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A Summary of the Authorization of Liturgical Texts

Prayer Book Revision and General Convention, Part 2

By Matthew S. C. Olver

This is the second essay in my series on Resolution 2022-A059, the first reading of a complete revision to Article X of the Constitution, the section that establishes the Book of Common Prayer and outlines the process for its amendment and possible revision. In the previous essay, I described the nature and purpose of the Constitution in the Episcopal Church’s canon law, the difference between the function of the Preamble in that Constitution and the Preamble of the U.S. Constitution, and the legal position of the prayer book in relationship to the self-understanding of the Episcopal Church and its Faith and Order. I now turn to a second task: a summary of the ways that the General Convention has authorized liturgical texts, including ways that are clearly in accord with Article X as well as ways that are well beyond what it and the canons permit. This task is also essential in order to rightly understand Resolution 2022-A059, since it both seeks to revise the nature of the prayer book and to address some serious problems with the various ways that the Episcopal Church has undertaken the authorization of liturgical texts beyond the Book of Common Prayer and the few revisions to the current prayer book that have taken place since 1979.

The Short History of Article X

The current Article X began its life as Article VIII in the first Constitution of 1789. Then, it simply established the Ordinal, the Articles of Religion, and the use of the first American prayer book as the authorized liturgy of this church, which clergy were required to use. All three items were nearly always printed as a single book. At that point, the Constitution did not contain any provision for amendment or revision of the prayer book. While some controversy attends the matter, it is fair to say that the Articles remained established until the adoption of the 1979 prayer book, when they were placed in a newly created section of the prayer book entitled “Historical Documents of the Church.” The Ordinal was no longer a separate entity, but fully incorporated in the 1979 BCP. Even so, it was not until the Convention of 1988, some nine years later, that the Ordinal and the Articles were deleted from the opening sentence of Article X.

However, the first revision to Article X began decades before  in 1811, when the possibility of hasty revision compelled the General Convention to add the following language to the Article:

No alteration or addition shall be made in the Book of Common Prayer, or other offices of the Church, unless the same shall be proposed in one General Convention, and by a resolve thereof made known to the Convention of every Diocese or State, and adopted at the subsequent General Convention.

150 years later, the Standing Liturgical Commission (the predecessor body to the Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music) wrote

The advantages of this procedure are obvious:

It assures the Church that the liturgy cannot be recklessly altered by a passing whim and without due consideration over a period extending for at least three years, though usually for six years or more. It provides sufficient opportunity for any member of the Church to air his views and to seek support for his opinions. Thus the Church is insured against arbitrary and autocratic action. The procedure gives ample time for the ripening of judgment upon any proposal, and, as past experience has shown, it almost inevitably leads to preponderant majorities for or against specific proposals when the time of final voting arrives. Certainly the record of voting in the General Convention during the revisions of 1880-1892 and 1913-1928 reveals that no sizable minority could claim that any changes of major import were passed by narrow margins, or that its conscientious acceptance of what was finally adopted was threatened.

This standard of two sequential General Conventions — the “Two Convention Rule” — remains in the Constitution to this day. As we will see, its rules were (mostly) followed when the General Convention made the only two revisions to the current 1979 Prayer Book that have taken place: a revision of the lectionary and the addition of some lesser feasts to the prayer book’s calendar.

In the years that followed, the General Convention introduced three exceptions to the Two Convention Rule: lectionaries and rubrics concerning the psalms, the role of bishops as the chief liturgical officer of the diocese, and a category known as “trial use.” For those who don’t keep canon law on their bedside table, it will be helpful to see the text of Article X as it now stands. I have included a few parenthetical notes in order to indicate when the various portions of the article were added, each of which I will discuss in more detail.

Article X: Of The Book of Common Prayer

The Book of Common Prayer, as now established or hereafter amended by the authority of this Church, shall be in use in all the Dioceses of this Church.

No alteration thereof or addition thereto shall be made unless the same shall be first proposed in one regular meeting of the General Convention and by a resolve thereof be sent within six months to the Secretary of the Convention of every Diocese, to be made known to the Diocesan Convention at its next meeting, and be adopted by the General Convention at its next succeeding regular meeting by a majority of all Bishops, excluding retired Bishops not present, of the whole number of Bishops entitled to vote in the House of Bishops, and by a vote by orders in the House of Deputies in accordance with Article I, Sec. 5, except that concurrence by the orders shall require the affirmative vote in each order by a majority of the Dioceses entitled to representation in the House of Deputies [This provision for “alteration or addition” was added in 1811]

But notwithstanding anything herein above contained, the General Convention may at any one meeting, by a majority of the whole number of the Bishops entitled to vote in the House of Bishops, and by a majority of the Clerical and Lay Deputies of all the Dioceses entitled to representation in the House of Deputies, voting by orders as previously set forth in this Article:

(a) Amend the Table of Lessons and all Tables and Rubrics relating to the Psalms. [Proposed at the 1874 General Convention and adopted in 1877; revised and mention of the psalms added in 1967]

(b) Authorize for trial use throughout this Church, as an alternative at any time or times to the established Book of Common Prayer or to any section or Office thereof, a proposed revision of the whole Book or of any portion thereof, duly undertaken by the General Convention. [Proposed at the 1964 General Convention and adopted in 1967]

(c) Authorize for use throughout this Church, as provided by Canon, alternative and additional liturgies to supplement those provided in the Book of Common Prayer. [Proposed at the 2018 General Convention and adopted in 2022]

And provided that nothing in this Article shall be construed as restricting the authority of the Bishops of this Church to take such order as may be permitted by the Rubrics of the Book of Common Prayer or by the Canons of the General Convention for the use of special forms of worship. [Proposed at the 1901 General Convention and adopted in 1904; echoed in in the second paragraph of “Concerning the Service of the Church” in the 1979 BCP (p. 13)]

The rest of this second article will be concerned with summarizing the ways that liturgical authorization has occurred in the Episcopal Church. It’s important to keep in mind (as I mentioned in the first essay) that the Preamble of the U.S. Constitution distinguishes itself from the body of the Constitution by being purely aspirational and containing no law:

We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

The constitution of the Episcopal Church, however, and the preamble added in 1967, is decidedly not aspirational but clearly legal, declaring self-identity by way of concrete realities and articulating “those laws which are ‘constitutive’ of the nature and function” of this church. Article X permits “alteration[s] thereof or addition[s] thereto” only according to the Two Convention Rule. This provision was utilized to authorize the 1892, 1928, and 1979 prayer books, the replacement of the Sunday and Holy Day lectionary with the RCL, and the addition of additional feasts (i.e., “black letter days”) to the sanctoral calendar in the 1979 prayer book.

General Convention has remained quite reticent to “make changes in the Prayer Book by bits and pieces,” as the SLC recommended back in PBS15, and the few attempts to revise this or that portion of the BCP have always failed. There are, however, two items to note about these processes. The first is that since the creation of the SLC/SCLM, all uses of Article X’s provision for alteration or addition to the BCP have originated with those bodies without exception. The SLC/SCLM has always been the source of any proposal to revise the Book of Common Prayer.

Second, the lectionary and calendar revisions both occurred in a way that didn’t follow the directions of Article X. General Convention treated their authorization for trial use as the First Reading of an alteration to the BCP. But, the way Article X reads, the Two Convention Rule works the same for revisions to the prayer book as for revisions to the Constitution. In other words, one must pass a First Reading of the revision (as Convention did for the 1979 prayer book with 1976-A105 or with the revision to Article X in 2018-A063), and then adopt the identical revision at the next Convention (which was done with resolutions 1979-A133 and 2022-A145 respectively). Trial use in Article X is an exception to the Two Convention Rule. The paragraph describing Trial use does not state that any alteration or addition must first be adopted for trial use. That might be a good idea, but it is not what is outlined in Article X. This is the first way the General Convention has not followed the constitution when revising the prayer book.

The Three Exceptions to the Two Convention Rule

As can be seen in the current text of Article X, it lists three exceptions to the Two Convention. The first exception is the ability to revise the lectionary (and later the rubrics concerning the psalms) at just one convention. This exception was utilized in 1877 and 1943 to revise the Daily Office lectionary and then again in 2006, when the Convention amended “the Lectionary on pp. 889-921 of The Book of Common Prayer” and replaced it with the RCL, using this first exception (though oddly the authorizing resolution, 2006-A077, makes no reference to Article X, as most resolutions tend to do when altering the prayer book). While the Convention voted down a proposal from the Diocese of New York at the 2009 Convention (C029) to allow a choice between the RCL and the 1979 lectionary under the direction of the Ecclesiastical Authority, the very next Convention in 2012 legislated “[t]hat worshiping communities wishing to use the lectionary for Sundays and Holy Days as originally printed in the Book of Common Prayer (1979) may do so, with the permission of the Ecclesiastical Authority” (B009). Thus, both lectionaries are permitted to be used under the direction of the ecclesiastical authority. This is the extent to which this exception has been utilized since its introduction.

The second exception to the Two Convention Rule is “the authority of the Bishops of this Church to take such order as may be permitted by the Rubrics of the Book of Common Prayer or by the Canons of the General Convention for the use of special forms of worship.” This exception has been utilized many times since its introduction:

  • For the Book of Offices in 1916;
  • For permission to use versions of the Nicene Creed that omit the Filioque clause (1994-D056);
  • For continued use of the 1928 BCP 1979-A121 and in 2000-B042 “under the ecclesiastical authority subject to the guidelines for supplemental liturgical materials” (though it is unclear what is meant by the phrase, “the guidelines for supplemental liturgical materials;” possibly those outlined in 1977-A121?);
  • In the authorizing resolutions for Enriching our Worship between 1997-2012. The first time they were authorized without being subject to ecclesiastical authority was after they had been authorized without a time limited in 2012-A057. The resolution that re-authorized EOW without reference to their use being subject to the bishops originated, it is important to note, not with the SCLM, but with a member of the House of Deputies (see 2018-D046);
  • For the use of two alternatives psalters (1997-A074);
  • For permissive use of the RCL in 2003-A103;
  • For “The Witness and Blessing of a Lifelong Covenant” (2012-A049) and same-sex blessings and marriages in 2015 (A054).

These exceptions remind us of the extent to which they express a fundamental principal about the episcopal office, namely, that it is constitutive of the ministry of “the Bishop [is to function] as chief pastoral and liturgical officer” (1979-A121).

The third exception to the Two Convention Rule was the introduction of trial use in 1964, a category that was intended to make for an orderly process of proposal and feedbacks as part of the process that led to the 1979 Book of Common Prayer. It was used extensively for that process, as well as for the use of some modern translations for the epistles and gospels in the Sunday lectionary and a few ecumenical liturgies. Lesser Feasts and Fasts was authorized under this exception in 1967, 1970, and 1973. This might seem odd, since its contents have never been, nor are they now, a part of the prayer book. Trial use, remember, only refers to possible revisions of or additions to the BCP. But a look at the various Prayer Book Studies reveals that there was a debate leading up to the 1979 BCP about how much material for daily eucharistic celebrations for “black letter feasts” (collects and proper lessons) might be included in a revised prayer book as they had been, for example, in the 1954 South African Book of Common Prayer. At this point, the Convention was being careful to authorize liturgical materials in strict accordance with the Constitution and Canons.

Trial use also appears in 1985 Resolution (A095) that directed the SLC “to prepare inclusive language texts for the regular services of the Church,” i.e., Morning and Evening Prayer and the Holy Eucharist, to be proposed for trial use, the result of which was Enriching our Worship 1.

Trial use, however, has been utilized in a number of questionable ways. In 1985, 1994, and 2006, collects and proper lessons for new lesser feasts were authorized for trial use, even though they were not additions to the prayer book but to Lesser Feasts and Fasts. Trial use was also used in the resolutions that functioned as the first reading to add lesser feasts to the calendar in the Book of Common Prayer (1997-A080 and 2006-A063). But these resolutions treated the trial use authorization as if it was a First Reading of a revision to the BCP, even though this is not the process outlined in Article X. In 2018-D078, it was used to authorize expansive and inclusive language versions of Prayers A, B, and D, even though this departed from the precedent that only trial use liturgies had arisen from the SCLM. Finally, 2018-B012 authorized the new marriage rites “for continued trial use,” even though trial use does not require continued authorization. 2018-B012 is also the second time that trial use was utilized by General Convention when the proposal did not arise from the SCLM.

Further Ways that the Episcopal Church has Authorized Liturgical Rites

In addition to the authorizations just described (and in a few cases, within the authorizations above), the General Convention has used language in its legislation that has no basis in either the Constitution and Canons. Two of the most used liturgical resources, Lesser Feasts and Fasts (LFF) and The Book of Occasional Services (BoS), have been authorized with the language of “optional use.” The first use in 1973 for LFF uses the term in connection with its use being “under the direction of the Bishop of each jurisdiction” and cites the trial use exception from Article X (A148). When it was reauthorized in 1976, the qualifier about its use being “under the direction of the Bishop” disappeared, but it retains an appeal to trial use in Article X (A111), since the 1979 BCP had yet to be authorized. Finally, when it is authorized for the last time in 1979 (A056), the reference to trial use also disappeared, probably because it is not a revision of the prayer book, and the prayer book did not include collects and propers for lesser feasts. Like LFF, The Book of Occasional Services is also authorized in 1979 (A055), for a rite to be added to the BoS in 1982 (A075), and 2022 (A066) “for optional use throughout this Church,” but without reference to being under the authority of the bishop or by appeal to trial use in Article X.

Starting, in 1979, “optional use” seems to function more like a technical term, but without any basis in the Constitution and Canons. A few other authorizing phrases have been used only one or two times:

Optional use and experimental use, as well items “commended for study and use” or simply “made available” are never subject to the bishop’s permission; occasional use and provisional use are always connected to the bishop’s permission. None of these non-constitution/canonical authorizing phrases are found in the Constitution and Canons and none of the authorizing resolutions make reference to Article X.

The need for clarity in the Constitution and Canons at this point is, I trust, obvious. There are a number of types of liturgical materials beyond the prayer book which the General Convention has authorized and they could be categorized as follows:

  • Rites that are alternatives to those in the Book of Common Prayer:
    • Subject to the bishop’s authority:
      • The 1928 BCP;
      • Two alternative psalters;
      • The original 1979 Sunday and Holy Day eucharistic lectionary.
    • Not subject to the bishop’s authority
      • EOW 1, alternatives for Morning and Evening Prayer, the Holy Eucharist, and the Great Litany. These were subject to ecclesiastical authority beginning in 1997, but since 2018 they are no longer subject to ecclesiastical authority;
      • Those parts of EOW 2 and EOW 3 that provides alternative burial rites. Again, these were subject to ecclesiastical authority, but since 2018 they are not;
      • All the trial use marriage rites;
      • The expansive language version of Prayers A, B, and C.
    • Rites that are supplemental to those in the Book of Common Prayer (none of whose uses are limited under the direction of the bishop):

It is in light of this rather convoluted and unsystematic situation that we come to the revisions to Article X that started in 2018.


We are now in a place to see just how cobbled together have been the actions of General Convention around the authorization of liturgical rites since the 1979 BCP. Up through the authorization of the current prayer book, Convention was assiduously careful to follow the letter of Article X when it came to authorizing rites. But since then, there has been slippage. First, it is problematic that the authorization of additions to the calendar have not followed Article X. To be clear, I do not think that those who did so had any intention of lawlessness. The fact that they authorized them first as trial use and then as a “second reading” indicates their intention to follow the law. But, technically, they did not. This, I think, is simply an indication of a inattention to the Constitution and Canons.

A conversation I had as part of the Task Force on Liturgical and Prayer Book Revision illustrates the mentality that had become normative, even among the most moderate and level-headed members of the House of Bishops. A bishop and I were discussing the revision to Article X that was given a first reading and adopted in 2022 (see Resolution 2022-A145). I suggested that the revision was written to be so broad and vague that it would create more problems that it solved.

“Oh, I wouldn’t worry about that,” the bishop replied. “That’s just how we do things at General Convention. We pass something, and then later try and figure out what it means.”

“But that makes no sense!” I replied. “Why not just take the time to craft a careful solution and pass that?”

The bishop just looked at me like I was kid who had asked too many times when dinner will be ready.

The other significant problem that this history demonstrates is that liturgical rites have been authorized with language that has no basis on our canon law. In other words, it is questionable whether the General Convention had the authority to do what is has purported to do. Lesser Feasts and Fasts (LFF) and The Book of Occasional Services (BoS), have been authorized with the language of “optional use” even though the Constitution and Canons has no such language and provides no such authority. The same is true for texts authorized “for provisional use” and “for experimental use.” Furthermore, the utilization of Trial Use as the only canonical path available for legally authorizing rites that are alternatives to the prayer book (and both of these revisions arising from somewhere besides the Standing Committee on Liturgy and Music) highlights just how profound is the need for clear categories and procedures for these texts and clarity about their relative authority and the degree to which their use is subject to the authority of the bishop. It is to this topic that I will turn in the next, penultimate essay.



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