Thursday, December 8, 2016

Tackling Prayer Book Revision

Much digital ink has been spilled recently on the revision of the 1979 Book of Common Prayer, particularly in the last twenty-four hours following the announcement of four possible paths for Prayer Book revision by the Standing Committee on Liturgy and Music. In brief, the four possible approaches are 1) total revision; 2) no revision, but creation of a Book of Alternative Services; 3) continued conversation; and 4) deepen our engagement with the '79 book. I don't envy the SCLM, because whichever path is chosen, it will not please everyone. So, I want to thank the SCLM in advance for their good-faith efforts and commiserate with them for all the division and turmoil they will encounter. I'll keep you all in my prayers.

In June 2015, I wrote a post on Prayer Book revision that continues to reflect my thinking. My main concern was that, whichever option is selected, the comprehensiveness of Anglican identity and practice be preserved. If we are truly to practice common prayer, then there has to be some theological and liturgical center that we all share. That would seem to deny an "anything goes" approach, although I realize that we have incredibly diverse theologies and liturgical sensibilities. So, I proposed a hub-and-spoke model in which we retain the current Prayer Book with a few critical tweaks, like updated, gender-inclusive or gender-expansive language, and then authorize a variety of supplemental resources that would facilitate ministry in a variety of contexts. This model largely resonates with option 2. As a progressive inhabitant of the more traditional and catholic wing of the Church, for instance, it would be nice for there to be official options for Marian devotions or the blessing of throats on St. Blaise's Day. I also think it will be important to preserve Rite I as an option for many congregations. In a similar vein, we need to ensure that our plan for Prayer Book revision sustains the life of evangelical, Broad, emergent, and other types of parishes, too.

I have been concerned, however, that in the rush to be innovative, fresh, and creative, many parishes have largely dispensed with solid Prayer Book liturgy and theology in favor of newer resources from other denominations and traditions. I know many people will heartily disagree with me on this, and I respect that. I would encourage all of us, however, to reexamine the Prayer Book with fresh eyes, to return to our roots for a season to rediscover the richness of the common prayer that we DO have. Take detailed notes on what works well and what doesn't in our unique contexts. This honors the spirit of both options 3 and 4: to continue intentional conversation on Prayer Book revision and to deepen our relationship with the current BCP, especially if we've been away from it for a while.

And here's a challenge to all of us. To inform this exploration of our Prayer Book, let's do some reading about it. Let's begin by actually reading through the Prayer Book, including the rubrics to remind ourselves of what it actually says, to discover what it allows and what it prohibits, to identify what may be (out)dated, to appreciate the great flexibility already present. Then, perhaps we can commit to some additional reading, like William Sydnor's short, but useful guide, The Prayer Book Through the Ages. The more ambitious may wish to tackle Marion Hatchett's masterful, Commentary on the American Prayer Book, which I have just begun as an Advent discipline. And there are many other resources, as well. I'm sure I don't know nearly as much about the Prayer Book as I think I do. It is helpful for all of us to be educated about the sources for the current Prayer Book and the rationale for the choices that were made through the complex and lengthy revision process in the 1970s. As daunting and as polarizing as Prayer Book revision may seem, it is a opportunity for us to reflect prayerfully (for we are a people of prayer, allegedly of common prayer) on the riches of our shared life as Episcopalians.

Abundant blessings,
Fr. Ethan+


  1. What about including the Roman Canon and the Ethiopian anaphora according to the Apostles (so-called "Hippolytus")?

  2. A useful source of historical context on the Prayer Book could be Brad Thompson's "Liturgies of the Western Church," published 1961 (I think there was a revision published in the 80s).