Jubilate: A Conference on Prayer Book Revision and Language

By Calvin Lane

What sort of language should we use, as Episcopalians, to speak about and pray to God?  What words have shaped and captured our imagination as a church?  And how, at a time of precipitous decline, will our prayer life inform our mission?

These questions, and more, were faced directly at Jubilate, a conference on prayer book revision sponsored by the Diocese of Southern Ohio and hosted by Christ Church Cathedral in downtown Cincinnati on Saturday, November 2.  Around seventy people were present, including clergy and lay people from across the United States.  Both coasts were represented, ecumenical guests attended, as did students from multiple Episcopal seminaries.

The event was intended to be a gift to the wider church in order to spur further conversation and dialogue.  It was emphasized at the outset of the day that the Episcopal Church, since General Convention 2018, is in a formal season of ingathering and conversation about prayer book revision and a spectrum of voices need to be heard.  Jubilate, then, was meant to equip those present for further dialogue around the church.  To do that effectively, a real cross-section of opinions was brought into relief.

The day was rich and fast-paced.  Ruth Meyers, professor of liturgics at Church Divinity School of the Pacific, was the first of three primary presenters in the morning.  She outlined proposed changes in liturgical language over the past generation, that is, since the 1979 Book of Common Prayer, and then made a case for expansive language for the Trinity.  She cited feminine imagery about God in both the Old and New Testaments and suggested, in particular, that Biblical language about Wisdom offers rich possibilities for liturgical expression.

Highlighting that she was not proposing abandoning the formula of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Meyers nevertheless contended “We need language that expands our understanding of the triune God and counters misperceptions of God as masculine.”  Her concern was likewise to, as she put it, “to proclaim the gospel more clearly in our age and our context.”

Following Meyers, Ephraim Radner, professor of historical theology at Wycliffe College, University of Toronto, focused on exactly that subject, cultural context, by arguing that revising the prayer book is simply irrelevant to the cultural moment.  Sharing stories from his previous missionary work in Burundi, he emphasized how prayers imprint themselves on a community, especially during serious challenges.  Similarly, he told about worshipping around the world with Anglicans, Catholics, and Pentecostals and being surprised that the music is the same!  In short, Radner argued that prayer book revision is likely culturally irrelevant.

Katherine Sonderegger, professor of systematic theology at Virginia Theological Seminary, rounded out the morning by making the claim that “masculine language for God is a settled matter, for liturgy and the Church,” and, further, that this claim, somewhat surprisingly, is a “feminist proposal.”   She said that, were the Episcopal Church to leave such language behind, especially the traditional formula of the Trinity, Episcopalians would disconnect from other Christian denominations and from other Anglicans.

“The language we use in ecclesial worship,” Sonderegger said, “is not for us to determine independently.  We exist, even in fractured communion, in a single Body, whose head is Christ, and we are properly constrained by this membership.” Sonderegger argued that her fellow feminists should be wary of the “linguistic turn,” as if simply changing words changes reality.  The challenges faced by a garbage collector, she said, are not mitigated simply by changing the title to sanitation engineer.  More pressing issues, she claimed, should be addressed, the gender pay gap for example and stereotypical roles for women and men in our parishes.  Then, in closing, Sonderegger voiced her reservations about the revised Eucharistic prayers, noting especially that many of them, in removing “God the Father” as the recipient of the prayer, inadvertently suggest that neither Christ nor the Spirit are God.

During the afternoon three synthetic responses were made to the morning’s presentations, and these continued to raise significant questions about inculturation and our images for God.

Liza Anderson, assistant professor of theology at the College of St. Scholastica in Minnesota, raised the issue of how prayers have shaped individuals and communities, noting her own decade-long memorization of the 1979 BCP psalter.  Anderson shared a rather haunting story of a late ancient Christian monk being disabused of his problematic image of God, but then was bereft and isolated.  What, she asked, would be the larger cost of losing these images?

Jonathan Tan, professor of catholic studies at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, made a robust case for cultural diversity in our liturgical expressions, claiming that many aspects of the prayer book tradition are unintelligible for immigrants.

Thomas Breidenthal, bishop of Southern Ohio, said that perhaps the morning’s presenters were closer than we might immediately realize, claiming that all the morning presenters were minimalists in their approach.

A roundtable closed the day and it was clear that there was strong though charitable disagreement.  Meyers was transparent with Sonderegger that she was not persuaded by Sonderegger’s case for a feminist endorsement of the traditional formula of the Trinity.  Taking questions from the audience, Anderson and Sonderegger spoke about masculine language being “healed” and “redeemed.”  “If Christ is king,” Anderson said, “then Caesar is not” and that changes the word king itself.

While Tan argued that, from a global perspective, the 1662 Book of Common Prayer has been experienced as colonialist, Radner countered that many people in post-colonial churches around the world want the 1662 book and that we would be well served to avoid a patronizing posture about what is best for them.  Radner, however, raised a more troubling question about the day’s conversations: we are having this discussion while our church is “disappearing,” citing the membership decline in the Episcopal Church.

One priest in the audience captured concerns raised by both Sonderegger and Radner by asking, in the face not only of tremendous decline but also of global climate change, are there more pressing issues before us as a church?  Fittingly, Jubilate closed with a choral Eucharist for All Souls, celebrating the witness of those who came before and the hope in the resurrection that is to come.   This conference, which was livestreamed and may still be accessed at dsojubilate.org, was meant to foster further conversation and dialogue, equipping the church to talk openly and with theological rigor about our common prayer.

The Rev. Dr. Calvin Lane is associate rector of St George’s Church, Dayton Ohio and affiliate professor of church history at Nashotah House Theological Seminary.  He served as moderator for the Jubilate Conference.


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