By G. Jeffrey MacDonald
The House of Bishops spent nearly two hours July 9 debating Resolution A068, which would authorize comprehensive revision of the Book of Common Prayer. The vote is due July 10, but some bishops have signaled they might squash the project.
One bishop after another said why they couldn’t support what is expected to be a 12-year, $8 million project. Reasons ranged from the theological to the economic, but a growing theme emerged nonetheless: Many lack confidence the church would do it well.
“I’m a supporter of liturgical reform,” said Texas Bishop Andy Doyle. “But I actually have no belief that the present leadership of this church, as much as I love you all, is going to do this any better than we’ve done over the last 20 years.”
The fate of the revision plan was not clear at 5 p.m., when bishops recessed for the day. They plan to vote Tuesday afternoon when they reconvene.
Supporters of revision heard the trend toward wariness in their colleagues’ voices and confronted it.
“I hear fear, and that’s surprising to me for a group that talks a lot about courage,” said North Carolina Suffragan Bishop Anne Hodges-Copple.
Some on the pro-revision side argued that time is nigh for a prayer book that contains more inclusive language than emerged 39 years ago when the last revision was completed. Bishop Brian Thom of Idaho said he would support A068 because he’s been convinced by critics who say the Episcopal Church’s rhetoric about being inclusive is not reflected in its worship.
“We say one thing, but then on Sunday morning we say something else,” Thom said. “I now support this resolution because I heard them.”
Some opponents said they agree the church needs new liturgies that reflect changing language and sensibilities, but a prayer book revision is not the right vehicle.
“I have no idea where we’re going to be nine or 12 years’ time, but I do have confidence in this: it’s not going to be contained in a book,” said Bishop David Rice of San Joaquin in explaining his opposition to revision.
Bishop Wendell Gibbs of Michigan was one of several who said a grand book revision might be dated even before its completed, especially in an era when advances in media technology are challenging the value of traditional books.
In a nod to the need for church growth, Bishop Rob Wright of Atlanta asked whether a carefully revised book will represent misplaced resources if it lands ultimately “in pews that are empty.”
“I wonder if this isn’t just classic work avoidance,” he said.
Some concerns raised on the floor brought theological issues to bear. Bishop Shannon Johnston of Virginia recalled how a theological imperative made the 1979 revision important and worth doing at the time.
“What drove it coming into being was deeply theological — primacy of baptism and centrality of Eucharist,” Johnston said. In 2018, “a lot of the language I hear driving this is demographics and sociology.”
The bishops’ prayer book debate contrasted sharply with the House of Deputies discussion on July 6. Deputies approved the revision plan overwhelmingly by an approximately two-to-one margin. If revision passes in the House of Bishops, it is likely to be by a far thinner margin. Defeat seemed a strong possibility based on the tenor of the initial discussion, which was civil and shaped by strong sense of awareness that the church could get the revision wrong.
“We could make this a really rotten process,” said Bishop Thomas Breidenthal of Southern Ohio.
Bishop Greg Brewer of Central Florida said he would like to see more creation care and racial reconciliation in the church’s worship resources, but he is strongly opposed to a prayer book revision.
“I have a tremendous amount of distrust that we will actually get there,” Brewer said.