By Mark Michael
On a divided vote on General Convention’s final day, the House of Bishops approved an amended form of Article X, which defines the Book of Common Prayer in the Episcopal Church’s Constitution.
The vote, which was required by the need for a technical fix of the resolution, came after several Communion Partner bishops registered significant concern about an explanation [see document at the bottom of this post] attached to the resolution that some bishops had not reviewed before unanimously approving an earlier form of Resolution A059 on the convention’s second day. Bishop Michael Hunn of Rio Grande offered a warm affirmation of commitment to keeping the Episcopal Church “wide enough to maintain [a] variety of interpretations.”
Explanations are commonly circulated with General Convention resolutions, and sometimes shape discussion of the meaning and intent of terminology within them. “The explanation is not part of the actions of General Convention, and is not part of the resolution,” said Bishop Sean Rowe, parliamentarian of the House of Bishops, in response to a question from the floor. “It will, however, be included in the Journal of General Convention.”
A059’s Last-Minute Explanation
The explanation of A059 was emailed to the bishops at 3:10 p.m. on the convention’s second day, during a session in which they were discussing the resolution’s meaning. Bishops George Sumner of Dallas and John Bauerschmidt of Tennessee confessed to the house that they had not read the explanation carefully before the bishops were asked to vote on it, about four and a half hours after it was sent. Several other bishops confirmed to TLC that they had not read the explanation before the vote.
The explanation that these bishops had not read was quoted extensively in floor speeches offered in support of Resolution A059 in the House of Deputies before it was approved by the deputies (also by a divided vote) at their evening session on July 10.
A059’s explanation was explicit about several matters that were left vague during the extended conversations on the floor of the house on Saturday. These include the process and timing for granting same-sex marriage rites the highest level of liturgical authority, the practicability of comprehensive prayer-book revision, and the meaning of General Convention 2018’s decision to “memorialize the 1979 Book of Common Prayer.”
“Based upon our discussion,” the explanation said, “we recognize the need for two things in our proposal. The first is the commitment to bring the marriage rites forward for consideration for Book of Common Prayer Status. The 2018 General Convention authorized these rites for trial use. We would commit as a house to bring them forward for a first reading in 2024. Perfection of the rites should take place in the 2023-2024 biennium.”
The term Book of Common Prayer Status, while not strictly canonical, was used multiple times by Bishop Andy Doyle of Texas in his teaching and discussion session in the house on Saturday. It indicates the highest level of liturgical authority, and the canons that the working group created by A059 has been asked to develop could develop language to establish it more clearly.
Because all additions to the Book of Common Prayer require approval at two consecutive General Conventions, were the 2024 General Convention to grant the highest level of authority to the same-sex marriage rites (perhaps by adding them to future editions of the printed book), the change would take effect after a second reading at the 82nd General Convention in 2027.
While the explanation proposed a complex and expensive nine-year process for comprehensive prayer-book revision akin to that undertaken before the authorization of the 1979 Book of Common Prayer, it also said, “We do not believe that we are prepared at this time to create a new prayer book for the church.”
The explanation added, “We have memorialized the 1979 Book of Common Prayer for usage and have continued to allow 1928 Prayer Book Usage. The 1979 Book of Common Prayer is at present the prayer book authorized for this church.”
This seems to offer an explanation of what was meant by “memorializing the 1979 Book of Common Prayer” in Resolution A068 at General Convention 2018. It also addresses the hope registered by Bishop John Bauerschmidt of Tennessee just before the house’s approval of A059 on Saturday evening that, “in the corporate memory of this body, 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.”
Offering Wide Latitude
Confessing that he “is not a techno-wizard,” George Sumner said it had taken him a whole day to locate the explanation text.
“However, exegesis being what it is, I have already heard several revisionist reads of the explanation. I’m wondering what it means for the house to commit to bring the revision in two years, what exactly it means — the memorialization of the book,” he said
“I wanted to reiterate … that the explanation is not part of the resolution, and does not bind us. It is aspirational, perhaps, but we’re not voting on the explanation, and we want the committee to spend the next two years thrashing all this out, and so maybe they will come to a conclusion different from what’s in the explanation. We Communion Partners are committed to being fully collaborative, and part of that process. Obviously, it matters a lot to us,” he said.
Bishop Michael Smith of Dallas and Albany, the chairman of Communion Partner Bishops, said of the group, “A core part of our mission is to help traditional Christians remain in the Episcopal Church. Many of them are in the pews of your dioceses, and they look to us for a reason to stay, and we hope to give them that. We’re hearing from them while we’ve been here. They pay attention to what we are doing. … We’ll have to respond, as we do after each General Convention, but I want you to understand, it’s not disloyalty to you, but it’s to our responsibility to them.”
Bauerschmidt said, “I think that there is more work to be done. … Part of the issue that we must grapple with is the way in which our prayer book is the ‘doctrine, discipline, and worship of the Episcopal Church’ that ordinands subscribe to at their ordination. The nature of what’s in the prayer book, and which prayer book you are saying you uphold, will be problematic for some ordinands if the 1979 prayer book is revised — period, full stop — without attention to the kind of subscription that ordinands make.
“Part of the work that still lies before us in this house and at the General Convention is the authoritative nature — the continuing authoritative nature — of the 1979 prayer book as it exists now, as a way in which ordinands can subscribe to that as an adequate expression of the Christian faith. This is work that still lies ahead of us in terms of communion across difference, how we will continue to be a big-tent church that offers wide latitude to its members and its ordained servants.
“That is work that remains, and that is considerable work that will need to blaze new trails for the Episcopal Church. … We do not want to preclude possible futures for many possible servants of this church in the future.”
Bishop Michael Hunn of Rio Grande responded to Bauerschmidt: “When we talk about the discipline of the church, we all swore that same vow, and every General Convention, the canons shift. And we do not say, ‘I swore to uphold the canons from — in my case —1997.’ What we recognize is that we are part of a living church that is breathing through the Holy Spirit, and our articulation of the discipline of the church does, in fact, move and grow with the Spirit.
“I hope we don’t get stuck on the ’79 prayer book being the only thing we swore to,” Hunn added. “The articulation of our church needs to be broad enough and wide enough to maintain those variety of interpretations, which is not the same thing as to say the gospel is wishy-washy, and you can make it mean whatever you might think. But it is to say, in the long history of the Anglican tradition, what binds us together is our worship, not that we all agree exactly on what that worship means. …
“It is Jesus Christ who binds us together, not our articulations, which are always provisional and often incorrect, in my opinion,” said Hunn. “We, together, stumble towards an articulation of the faith that Christ has given to us, and my commitment is to continue to work together to keep the tent broad enough that we can all continue to worship together.”