By Brandt Montgomery
My first experience of the 1979 Book of Common Prayer was in 1997 on my first day of seventh grade at St. Peter’s Episcopal Day School in Talladega, Alabama. The service was Rite II Morning Prayer, and, having never experienced liturgical worship, I felt my mind blown open. Prayer book worship caused me to develop a deeper interest in my Christian faith. I found myself praying more and developing a relationship with Jesus. The 1979 Prayer Book helped me become an “intentional” Christian and soon after an Episcopalian.
Now, 39 years after the prayer book’s institution, its revision is a pressing issue. For many of us, the 1979 BCP is the only prayer book we’ve known. For others, it is their second. And although its revision has been longed for by some and dreaded by others, what is important now is how we proceed together, since it seems likely we must anticipate some version of prayer book revision, after the House of Deputies voted in Resolution A068.
That resolution has, among other things, called for the revision process to
Continue in faithful adherence to the historic rites of the Church Universal as they have been received and interpreted within the Anglican tradition of Common Prayer and mindful of our existing ecumenical commitments while also providing space for, encouraging the submission of, and facilitating the perfection of rites that will arise from the continual movement of the Holy Spirit among us and growing insights of our Church.
Precisely for these reasons a Memorial to the 79th General Convention arose regarding liturgical language. Jody Howard has written a piece describing the memorial’s background and goals. Many thanks to him, as well as J. Wesley Evans, Kara Slade, and their many revisers for their leadership in composing this document. As Jody noted, this memorial has been offered by its authors, revisers, and signatories “for the good of the Church, particularly the Episcopal branch of the Jesus Movement.”
It is important to note that this memorial does not come from one constituency. The signatories are progressives, conservatives, LGBT persons, evangelicals, Anglo-Catholics, persons of color, parish priests, academics, young clergy, and older clergy. This reinforces the truth that whatever differences exist between us, in Christ there is much more that unites us. Our united desire is to know and preach “nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1 Cor. 2:2).
The proclamation of Christ through our liturgical rites should be the raison d’être of BCP revision. We gather together as God’s people through the liturgy to proclaim our common faith and reaffirm our commitment to the one true God. This is why the signatories “call upon the Episcopal Church … to keep [this thought] close to their hearts, and at the forefront of their minds” for the maintenance of theological integrity. Anglicanism is a branch of the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church, and in our baptismal covenant we pledge “to continue in the Apostles’ teaching and fellowship” (1979 BCP, p. 304). The new prayer book should reflect a continuation with the tenets of “the faith which was once delivered to the saints” (Jud. 1:3).
Some readers may be uncomfortable with some of these tenets, particularly gendered language describing the Trinity, and advocate their change. Yes, “God is spirit” (John 4:24), so is neither physical nor male nor female. Still, the signatories
affirm that the Trinitarian language of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is not simply metaphorical but is an important part of the inheritance of the catholic faith grounded in the revelation of Jesus, who himself referred to God as “Father” and taught us to pray in that manner.
Our affirmation comes from the facts that “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever” (Heb. 13:8) and “the word of the Lord abides forever” (1 Pet. 1:25; cf. Isa. 40:8). Christ used this language in his command to baptize all nations (Matt. 28:19: “in the name of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit”) and his Word never changes, nor shall it ever pass away. Add to the testimony of God’s Word two millennia of Christian tradition and the ecumenical witness of the Christian Church still using the Trinitarian name today, and we should see why we too should retain it. It is “essential for us as part of the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church, for our ecumenical commitments, and for our faithfulness to the Apostles’ teaching.”
I would challenge readers troubled with current Trinitarian language not to see it as exclusive. On the contrary, I contend that it signifies inclusion of all. Christ commands us to make disciples of all nations in God’s name as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. All people are welcome, no exceptions. Jesus died “for all, that those who live might live no longer for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised” (2 Cor. 5.15, emphasis added). This Good News is “integral to the Gospel. While [this language may be] experienced negatively in the world because of human sin, we affirm that Jesus redeems that which is abused.” God is not like us; he is infinitely better. We can take God at his word that his love is unconditional. Because of Jesus, we can trust that God truly loves and welcomes all who seek his mercy.
To quote from Jody’s post, “We hope that this memorial can contribute in some way to the staking out of a broad and comprehensive orthodoxy.” The orthodoxy of our prayer book will be crucial for the Church’s evangelism efforts in the forthcoming years. It will also be crucial for ecumenism, for we should “strive to excel in building up the Church” (1 Cor. 14.12). In retaining the traditions enumerated in the memorial that have proved good for so long, people will continue coming to the knowledge that the only name under heaven given for health and salvation is the name of Jesus Christ.
Although (in the interest of full disclosure) I dreaded this time coming, I stand ready and willing to join all of you in discerning where the Holy Spirit may be leading us. But also, with my fellow memorialists, I advocate that whatever this new prayer book will look like it must “conform to the Spirit’s revelation, and … our language of and about God [must] be guided by revelation — both in the Holy Scriptures, and more importantly in the Word made flesh, Jesus the Son.”