I had occasion to visit another Episcopal church while on vacation. I realize that I set myself up for disappointment, since it was a “contemporary service.” I left the service terribly disappointed, but not for the reason the average reader of this blog might expect.

“Contemporary” in Episcopal/Anglican tribes most often betokens music written in the 1980s, but the music in this service was mostly from the 1990s, with a song or two from the first decade of this century. Not bad at all. Solid “contemporary” worship music.

This did not bother me: I may have lots of friends and colleagues who believe that God ordained high-art music as the music of the Church, but I am not in that camp. Guitar, drums, syncopation, and a 21st-century copyright are really fine with me.

(Forgive, however, a drive-by hit on the hurried tempo of the music: to me it is obvious when the music people are performing rather than worshiping. Please, not all contemporary music needs to be rushed. There, I got that off my chest.)

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My disappointment was in the rite.

Some of you may now be expecting a rant about Enriching our Worship and its siblings. Although I am certainly not a fan of the prayer-book supplements, I was unhappy with the rite on this day for a different reason.

This church used some selections from the New Zealand Prayer Book (for whatever reason, the preferred prayer book for many liturgical innovators), but it also drew mostly from the Australian Book of Common Prayer.

There’s the rub. I recognize that we are all part of the Anglican Communion, that we share a common heritage through the 1549 and 1662 prayer books, and that we ought to learn from each other. But, really? Are the liturgies from the Episcopal Church’s Book of Common Prayer so inadequate that we need to bring in a liturgy from someplace else? Why do we presume that our common rites are just not “with it” enough for contemporary expression in worship? Are leaders bored with the language? Do they disagree with it?

I really don’t have the answer there. But there are three reasons why using a non-authorized — albeit well-meaning — rite is a bad idea.

First, we are a church under authority. As parish priests, we do not have the authority to use an unauthorized rite.

If you want to be a liturgical innovator, go join a breakaway group. Some of them have no restrictions on such things. Episcopalians, however, are under the authority of the Constitution and Canons of the Episcopal Church, and we clergy set a bad example when we so prominently disregard our canons. The 1979 BCP is authorized for worship in our churches, not the New Zealand prayer book or the Australian or any other. (Yes, I know Enriching our Worship is authorized or, actually, proposed for use, subject to the approval of your local ecclesiastical authority, and there’s the option of “Rite III.” Those are topics for another day.)

Second, and this is equally compelling: we have been formed in the Episcopal Church as a people of common prayer. When we use other rites, even other Anglican rites, we are no longer praying commonly. If the 1979 prayer book rites is the norm in the vast majority of Episcopal churches — which I believe it is — then when we attend a church while out of town and they are not using one of the normative liturgies, we become a stranger in our own church.

For a score of decades in our church, one of the things that bound us together was our common worship life. Oh, certainly there were variations in style, but not of substance. We prayed the same prayers, and they formed our souls. With the multiplication of rites, whether authorized or not, we are losing that core identity that has bound us together and formed our identity.

The third reason using non-authorized rites is a bad idea is that doing so exhibits an individualism that is antithetical to a church aiming to be catholic.

If I am free to pick my own liturgy, then what else am I free to do? What am I not free to do? Anything? Who determines what is authorized and what is not? Just me?

Many Protestants do things individualistically; catholics do things collegially. Every bishop, priest, and deacon at ordination promises “to conform to the doctrine, discipline, and worship of the Episcopal Church” (BCP, pp. 513, 526, and 538). When clergy use non-authorized liturgies, they demonstrate that, mentally or physically, they really just had their fingers crossed when they made those vows.

About The Author

The Rev. Prebendary Dr. Neal Michell was born in Dallas, Texas, and grew up in Garland. Until recently, he was Dean of St. Matthew’s Cathedral in Dallas.

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As a Church of England priest who’s moving to the Anglican Church of Australia, I’m interested to know which bits of APBA were borrowed for the service of which you speak. I can’t see what would make it all that attractive to an ECUSA priest. I agree with your thoughts on liturgical obedience. Even the C of E, which has far less congregational independence than American Episcopal churches, deviation, albeit creative, is easy to find. One possible solution I’ve heard suggested is that bishops freely issue mission orders to allow deviations from canonical norms, so that those who want to… Read more »

Matthew Perreault

I very much appreciate the sentiments of this article. Beyond simply the call to canonical obedience, the call to Common Prayer is a reminder of our Anglican heritage and ecclesiology. We are not national ecclesial bodies; we are part of a world-wide communion that was once bound by common prayer, but which today faces much more hurdles in local use. One of the chief complaints about the Book of Alternative Services I have heard from my Anglican friends that have moved around (here in Canada) has been that the allowance of variance within the rubrics has meant that even moving… Read more »

Maureen Martin

Thank you for this article, it hits home for me in a very big way, because the only Episcopal church in town has tossed out the prayer book in favor of snippets from New Zealand, stuff written by the rector, and I think a Wiccan inspired Dr. Seuss parody. I’m not kidding, I thought the benediction this Sunday was going to break into red fish blue fish. I do morning prayer at home during the week, and during the Buddhist silence section of the service at this church I read from my prayer book, in order to feel connected to… Read more »

Leonel Abaroa Bolona

1. As a parish priest, you can request a temporary authorization from your bishop for using liturgies from other provinces.
2. The ECUSA’s BCP Communion Service is based on the Church of Scotland’s, and this has been the case since Seabury times. That’s an almost ancient precedent.
3. Catholic literally means ‘all times and all places’. All places.