By John C. Bauerschmidt
“If you want to know what Episcopalians believe, look in the Book of Common Prayer.” This statement is a well-worn commonplace of Episcopal Church life. We may take it as substantially true, although there are important modifiers to keep in mind.
The church’s Constitution and Canons contain doctrinal content in places, as do resolutions of conventions, statements of bishops, and other forms of teaching, even down to the parish level. This last category differs from the prayer book and the church’s governing documents in being doctrinally non-binding.
Undergirding all this is reference to the Holy Scriptures, on which the Book of Common Prayer and all other formularies and statements rest. Article XX of the Articles of Religion sets forth the classic standard: “The Church hath power to decree Rites or Ceremonies, and authority in Controversies of Faith: and yet it is not lawful for the Church to ordain anything that is contrary to God’s Word written, neither may it so expound one place of Scripture, that it be repugnant to another.” It’s significant that the Episcopal Church authorizes translations of Holy Scripture but never purports to authorize the Bible, simply recognizing and receiving it.
Having these references in mind, we may still agree that the Book of Common Prayer has doctrinal content that expresses what we believe. It is not simply a compendium of liturgies, assembled between the covers of a book or a series of digital files for the sake of convenience. People look to it for what Episcopalians believe because these are the words Episcopalians pray. Furthermore, the prayer book has been authorized by the church as a whole, established by the General Convention as “the Liturgy of this Church,” requiring its members to receive it as such (“The Ratification of the Book of Common Prayer ”). It has a unique authority for Episcopalians.
As an expression of what we believe it also serves as a source of unity. Episcopalians have disagreed about many things over the years, but the prayer book has remained a focus of unity, authorized by the church for the use of the church. Though there has never been complete uniformity in practice, the prayer book has served as a unifying force. Its liturgies allow for variety and flexibility within reasonable parameters without undercutting the principal of unity.
Episcopalians of different theological perspectives are accustomed to using common forms of prayer without prejudice to their doctrinal commitments. This has been the case in Anglican churches since the English Reformation. The exercise of articulating formularies that broadly express the mind of the church and are acceptable to its members is a source of unity. These forms of prayer are meant to be where we come together as a church in order to authorize, to make authoritative.
Any proposal for revision of the prayer book that hints at doctrinal change deserves to be approached with caution. So it is with proposals coming before General Convention in July (such as the one sponsored by the church’s Task Force on Marriage) to add gender-neutral liturgies to the Book of Common Prayer. These liturgies, already authorized for trial use with the permission of the bishop, were drawn up with same-sex marriage in mind, but could be used by any couple. A proposed revision along these lines cannot help but have serious doctrinal implications.
A part of this proposal of particular concern to members of the church committed to the traditional teaching that “Christian marriage is a solemn and public covenant between a man and a woman in the presence of God” (BCP, p. 422) is the change in the section “Concerning the Service,” declaring Christian marriage to be a covenant simply between two people. A similar modification of the definition of Holy Matrimony as it currently appears in the Catechism — as “Christian marriage, in which the woman and man enter into a life-long union” (BCP, p. 861) — would also be troubling. This is especially the case as our Catechism has never purported to be the teaching of the Episcopal Church in particular, but a straightforward expression of the Christian Church’s teaching.
It is now possible for two people of the same sex to marry in the Episcopal Church, subject to the bishop’s permission to use the trial liturgies for that purpose. The canons of the church were changed at the 2015 General Convention to remove any ambiguity or question of the legality under church law of such marriages, which were already being performed in many places prior to the change. This performance created a “facts on the ground” argument for canonical change. This canonical change is now being leveraged to argue for changes in our prayer book formularies.
We have come a long way from permission to bless people’s unions, argued after the fact from the existence of such unions, to where we are now: contemplating changes in authoritative statements in the Book of Common Prayer about the nature of Christian marriage. These are exactly the texts that are widely supposed to represent consensus in the church, texts that we wisely hold to a strong scriptural standard. As an exercise in “tidying up” church doctrine, it has the unfortunate result of no longer expressing the Church’s traditional teaching in the Book of Common Prayer. As an attempt to make the trial liturgies more widely available, it is a singularly blunt instrument to employ.
Ordained leaders who are committed to the traditional teaching on Christian marriage will be concerned about the “doctrine, discipline, and worship of the Episcopal Church” to which they pledge conformity. Leaders of all sorts in the church will wonder whether space will be left for affirmation of the traditional teaching in the life of the Episcopal Church. If it is true that theological traditionalists have a valued place in the church, and if the Episcopal Church is to remain theologically diverse, then good answers to these questions need to be discovered and implemented. Revision of the prayer book at this time seems imprudent and likely to be injurious in the absence of convincing answers.