Bishops Chart the Prayer Book’s Future

Bishop Jeff Lee confers with Bishop Andy Doyle. | Randall Gornowich, Office of Public Affairs/Flickr photo

By Mark Michael

The House of Bishops voted unanimously Saturday evening to clarify the definition of the Book of Common Prayer in the church’s constitution, while proposing steps to classify dozens of additional liturgical texts approved in recent decades. The resolution, FA031, was hammered out as a compromise by a diverse group of bishops, including Andy Doyle of Texas, who led his colleagues through two hours of study and discussion on it before they took action.

Resolution FA031 was adopted as a substitute for another substitute resolution, B011, which had been approved by the house by only three votes on Friday afternoon. Bishop Lawrence Provenzano of Long Island, who had moved B011 and then participated in the group drafting FA031, confirmed that it achieved the goals he sought. Doyle said he and his colleagues had consulted with leaders from the House of Deputies in developing the resolution, and he was confident it could secure concurrence.

Bishop Mark Hollingsworth of Ohio, who moved FA031 after calling for postponement of action for a day, said he brought the motion forward “in humble admiration” for the work of his colleagues.

“This substantive resolution is the product of a dozen colleagues who worked very hard and remarkably collaboratively, each of them making a substantial contribution. It really was the best of what we do as siblings in Christ and as members of this church,” Hollingsworth said.

The house had spent much of the afternoon session as a committee of the whole, listening first to a presentation by Doyle about the text of FA031 and the issues it intended to resolve. They then discussed it in table groups, and brought a series of questions to Doyle and other members of the committee, including Provenzano and Bishop Jeff Lee of Milwaukee, who had defended the original resolution before the house on the subject, A059.

Doyle explained that his group was only proposing additional explanatory language about the meaning of the Book of Common Prayer for approval at this convention. This constitutional revision explains the book’s intention, “to be communal and devotional prayer,” as well as noting that it is “enriched by our church’s cultural, geographical, and linguistic contexts,” an important rationale for its continued revision.

The bishops added a clarification about the specific process by which the Book of Common Prayer could be revised: “No alteration thereof or addition thereto shall be made unless it has previously been authorized for Trial Use in accordance with this Article and the Canons of this Church.” This language was added, Doyle said, because “the church — both houses — do not want any liturgy to become prayer book liturgies in a hasty manner.”

The group also pulled out of both former resolutions attempts to classify the various kinds of liturgy in use besides the prayer book within Article X of the constitution. Article X, they deemed, should be used only for describing the Book of Common Prayer and Trial Use, a specific process undertaken by the church for the purpose of revising its authoritative text for worship and teaching. In the past several decades, Doyle noted, numerous rites have been approved under Article X’s permission for Trial Use, when it was never the church’s clear intention to use them as part of a new Book of Common Prayer.

These other liturgies (some approved with classifications like “supplemental use” or “experimental use”), the group of bishops said, should be handled in the church’s canons, not in Article X. This further distinguishes these liturgies from the texts that have what Doyle repeatedly called “Book of Common Prayer authority.”

In a resolution accompanying the constitutional revision, the bishops assigned the task of classifying these liturgies (all available at episcopalcommonprayer.org) to a working group including “the Custodian of the Book of Common Prayer, some members of Committee 12 of the 80th General Convention, some members of a Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music, and others as needed.” The working group would also develop canons that define the different kinds of rites and the nature of their authorization, bringing them back for approval at the 2024 General Convention.

“The constitution,” Doyle said, “should be the vessel that provides the boundaries in which we do the work of our canons. … We can’t do canonical work as part of that constitutional work. That has to be done separately.” He added that having consensus about the constitutional change is essential, because — unlike canonical revisions — it requires approval at two subsequent General Conventions.

Bishop Larry Benfield of Arkansas asked how the resolution’s vision compared with processes of liturgical development used in other parts of the Anglican Communion. Doyle answered, “I would say without these measures — both in the constitution, and with clarity around types of liturgical approvals and a clear process by which [they] are approved — we would end up with a plethora of liturgies and no common prayer — as in, perhaps, the Church of England,” referencing Common Worship, the multivolume collection the Church of England has used for worship since 2000.

In response to queries about other creative possibilities like discarding the word book, considering developments in communications technology; and creating equally authorized liturgies not called the Book of Common Prayer, Doyle emphasized the value of starting from the church’s familiar practice and honoring its history.

“There’s anxiety about this in the house. What we have to do in time of great anxiety is hold on to those things that we know. Right now, we have a 1979 Prayer Book that governs this church,” he said.

“There was a decision by this church to share together public and individual devotions that would be in common. There was also a sense that there would be other ways in which we might want to create different liturgies based on context, and this entered the conversation around language. …We could decide that every liturgy we pass has the same authority. That’s not who we are or who we have been. It might be who we become, but as for right now, I believe these two pieces continue the Episcopal nature of Book of Common Prayer worship, while allowing for other experimental use of liturgies created for contextual and missional purposes.”

Several bishops also asked about how full revision or the addition of same-sex marriage rites into the Book of Common Prayer might be accomplished under the process outlined by Resolution A031.

Doyle emphasized that A031 does not commit the church to prayer-book revision, but suggested that if the revisions to Article X proposed by A031 were approved for the first time in 2022, and then approved a second time — along with the recommended canons that classify additional liturgies — at the 81st General Convention in 2024, the church could then decide if it wished to begin a revision of the prayer book.

This revision, which would require “the provision of funds to undertake the cost of writing, collecting, translating, and printing a new Book of Common Prayer,” could be accomplished in two three-year cycles with a Trial Use process like the one used before the approval of the 1979 prayer book. This could mean a new Book of Common Prayer as early as 2031 or 2034.

Doyle noted “that there are new generations who are just discovering the 1979 prayer book as well, and find in it a great resource. When we look at conversations around some of the surveys done around renewal, we find that there’s a big generational divide between people who want — and don’t want — to move forward on prayer-book revision. The generational piece is actually quite astonishing. They’re not in favor of a new hymnal and they’re not in favor of [a new prayer book], but that’s because they live in a different world than the one we’re arguing about.”

Bishop John Taylor of Los Angeles said of the bishops at his table, “We are sensing two important values: the value of a good, careful, incremental, Anglican way to talk about what we mean by the prayer book and doing right by the prayer book, and at the same time, we sense there are a lot of people in our communities … who need our core liturgical documents to be a whole lot more culturally relevant and meaningful. The question is, especially on behalf of those who worked so hard on marriage equity, do you and those who worked so hard overnight on this believe that this is the best possible way to achieve both these values?”

“Yes. I do,” Doyle answered. “I actually think it protects us as we make those decisions by having first determined how that will happen, with clarity, by this house.”

Several bishops expressed gratitude for the tone and substance of the discussion and decision-making. Lee said, “This has been completely collaborative, and I’m kind of blown away that we did that and that we are doing that.”

Bishop Mary Glasspool, Assisting Bishop of New York, said: “I think this resolution is brilliant. I’m amazed that we’re in this four-day convention, and somehow, squeezing into that intensity has driven us deep. This is the best conversation that I have been a part of in the 11 years that I have been a bishop.”

Though he signaled his gratitude for the group’s work and support for the compromise resolution, Bishop John Bauerschmidt of Tennessee also said, “I think it would be a great encouragement to many in the church to include an assurance here in this constitutional change — as we negotiate this over this convention and the next one — that the 1979 prayer book will be available for use in all dioceses and congregations of this church. I think that’s part of why we memorialized it back in 2018.

“It would also have the virtue of not repeating the mistake — which we repented of at a subsequent convention sometime later — at the time of the introduction of the 1979 prayer book, about the continued use of the 1928 prayer book. It would be encouraging for many to know … in the corporate memory of this body, that we are committing ourselves to the widest possible latitude that we can afford others in the church, in making it permissible to use the 1979 prayer book.”

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