A Greener Prayer Book

The Rev. Mark Michael

The Rev. Ruth Meyers predicted this week that a revised Book of Common Prayer will most likely reflect changes in creation, baptism, and trinitarian theology.

Meyers, Hodges-Haynes Professor of Liturgics at Church Divinity School of the Pacific since 2009, led an “Imagining a New Prayer Book” forum Oct. 8 during the school’s alumni convocation.

Meyers led the Standing Committee on Liturgy and Music from 2009 to 2015. Her presentation addressed General Convention’s charge that the SCLM plan for a comprehensive revision of the prayer book.

Meyers described herself as “surprised by this turn of events,” which emerged from General Convention’s Committee on Prayer Book, Liturgy, and Music. She considers the invitation an opportunity to continue reform begun by the “revolutionary” insights of the developers of the 1979 Book and continued in the Enriching Our Worship series.

The plan allows the church to take stock of significant liturgical and theological shifts in the last 40 years. “Context matters,” Meyers said. “In each new age or generation the way we receive, interpret, and hand on Christian faith is shaped by the worldview and the needs and concerns of our particular time and place.”

Drawing heavily on the work of Mary E. McGann, RSCJ, of Franciscan School of Theology and the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, Meyers advocated for more robust attention to ecological issues in the church’s worship. The church must move beyond the “tepid prayers” of the current book, which focus mainly on conservation of natural resources, to more “robust forms of confession and lament … giving voice to the cries of our wounded planet and its creatures.”

She urged more extensive use of language identifying God as Creator, and for prayers that acknowledge new scientific insights, the beauty and goodness of creation, and our fellowship with all created things. A more effusive use of symbols, she noted, may also be an opportunity to restore reciprocity between the theologies of creation and redemption in the prayer book’s account of Christian belief.

Meyers said a “baptismal consciousness” has clearly developed across the Episcopal Church since the introduction of the 1979 Prayer Book. But the baptism liturgy might be deepened to bear witness to the insights of its creators. Influenced by baptismal revisions in other Anglican churches over the last few decades, Episcopalians might consider using water and oil more extravagantly, reciting the Creed just before the administration of baptismal water, and developing new Baptismal Covenant petitions about environmental stewardship.

She also noted that consecrating chrism at a midweek service attended mostly by clergy is a missed catechetical opportunity, and that associating the renewal of ordination vows with Maundy Thursday represents an unhealthy clericalism.

Meyers drew attention to “two divergent understandings that may contradict our claims about the significance of baptism”: the increasing practice of communing the unbaptized and the insistence on confirmation as a requirement for holy orders.

She is concerned that the open table “may not always be accompanied by an equally enthusiastic invitation to baptism,” and commended the Diocese of El Camino Real’s proposal of allowing communion of the unbaptized only as part of a congregation’s coordinated evangelistic plan, oriented toward growth in discipleship.

While recognizing a “deeply felt pastoral need” for sacramental contact with a bishop, Meyers urged replacing “a rite called confirmation” with a form for individual renewal of baptismal vows with the laying on of hands, which might be performed by a parish priest, as in every other branch of the Church.

Meyers urged continuing use of “expansive language” for God, including a return to “more concrete images of the Bible and the liturgy” in place of the arcane philosophical language of the fourth-century creeds. The texts of the 1979 book, while using a more inclusive language for humanity, are “overwhelmingly masculine in language and imagery.”

She described the Nicene Creed as “a stumbling block for many,” and wondered if a creed is necessary during the Eucharist, given the Great Thanksgiving’s robust affirmation of God’s work in Christ. The use of modern creedal texts alongside the Nicene Creed might be a creative opportunity for engaging worshipers.

Meyers ended with some recommendations on prayer-book revision, noting that the process will be demanding, and that the church “will need to commit significant resources to bring people together to do the work.”

She voiced frustration that many commissions have relied heavily on web-based meeting programs in recent years. These money-saving measures tend to squelch the creative conversations that often happen “around the edges” of formal meetings, she said, and would not allow the careful work of praying aloud in common that is essential to liturgical development.

A forum participant expressed concern with top-down liturgical revision in the 1970s. The next revision, he said, “needs to feel more like a bubbling up from the soil.”

Meyers expressed confidence that this latest step represents a grassroots movement and will avoid many tensions of the past. “A sense of dislocation is just going to be there” for some, she said, but this is no reason to hold back renewal.

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