By Scott Gunn
Editor’s note: This is the sixth piece in The Living Church’s Necessary or Expedient? teaching series in prayer book revision. It appeared in the Jan. 22 issue. Mark Michael’s “Are we done with the ’79 prayer book?” is the well-known first piece in the series. Further essays in Necessary or Expedient? will appear here in the coming weeks and months. Click here to find and then bookmark the series. (Fr. Robert Hendrickson’s contribution, the fifth entry in the series, will appear online next week. They have been published out of sequence online.)
I have been working on a book about the basic beliefs and practices of the Episcopal Church, and every now and then I like to crowdsource what I write. Recently I asked my Facebook friends what they understand to be happening when we baptize someone. “Nothing at all,” a few people said with startling boldness. Several others said baptism recognizes that God already loves us, but that no change is effected in the sacrament. To be sure, some people did give answers that sounded orthodox.
I have been saying for a few years that we have a catechetical crisis in the Episcopal Church, and this Facebook exchange confirmed what I suspected. Many among the laity, and not a few of our clergy, do not seem to grasp the fundamental meaning and purpose of baptism and Eucharist. This is a problem in its own right, and it must surely color any conversation about prayer book revision.
The 1979 Book of Common Prayer has a much-vaunted baptismal ecclesiology. But what good is that if we have not taught the members of our church about baptism? We have moved to a weekly celebration of the Eucharist in nearly every congregation, but to what end?
We run into the limits of catechesis very quickly when conversation turns to who may receive Holy Communion. Two millennia of practice and teaching are clear. Our prayer book is clear. Our canons are clear. It may be possible to make a theological case for changing our practice, but that case would necessarily undermine the baptismal ecclesiology we are so quick to celebrate.
I have heard it said that church growth requires a new prayer book, but I have seen no evidence to back this assertion. Sure, there are vibrant congregations using experimental liturgies (Thad’s Place in Santa Monica or St. Gregory’s in San Francisco, to name two well-known examples). But there are many more examples of thriving congregations grounded in the prayer book, often using Rite I for their principal celebrations.
From my days of parish ministry, I cannot remember a seeker asking detailed questions about which eucharistic prayer we used. Instead, most of the seekers were hungry for ancient tradition and vigorous preaching of the gospel. I can hardly recall a time when someone was frustrated in a church search because of a rite. Much more often, I have learned that seekers want to hear preaching about Jesus and to find a community of disciples trying to follow him.
Liturgy matters, of course. But I’m not sure there’s a case to be made for or against prayer book revision based on the experience of seekers on Sunday morning. A seeker can have a wonderful or a terrible experience, regardless of the rite.
The Evangelism Matters conference in Dallas gathered more than 400 Episcopalians for energetic and purposeful conversations about evangelism. Liturgy was not a major theme at the conference, though a number of speakers talked about the importance of hospitality and invitation in weekly gatherings.
But the liturgy arose when participants chose workshop topics. One session was “Creative Liturgy and Evangelism,” while people in another room discussed “Traditional Liturgy as Mission.” These are not mutually exclusive, and it would have been fascinating to have these two groups talk with one another.
In his essay for this series, Fr. Victor Austin made the case that the mission of the church is at the heart of Eucharist, as we are drawn toward the Cross and Passion. As Jesus becomes our center, we are inevitably pushed outward to share the good news of his love with the world. I have made a similar case on my weblog, arguing that the Church’s place is gathered around the altar, but the place of the Church’s members is out in the world, doing mission work and sharing the good news of God in Christ. If this is the right direction, then we would do well to pay more attention to our liturgy, not less, as some would have it. We need a liturgy that nourishes us as disciples of Jesus Christ, so that we can be about the work God has given us to do.
But do we need a new prayer book for this purpose? Does our prayer book hinder us in evangelism and mission? Hardly. Our barriers to abundant life in Christ have little to do with liturgy. The 1979 prayer book is, if anything, a bit heavy-handed about propelling us out into the world.
Too many congregations turn the dismissal into a caricature, adorning it with superfluous alleluias and a kind of charismatic energy that is notably absent from the rest of the liturgy. It’s as if the dismissal were the announcement of a party instead of a solemn charge to serve the world in Christ’s name, in a way that will be dangerous if we take it seriously. If we do what the prayer book says, the dismissal is given from the altar immediately after the blessing, when the connection between nourishment, discipleship, and mission is unmistakable. This is one of many ways in which I suspect we would do well to use the prayer book (instead of detouring around it) before we convince ourselves of a need to jettison it.
Observing that Christendom has collapsed may be the best way to begin a case for prayer book revision. All sorts of assumptions were made in the 1970s that have proven untrue. In preferring that the principal service on Sundays be the Eucharist, the prayer book’s revisers did not imagine a world in which most seekers would be unbaptized. Sorting this out is important in conversations about prayer book revision.
But it’s easy enough to sidestep this quandary. Lately I have wondered if we would do well to offer a robust Morning Prayer on Sunday, geared especially toward seekers. As Fr. Austin notes, the offices can be ideal for seekers and visitors, because there is no need to leave one’s seat, which is awkward on a first visit.
My first real experience of Anglican worship was Evensong. I could just be there and soak it all in. When I came back to the same church on Sunday morning, the Holy Communion was terrifying, and it did not seem easy to stay put. I wonder if Morning Prayer offers a better way. Maybe we should continue the weekly Eucharist for committed disciples and offer prayer, praise, and teaching in the Office for seekers, explorers, and catechumens.
Sorting out prayer book revision will take years. I have a number of concerns, only a few of which I have raised in this article. I find the case for immediate revision unpersuasive. Apparently I am not alone in wondering if there is a way other than immediate prayer book revision.
The Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music has recently announced that it will be offering four paths forward for prayer book revision at the 2018 General Convention. These paths are (quoting from the SCLM blog):
1) Full and comprehensive revision of the 1979 Book of Common Prayer beginning after the 2018 General Convention;
2) Creation of comprehensive Book(s) of Alternative Services and no revision of the 1979 Book of Common Prayer, with work beginning after the 2018 General Convention;
3) Intensive church-wide conversation between the 2018 and 2021 General Convention about whether a revision of the Book of Common Prayer is needed or desirable; to what extent; and whether, if revision is not desirable, the Episcopal Church should instead develop significant supplemental liturgical resources, such as a Book of Alternative Services;
4) A step back from efforts toward comprehensive liturgical revision or creation of new liturgies, and an accompanying commitment to deepening the collective understanding of — and engagement with — the theology of our current liturgies.
General Convention will be asked to choose among these options, some of which are not mutually exclusive. It seems to me there is an opportunity here for the church to come together around our need for some revision while postponing a complete revision for which we are not yet prepared.
I suggest that we consider:
- Offering new rites that avoid gendered language for humanity and enrich the ways we address God (while avoiding heresy). Think of an updated Prayer C or other texts. This is SCLM option 3, headed toward option 2.
- Update the marriage rite very carefully to reflect the Episcopal Church’s practice and teaching. This is SCLM option 2, probably, headed toward option 1.
Perhaps the first can be done expeditiously with additional volumes in the Enriching Our Worship series. I favor changing the marriage service in the prayer book, but I understand that many will not share this view.
I wonder if we might also find a way to authorize materials from around the Anglican Communion for use in our church, subject to permission from each diocese’s ecclesiastical authority. Maybe instead of reinventing the liturgical wheel we can benefit from the careful work of our sister and brother Anglicans. Ghana uses the 1662 book with marvelous Catholic additions. Scotland has a marriage service with flexible pronouns that is lovely. Japan’s official English translation of the Eucharist is a delightful blend of Tridentine and modern influences. All of these options reflect an Anglican commitment to tradition and a very Anglican desire to contextualize the liturgy of the church. What better way to unite in mission than to pray in the words of our sisters and brothers? Without expensive liturgical development work, we could enrich our common life and strengthen our Anglican bonds, whilst practicing SCLM options 2 or 3 here.
I think we will need to take a liturgical journey. Before we embark, I would like us to make a good map and consult some travel books. And let’s make sure we know what’s good about where we are so that we can fully appreciate where we need to go.
The Rev. Scott Gunn is the executive director of Forward Movement.