This year, General Convention began to redefine the Book of Common Prayer. I mentioned this development in my recap of General Convention on July 12. But exactly what happened, and why does it matter?
The first thing to understand is that the Book of Common Prayer is a vital symbol of the unity of the church. When the first BCP was developed by Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Cranmer in 1549, it demonstrated the hope that the Protestant and Catholic wings of the Church of England could end the conflicts of the Reformation by praying together. It was also the first time the people of England could worship in their own language, participating fully and understanding the prayers and readings. This dedication to praying in a way that people can understand and share is a core commitment of our church – which is why the Book of Common Prayer has often been revised to reflect evolving language and culture.
In the Episcopal Church, the Book of Common Prayer has been regularly updated since our first prayer book in 1789. It was last revised in 1979, in the midst of the liturgical renewal movement (of which the Vatican II conference in the Roman Catholic Church was one example). The 1979 prayer book reflected a rediscovery of the centrality of Eucharist as the basic act of Sunday worship, and the sacrament of baptism as the foundation of Christian belonging and ministry.
Currently, there is a growing movement to revise the BCP once more, to update some language, allow more gender-inclusive language, and provide for a wider variety of worship styles (including those appropriate to the 16 non-US countries that are represented in the Episcopal Church). Yet there is also hesitation to update the book, and I too approach the idea of prayer book revision with some caution, because I want to make sure that the essential theology of our church as expressed in the Creeds does not change. (I do not believe the bishops of our church would ever approve any change to our creedal theology.) The deepest opposition to revision, however, arises among conservatives, led by the so-called Communion Partner bishops, who oppose same-sex marriage as a rite of the church, and do not want to see it added to the prayer book.
The 2018 General Convention responded to this conflict by agreeing to “memorialize” the 1979 BCP. What does it mean to “memorialize” a book? Well, your guess is as good as mine, since the term was nowhere defined in the resolution. But most people agree that the intent of the resolution was to agree that the 1979 prayer book will always be recognized as either THE or AN official BCP, while allowing the development of new worship forms that will be available in other formats. That compromise satisfies conservatives, who can read the definition in the published 1979 BCP that marriage is a covenant between one man and one woman. It also reassures others that continued development of new language for worship can continue. Some new language for worship is contained in other books such as Enriching Our Worship, which is an Episcopal form of worship that has experimental status and is not part of the Book of Common Prayer, but has been authorized for use by a majority of bishops, including me. There are also some experimental non-BCP rites with gender-inclusive language for humans (retaining the official Trinitarian language of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit), which are published online and authorized for use by many bishops, including me.
With some minor exceptions, changing the official Book of Common Prayer requires the change to be approved in identical form by two successive General Conventions. “Memorializing” the 1979 prayer book seems to mean that while other rites may be developed and be available online or in supplemental books, those rites will not have official prayer book status, and the 1979 book will be immortal and unchanging.
However, the fact remains that in 2018, same-sex marriage was approved by Convention as a “trial rite.” A trial rite, if approved by two successive General Conventions, can achieve Book of Common Prayer status. Several bishops have committed to bring the same-sex marriage rite forward for a first reading for prayer book status at Convention in 2024, meaning that the rite could receive final approval by 2027, even if the published-on-paper 1979 prayer book stays identical to the one we have today.
Why is this important, if the familiar red 1979 book stays in your pew? Because when clergy are ordained, they take a vow to conform to the “doctrine, discipline, and worship” of the Episcopal Church, including the worship of the Book of Common Prayer. The substantive change that the 2022 General Convention made was to re-envision the prayer book as no longer a bound and published book. If passed in identical form by the 2024 General Convention, the Book of Common Prayer will be defined, not as the familiar red book you see in your pew, but as “those liturgical forms and other texts authorized by the General Convention.” The challenge for some is that if rites that are not part of the published and bound red book, but which have gone through the full approval process and are available online or in supplemental books, have official prayer book status, they become part of the doctrine, discipline, and worship of the church. If that happens, bishops and clergy who hold the view that marriage is between one man and one woman may be faced with a challenge to their ordination vows to conform to the doctrine, discipline, and worship of the Episcopal Church.
When one of the Communion Partner bishops pointed out this challenge during the House of Bishops’ discussion on BCP revision at Convention, Bishop Michael Hunn of the Diocese of the Rio Grande made an excellent observation. When we clergy vow to conform to the doctrine, discipline, and worship of the Episcopal Church, he said, we are not conforming to the doctrine, discipline, and worship as they existed on the day we were ordained. We are conforming to the doctrine, discipline, and worship of a church that has defined processes for change and growth. The changes that occur during our ordained life, which are agreed to by the church’s processes, are part of the vows clergy made to a church that does intentionally change and grow.
It remains to be seen whether the redefinition of the Book of Common Prayer will pass in identical form on the second reading in 2024, and become part of the constitution of the Episcopal Church. And it remains to be seen what effects that redefinition will have on the church, if it does happen. For me, I welcome the change in definition, and believe it is an appropriate response to new ways of communicating, sharing information, and respecting the dignity of every human being.
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13 replies to “When is a Book not a Book?”
Thanks so much for clearly explaining why this seemingly esoteric and remote discussion is/was important discussion, Bishop Susan.
Thank you, Bishop Susan. Change is always hard. I believe we can move forward with charity to all with different opinions. That’s the Anglican way. But move forward we must. The Holy Spirit must be given room to work.
Interesting and informative discussion of the BCP, which I still find somewhat confusing. God may be unchanging, but we are not!
I have a BCP belonging to my great-grandfather which predates the 1928 BCP, which was the version in use when I became an Episcopalian. And I was surprised to find the BCP in use when I traveled in England in the 1980’s dates from 1662!
One of my firm friends at our parish decided to leave after the revisions of the 1970’s and seek a congregation which continued to use the 1928 BCP, as she felt the adjustment to more modern language and ritual was too difficult for her in her nineties. To my joy, she resumed her place in the choir and parish after several months, as she missed us all too much.
The church is the people, not the building, and not, as it turns out, the BCP, either! Let fresh air in, and let’s not get locked solely into a view of the universe which is hundreds of years old, or even 45.
Thank you very much for this update and I agree with you!!!
Help keep the Episcopal Church growing and vibrant!
Bishop Susan, thanks for sharing this clear and thoughtful response to what happened at General Convention. I appreciate your way of thinking about it. I do still think we may be backing down from an important human rights issue by not requiring a new bound, physical BCP with marriage being between two people of any gender, but I can see the value in moving beyond a book and including online resources, EOW and other resources. Very interesting time to be an Episcopalian!
Thank you for this important summary of the actions taken regarding “Prayer Book Revision.”
I think Bishop Hunn’s remarks fully take into account the work of the Holy Spirit as the body of believers strives to come closer to God.
Thank you Bishop Susan. I really appreciated this write-up. It will be helpful in group conversation we may have.
Thank You Bishop Susan. This was really helpful and will help with group discussion we may have with others in our church.
Thank you for sharing what is new information to me. My husband & I were married in the UCC congregation he served as pastor, in Chicago, where same-sex marriage was legalized by the Illinois State Legislature. We have found welcome and support at St. Margaret’s in Palm Desert since moving to California. It is our church home in the deepest feeling of that phrase. You’re probably right that the proposed changes to BCP upset conservative clergy particularly; I wonder how strongly the laity feel. What impacts my worship is using a hymnal that will be forty years old in 2024. Recognizing that we live in a time when publishing books is almost antiquated, is there any forward movement in the Episcopal Church toward updating and refreshing the Episcopal Hymnal? I have heard it said that a hymn book is the “theological textbook” of the laity; we learn and are reinforced in our faith through the “marriage” of words and music that give harmony to our Christian beliefs. There is a rich hymnody to be learned; in my ministry I led my congregations through three officially sanctioned new hymn books for the Lutheran tradition I was part of, and they all brought renewal and greater appreciation for the expression of our faith through the unique power of music. The Episcopal Church might do very well by embarking on such a musical journey. Thank you for your ministry and leadership.
Thank you, Bishop, for a very comprehensive and enlightening view of the BCP discussions.
Deacon Bob did a seminar for us at St Peter’s outlining changes in the Episcopal Church as history and people’s view change. It was fascinating to see how our doctrine has grown, too. We really are the people’s church. 1979 was a long time ago & history has seen many changes, I would love to see our beloved BCP grow into today’s world. What ifnit was never changed from 1780? The thought of change can be unsettling, but the world changes often without us so why not embrace and be a part rather than fight against or try and stop it? Thank you for explaining this and giving us an opportunity to comment! FHS.
In so many worship settings, a bound book is not touched by the congregation. Words and music are printed in a large leaflet or projected on a screen. When giving children the experience of finding and reading lessons in a bound Bible or prayers in a BCP, I wonder if I am teaching something the children will never use.
Thank you, Bishop Susan, for your informative article. I continue to pray for your open mindedness.