By Benjamin M. Guyer
The Episcopal Church’s 79th General Convention is debating whether to revise the Book of Common Prayer, with the House of Deputies voting largely in favor of revision. Many in the House of Bishops appear hesitant.
Deputy News has published at least five articles on point: a general primer on the topic, an article supporting revision now, an article supporting revision after further study, an article opposing revision, and an article calling for better liturgical translations. On July 3, The Washington Post published a rather one-sided article (it ignored the traditional perspective), and other articles have since appeared in other media outlets.
Miranda Hassett wrote the article supporting revision after further study; she expresses concern that the Episcopal Church first determine “a criterion of effectiveness.” I agree.
In this brief essay, I critique the argument for liturgical change made by the unrepresentative, self-segregated, all-female House of Deputies Special Committee on Sexual Harassment and Exploitation. They argue that the abuse of women by men should marginalize the use of traditional (re: masculine) metaphors for God.There are good reasons to develop the liturgy, but the special committee offers none.
The Critique Critiqued
The Special Committee claims that “The predominantly masculine language of the 1979 Book of Common Prayer limits our vision and creates a context in which male dominance and power is considered normative, implicitly providing theological support for exploitation and harassment of women” (p. 12). But where is the empirical evidence? Theirs is a remarkable claim, but assertion is not explanation. Every accusation should be tested, and every community has the right to do so. What is authoritarianism if not the abrogation of due process?
Further, it is self-defeating to make “exploitation and harassment” negative criteria for altering or excluding portions of our centuries-old liturgical vocabulary. If the abuse of a good thing renders it bad, then nothing will prove usable. Should women eventually exploit and harass men (assuming they haven’t already), the special committee’s criteria will require us to blame and alter feminine liturgical language as well. Whatever we replace it with will eventually prove troublesome, and the pursuit of an immaculate vocabulary will remain interminable. It is neither pastoral nor charitable to demand that people begin a project that they cannot complete. (I note that the recent “Memorial” to General Convention made an important related point about the abuse of language and its redemption in Jesus Christ.)
It is equally self-defeating to make purity a positive criterion for developing our liturgical vocabulary. The committee’s proposed solution is that “The BCP could make more use of biblical texts, drawing from neglected feminine imagery in scripture” (ibid.), but this can only work if feminine imagery is somehow innocent or righteous in a way that male imagery is not. Who could possibly adjudicate such a claim fairly? I doubt that anyone can. The special committee, a strategically appointed group that consists only of partisans, certainly cannot.
Finally, the special committee’s accusation risks being zero-sum emotional manipulation. Correlation is not causation. Justice requires establishing a causal connection between events. It is not enough to assert that because two things happen in the same space, they mutually implicate and condemn one another. Yes, references to God are largely male; yes, some men harass women; but how could one possibly show a relationship between these? The special committee offers no criteria for doing so. Perhaps it has none?
There may be good reasons for liturgical revision, but we need a better understanding of language than the special committee provides. Yes, words have histories, and yes, histories can oppress, but no historical horizon can ever fully bind words and meanings. Language remains disruptively and disconcertingly free, despite its most destructive uses. Claiming otherwise requires living either in the past or in a fantasized future. Because the special committee does both, it offers nothing viable for the present.