and the canons there is very little to keep the church in our and future generations from making hasty decisions.” This is a bit perplexing, since the Two Convention Rule has prevented this from happening thus far. But I agree that the additional requirement of Sec. 3 in A059 is a helpful guardrail: “No alteration thereof or addition thereto shall be made unless it has previously been authorized for Trial Use in accordance with this Article and the Canons of this Church.”

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In the Rationale, the bishops also proposed that a process for hymnal revision and prayer book revision be placed into the canons. The fact that every time prayer book revision has come to General Convention after 1979 it has been voted down is an indication that there is not a widespread desire for complete revision. Just as serious is the suggestion that prayer book revision could happen in nine years! The 1979 BCP took nearly 30 years and we must ask ourselves if we possess the collection of experts who are anywhere near the caliber of those who produced our current prayer book (and I implicate myself here!), and if a complete prayer book could be produced in nine years. There is no reason to put such a process into the canons. If and when the General Convention decides that it is time to begin a process of prayer book revision, that is the time to outline the process.

The Rationale says in a later paragraph, “We have memorialized the 1979 Book of Common Prayer for usage and have continued to allow 1928 Prayer Book Usage.” This is misleading at best. As we have seen, the 1928 and 1979 prayer books do not share the same level of authority. Not even close. This is most clear from the two resolutions that authorized the 1928 book’s ongoing use (BCP 1979-A121 and in 2000-B042), which stipulate that this only can occur under the direction of the bishop.

Furthermore, the first resolution distinguishes their authority in no uncertain terms: “This 66th General Convention declares that the Book of Common Prayer of 1979, having been adopted in accordance with Article X of the Constitution of this Church, has thus become the official liturgy of this Church. … This Convention declares further, That this action in no way sanctions the existence of two authorized Books of Common Prayer or diminishes the authority of the official liturgy of this Church as established by this Convention.”[1] Furthermore, to what are they referring when they say that we have “memorialized” the 1979 BCP? How is that clear in the Constitution and Canons? Here’s a hint: it’s not clear at all.

There is also a question about how to hold together the memorialization of the 1979 BCP and the intention to add the new marriage rites. The most logical way to hold these two things together is to conclude that 1979 Prayer Book will remain as it is and that additional marriage rites would be adopted and be considered also part of the BCP. To replace the current marriage rite with the new marriage rites would be to abandon the “memorialization” of the 1979 book and also to remove any place for the minority view on Christian marriage, something which the Episcopal Church has also committed itself not to do (i.e. “to honor theological diversity in regard to matters of human sexuality” as we stated in 2018-B012).

This is a related but distinct issue that is worthy of much more careful consideration. There are basically two paths forward if the Episcopal Church intends to give the new marriage rites a status other than trial use. There is a truly liberal and charitable path, and there is an ideological and, frankly, violent path. I’ll have an essay that explores this in much more detail in the coming weeks.

But back to 2022-A059 and the bishops’ accompanying Rationale. The revised A059 does introduce one safeguard that is to be commended, namely, that no addition or amendment to the BCP “shall be made unless it has previously been authorized for Trial Use.” What would strengthen this even more is to specify that trial use must originate with the SCLM, as 2022-B011 proposed. A059 suggests that the levels of authorization that were so helpfully outlined in 2022-B011 be moved out of the Constitution and into the Canons. I am not convinced that this is a better proposal. But any movement toward clarifying the types of liturgies authorized in this church and whether or not they are subject to the bishop’s authority is a step forward.

What should we do at the 2024 General Convention?

At this point, my readers can probably see these suggestions coming from afar, as I have tried to telegraph them as I have proceeded. But I also hope that I have treated this history fairly and evaluated the texts impartially. It is in that spirit that I make the following proposals to those tasked with considering these matters and bringing them to the 81st General Convention:

First, reject a second reading of A059 for three reasons. First, Article X already allows additions to the prayer book without the proposed amendment. Second, the transformation of the Book of Common Prayer into a name for an ever-expanding set of texts is not only confusing and an oxymoron, but it is a radical departure from how any Anglican province has conceived of its prayer book. Finally, the attempt to expand the character of the prayer book from a book for public worship to also be a collection of texts that consciously includes private devotion is completely unnecessary and assumes that for any liturgical to be considered useful or praiseworthy, it must be part of the prayer book. The vast history of devotional books and aids in this church and beyond is clear evidence to the contrary.

Second, propose an amendment to Article X that adds a section 3 (as A059 did) and a section 4, which reads,

3. No alteration thereof or addition thereto shall be made unless it has previously been proposed for Trial Use by the Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music and then authorized for Trial Use in accordance with this Article and the Canons of this Church.

4. That document known as The Book of Common Prayer (1979, as last amended in 2015) shall be available for continued use in this Church.[/end]

This ensures what the bishops indicate has occurred, but only in a General Convention resolution, namely, that the 1979 BCP is memorialized for continued use.

Third, decide if the way forward in authorizing additional texts everywhere is

  • to change the concept of the Book of Common Prayer to a three-ring, ever-expanding binder in the clouds, or
  • create a separate category for rites that are authorized everywhere and not subject to ecclesiastical authority, as B011 did with great clarity (calling them Authorized Liturgical Rites).

I heartily endorse this second approach. It keeps the Book of Common Prayer intact and an identifiable entity that people hold and use, but also puts rites at the level of the prayer book without calling something a book when it is not. In other words, it squares the circle of giving the new marriage liturgies fully equal status, but not at the expense of changing the nature of the Book of Common Prayer.

Fourth, perfect a set of canons that clarify the levels of authority of the various rites that have been and will be authorized. Those levels might best be:

  • The BCP
  • Authorized Liturgical Texts, i.e., texts that are authorized everywhere, such as Marriage Rites for the Whole Church that are not subject to ecclesiastical authority
  • Experimental Use: texts that the Church would like to experiment with, but which are subject to ecclesiastical authority
  • Supplemental Texts: rites and resources that supplemental the BCP, such as BoS, LFF, and parts of EOW, which are subject to ecclesiastical authority

The church will be much better served if the Constitution and Canons make clear the distinctions that we basically assume but have yet to clearly articulate. In my judgment, A059 is both too sweeping and too vague. But there is a path that can bring clarity and order. The question is whether General Convention is willing to take the time and care to do so.


[1] Journal of the General Convention, 1979, C-11.

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.

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C R SEITZ
1 month ago

I suppose the obvious question is, what kind of church will TEC have become if the proposed suggestions are not followed? It is an important question to have in mind, as the most likely outcome at the next GC is a continuation of the currents this essay and others are concerned about. Three-ring binder mentality is the default. I suspect most people understand this, and want it, or worry about it, quite rightly.