Bishops Grapple with Defining Book of Common Prayer

By Mark Michael

The Episcopal Church’s House of Bishops spent over an hour on Friday grappling with two technical proposals for amending Article X of the church’s constitution, which defines the Book of Common Prayer, and eventually set up a task force to work out a compromise. The bishops also approved a resolution to commemorate the day of Bishop Barbara Harris’s 1989 consecration as the Anglican Communion’s first female bishop.

During an extended question-and-answer session, bishops parsed the differences between A059, which would redefine the Book of Common Prayer as any text approved by two subsequent General Conventions, and B011, a substitute proposed by Bishop Lawrence Provenzano of Long Island, which would maintain a more deliberate process for adding liturgical texts to the prayer book, and establish a series of categories for authorized liturgical rites, and supplemental and experimental liturgies.

“The question before us is a question of definition. What do we mean when we say, the Book of Common Prayer?” said Bishop Ian Douglas of Connecticut. “Resolution A059 would have us understand that we now see the Book of Common Prayer to be that thing we did in 1979 and everything else we’ve been playing with, and B011 invites us to have a much more specific definition of the Book of Common Prayer — the prayer book as now authorized, and then all the other categories.

“This is not a question fundamentally about marriage rites and where we are, or Lesser Feasts and Fasts. It’s fundamentally a question of how do we define the rites of the church. Are we saying the Book of Common Prayer is all of the above or more specifically — in B011 — as we have known it, with other categories?”

Near the close of their afternoon legislative session, the bishops narrowly approved Provenzano’s proposal (60-57-1) as a substitute for A059. Immediately after the vote, the House of Bishops’ parliamentarian, the Rt. Rev. Sean Rowe, declared that irregularities in the substitute resolution’s terminology required a redraft before a final vote on the resolution after the dinner recess.

When they returned, the bishops instead approved a proposal from Bishop Mark Hollingsworth of Ohio to postpone further action on the matter until the evening session on July 9. Presiding Bishop Michael Curry appointed a task force led by Provenzano and Bishop Jeff Lee of Milwaukee, the chairman of the House of Bishops’ Prayer Book, Liturgy, and Music Committee, who had spoken on behalf of A059, to broker a compromise.

B011 vs. A059

Provenzano explained that he was offering his substitute resolution “to allow us to move forward in providing these rites throughout the church in a way that will not encumber us as a church.” Under its terms, he said, “no alterations or additions [could] be made to the Book of Common Prayer unless it has been studied and affirmed by the Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music, and passed first as a trial-use text.”

He added, “I would like to see us to have language that is fully inclusive, but that is authorized in such a way that we are not in a position that someone who, on a Saturday night, writes a liturgical rite on their kitchen table and then eventually provides for its use at convention has the same weight as the Book of Common Prayer.”

The resolution’s provision of a category of “authorized liturgical rites” for use throughout the church alongside an unamended Book of Common Prayer, Provenzano said, followed the example of several other provinces of the Anglican Communion. “Experimental rites,” an additional category, would be subject to the permission of the diocesan bishop, while existing resources, like Lesser Feasts and Fasts and The Book of Occasional Services, would be called “supplemental rites.”

Provenzano disputed allegations that his proposal was trying “to exclude any rites associated with the LGBT+ community — anyone who knows the Bishop of Long Island knows this is completely preposterous.”

Resolution A059, Lee countered, “is not the creation of a Wiki Prayer Book. There are processes within [the] canons, and full scrutiny by the Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music, and two General Convention approvals, and still the authorization of texts, and trial use, and so on. … [It reflects] the idea of a prayer book becoming more than a book, bound and physically present in the pew, to a curated collection of texts that lives online.”

The status of same-sex marriage rites in the two resolutions’ different categories was raised by several bishops, a question that neither Lee nor Provenzano was able to answer with confidence. “Has anybody looked at the rites we have now and have been using and categorized them for each of the proposals?” asked Bishop Kai Ryan of Texas.

“You’re pointing to a larger issue, which we are trying to deal with in different ways,” Lee admitted. “We have all kinds of authorizations and all kinds of trial use, and it’s kind of a mess. We have to clarify what authorization has the weight of what the Book of Common Prayer is and what other rites might not have that.”

“I’m less concerned about authorizing rites,” said Bishop Nick Knisely of Rhode Island, “as much as I am about where we do our work of theology and where we define the deposit of our shared faith. I’m wondering about the implication if we have to explain to people what it is that this church believes about life after death, what is it that we believe about baptismal regeneration, what is it we believe happens in the Eucharist. If we expand the definition of the prayer — and I’m open to that question — how do we think through the process of expanding our theological language?”

The conversation was clearly frustrating for some bishops. The Rt. Rev. Mary Glasspool, assisting bishop in the Diocese of New York, confessed, “If one were to diagram my thought processes — which I’m sure you don’t want to do — I started in complete confusion, and it went up to clarity, and the more people talk, it’s going back into confusion. … What would happen, theoretically, if we passed both of these resolutions? I’m not getting the difference right now. …

“I’m hearing a clear need for evaluation and discernment around a lot of texts that are out there, and I’m hearing a clear need from the LGBT+ community to support marriage equality in terms of the sacrament of marriage in the church. I’m not clear that either of these resolutions does either of those things. … I guess I’m asking for clarification, but I’m not sure anyone can give it.”

Provenzano, however, expressed gratitude for the way in which these important issues were being handled by the house. “One of our colleagues said, ‘Welcome to making sausage.’ We don’t ever do this very often. … This is a very rich moment in the history of our house, for us to be able to have this conversation. If there’s anything that looks like conflicting resolutions, that creates this kind of dialogue and thoughtfulness before we make a decision, then I’m very proud of having done some sausage-making.”

Before the voting totals were announced, Presiding Bishop Curry said to the bishops, “There’s a deeper conversation here: what is the nature of and content of the Book of Common Prayer? It was easier when it was a book. It gets a little bit more complex. Regardless which way this vote goes, if there is concurrence from the House of Deputies, and we won’t know that until they consider it.

“Even if there’s not concurrence, the nature of the Book of Common Prayer in light of the 21st-century world in which we live is the question that now is actually confusing me. I won’t project on you. I think that is a question worth deeper and further conversation and reflection, and I would ask that the standing commission consider taking this up, and inviting us as a church into that conversation.”

Before the bishops could consider the revised text of the resolution, Bishop Hollingsworth, who had earlier requested more time for conference at tables, moved to postpone a decision. “The vote on B011 showed an even division that may reflect two clear perspectives or also may reflect confusion about the difference between the original and the substitute resolutions. The nature of the questions asked before we voted support the latter,” he said.

“The shortened schedule and the technological challenges left us in a reactive rather than a proactive posture. It gave us no room to pursue a more common ground. I fear we may send something to the House of Deputies that will not pass, and the result would be exactly what Bishops Provenzano and Lee said that they did not want — to kick this down the road. And it will be a six-year road, and so I ask that we postpone and give a group or groups of people — who are concerned about finding a common ground and having something to present to the House of Deputies that might be more inclusive of both perspectives — be allowed.” The motion passed with only a few dissenting voices.

Celebrating Barbara Harris

Earlier in the afternoon session, the bishops voted to approve an amendment to Resolution C023 to establish a commemoration of the consecration of Bishop Barbara Harris on February 11, with appropriate texts to be prepared by the Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music.

Bishop Michael Smith of Dallas and Albany, who proposed the amendment, pointed out that commemorating this event was similar to the existing commemorations of the consecration of Samuel Seabury and the ordination of Florence Li-Tim-Oi, and that it emphasized Harris’ consecration and not her sanctity.

“The day she was consecrated was the day the whole church came together,” said the Rt. Rev. Gayle Harris, her successor as Bishop Suffragan of Massachusetts. “This is honoring that this church moved to have a woman in the House of Bishops. She served well. This isn’t just about her, but about all of us women who are here. … We don’t need to wait until another convention. It’s been long enough, and it’s time now to commemorate both history and Barbara.”

Sixteen dioceses had submitted resolutions to the convention urging the establishment of a day on the church calendar to celebrate Harris’s witness, some of them specifying March 13, the date of her death in 2020. The convention’s Prayer Book, Liturgy & Music Committee had not recommended approval for these resolutions because they conflicted with a provision in Resolution A010 that would normatively delay the adding of new saints to the calendar until 50 years after their deaths because “the passage of time permits the testing and flowering of their Christian witness.”

New Custodian of the Prayer Book

As one in a series of appointments to positions of churchwide service, the House of Bishops also appointed the Rt. Rev. Neil Alexander, former Bishop of Atlanta and dean and president of the School of Theology at Sewanee, as the Custodian of the Book of Common Prayer. The custodian is responsible for recording any alterations made in the text of the prayer book by General Convention and of certifying that new printings conform to the official copy. Alexander replaces the Rev. Dr. Juan M. Cabrero-Oliver, who had served in the role since 2015.


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