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Enriching Our Worship: A reading of its Trinitarian theology

Introduction (N.B. A few details in this post regarding the SCLM have been corrected in light of some helpful clarifications I received from a few current members; 11-10-15; a further clarification on 11-11-15 was received from A.K.M. Adam. See also parts 2 and 3 of this series.)

A conversation about Prayer Book revision is now on the table in the Episcopal Church. General Convention 2015 passed Resolution A169 directing “the Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music (SCLM) to prepare a plan for the comprehensive revision of the current Book of Common Prayer and present that plan to the 79th General Convention” (note: this resolution did not originate with the SCLM).  Jordan Hylden and Keith Voets voiced their profound concerns about Prayer Book revision on this blog in the final post of their three-part series “A Way Forward Together” (I strongly encourage readers to read that short article first). And then on October 8, 2015 Dr. Ruth Meyers of Church Divinity School of the Pacific and outgoing chair of the Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music for the Episcopal Church offered a web forum with her personal thoughts on Prayer Book revision in light of the resolution (see The Living Church’s story here and watch the entire presentation here).

Episcopalians need to consider this development very carefully, and our ecumenical partners should watch it closely. As a contribution to this discussion, my purpose here is to present two related items:

(a) the basic contours of the revised Holy Eucharist liturgy in the first volume of Enriching our Worship (henceforth, EOW1; see the entire document here and all the volumes in the series here);

(b) a consideration the Trinitarian theology contained therein.

Why look at EOW1? Every indication suggests that the work of EOW1, along with the new collects in Holy Women, Holy Men, signals the trajectory of further liturgical reform in the Episcopal Church. Dr. Meyers seemed suggested as much in her recent presentation. At the installation of the new Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, the Most Rev’d Michael Curry, on November 1, 2015 , the eucharistic prayer came not from the 1979 Book of Common Prayer (BCP) but from EOW1 (see pages 19-20 of the bulletin here). Thus, it is essential that all Episcopalians — particularly the bishops who are charged with the task of guarding “the faith, unity and discipline of the Church” (BCP 517) and are the chief liturgical officers for their dioceses (BCP 13) — read these rites and examine them carefully and with prayer.

The character of EOW1 is that of a resource. The texts within EOW1, its introduction explains, “may be used in two very different ways.” Probably the most common use of EOW1 is as a resource “in conjunction with the Rite Two liturgies of the 1979 BCP.” As much or as little of EOW1 could be incorporated into a Rite II liturgy, from just one element to four or five, including one of the three eucharistic prayers. There is also a second option: “to develop an entire liturgy using the supplemental texts. The entire eucharistic liturgy can be designed with only the collect of the day from the BCP being added” (EOW1, p. 14). These two different uses of EOW1 bring a real degree of complexity to a theological reading of its content. EOW1 is both a set of supplemental options and, conversely, a complete rite (either option, we should remember, is subject to the explicit permission of the diocesan bishop).

I have decided to approach this examination by analyzing the EOW1 as a whole eucharistic rite, all the while acknowledging that it could be used in a more ad hoc fashion. The careful reader will need to alter my analysis depending on how much or how little of EOW1 is used in a specific instance. The principle reason for my decision to analyze EOW1 as a complete rite is twofold. First, only the eucharistic prayers lend themselves to a theological reading on their own, and this is something that I will do in Part 3. Many of EOW1’s changes are small; trying to tease out an interpretation of each would be less than fair. Second, most of the publications related to the composition of EOW1’s materials argue that the principles that undergird its must be brought to fruition. [1] Until these principles have been fully implemented, the purpose of EOW1’s texts has not yet been realized, and the Episcopal Church remains constrained by (putatively) restrictive and biased language. Thus, at least from the perspective of the essay’s authors, and from my reading of Dr. Ruth Meyers’s recent address, the complete implementation of these principles is the ultimate goal in some set of future rites. From what a few members of the SCLM have said to me, this is not, however, the perspective of the whole of the SCLM. Some members have reservations about the language in EOW1 and some have strong reservations about revising the 1979 BCP. Thus, I want to take care not to paint with too broad a brush.

Nonetheless, my analysis will address the eucharistic rite as a coherent whole, both because EOW1’s introduction mentions such a potential use and also because a completely revised rite like that in EOW1 is the stated goal of at least some the SCLM (at least those who had a major hand in EOW1’s composition). Furthermore, I do not doubt that some congregations use EOW1 in place of the BCP rite. However, as I noted above, the reader should remember that the materials in EOW1 could be used simply as supplemental resources.

The principal concern that motivated EOW1 was about how we speak about God in our particular context. The initiative first appeared, its introduction explains, when “ears attuned to contemporary language and culture grew uncomfortable with liturgical metaphors and forms of address, inherited largely from the 18th and 19th centuries, in which God is primarily envisioned as a kind of Paterfamilias” (“Introduction,” EOW1, p. 8). More specifically, “one of the considerations in choosing or developing texts included in this collection has been the prayer experience of woman” (“Preface,” EOW1, p. 6). “Then as now,” their solution has never been to adopt the strategy of the modalist-sounding “Creator, Redeemer, Sanctifier/Sustainer” but rather to excavate language and metaphors from the tradition that have been underutilized: “in particular the writings of the Early Church, along with the ecstatic evocations of the Medieval mystics,” as well as “the riches of scripture and the Christian tradition, which include an abundance of images of God” (“Introduction,” EOW1, p. 8). One way to express the SCLM’s main theological concern with the range of language used thus far in Anglican liturgies is that the (over-)emphasis on certain attributes or aspects of God (e.g. God as a “law-giving sovereign” or God’s fatherliness) runs the risk of becoming an “idolatry” of particular aspects of God.

Whether or not one agrees with how the SCLM attempts to solve these concerns, I think it is important to acknowledge at the beginning of this piece that Christians must take seriously the concerns raised by feminist theologians (along with many theologians who wouldn’t use the moniker “feminist”). We cannot dispute that women have not been treated as equals to men for much of history, whether inside or outside of the church. But even more, the practical experience of some women with regard to men and the masculine is often negative, often as the oppressor and the subjugator. And for some women (along with men who have experienced abuse at the hands of other men), the predominantly masculine language of most Christian theology and liturgy is experienced as painful, disorienting, and alienating.

Related to this more experiential concern is the basic Christian theological claim that God is neither a man nor a woman, neither male nor female. God is God. God’s eternal Word and Son became incarnate as a human being, specifically as the man Jesus of Nazareth; but God is not a man (or a woman). And since God is not a man, masculine pronouns for God the Holy Trinity raise real concerns for some theologians because they might lead to the inaccurate conclusion that God is a man. There are not the only concerns and critiques raised by feminists, nor are these the only suggestions that might be made about how to change the church’s public liturgy in light of them.

But, I would note, that truly taking these concerns seriously does not necessarily entail a theological revision that jettisons traditional Christological and Trinitarian language. It may, but this is not necessarily the case. There are a variety of ways to respond (pastorally, spiritually, theologically) and retain the language of Scripture and tradition: namely, that the God revealed in Jesus Christ is the one God of Israel who is the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, all of whom equally share in and partake of the divine substance and nature and are rightly called the Holy Trinity. The Cambridge theologian Sarah Coakley provides an excellent example of a feminist author striving to respond creatively to feminist concerns, while retaining the conciliar language:

Neither the straightforward obliteration of ‘Father’ language, nor the feminization of the ‘Spirit’ (or indeed of the Son), constitute in themselves satisfactory strategies in the face of the profound feminist critique of classical Christian thought forms and patterns of behavior. These problems can only be met satisfactorily by an ascetic response which attacks idolatry at its root (Coakley, God, Sexuality, and the Self: an Essay ‘On the Trinity, p. 7).

The scope of feminist concerns is an enormous and thorny topic that is impossible to deal with satisfactorily in this context. Nonetheless, I think it is necessary to acknowledge this at the beginning of an examination of one such liturgical response to this set of concerns.

Also at the outset, I think it is also fruitful to note the range of options available to those who wish to revise Christian liturgies in light of the concerns articulated by feminist theologians. Here are three possibilities:

  • One option is to replace masculine names and pronouns with feminine ones: e.g. “Mother Almighty, creator of heaven and earth” or “It is right to give her thanks and praise.” This approach has the advantage of retaining both the personal aspect of God “for us” (albeit analogously) and the relations between the Persons (Note: While there are some legitimate concerns about the use of “Person” for Father, Son, and Holy Spirit [see how Aquinas addresses this in ST I.29], I will use the term as a brief shorthand, acknowledging that we use this term about God in way that is different from how we use it for human beings). While a mother is not identical with a father, both have an equally unique and singular relationship to a child and these names speak to this relationship. Father, Mother, Son, and Daughter all convey in their respective names a fact about who each is in relation to a particular other.
  • Another is to try and balance masculine and feminine words, moving in some sort logical way between masculine names and pronouns and feminine ones. This has both the advantage of the first approach (because it communicates “being-in-relation”) while at the same time including the Scriptural language of Father and Son. While Scripture uses feminine/maternal analogies for God (e.g. Isa. 49:15; 66:13; Ps. 131:2; Ezek. 16:44-45; Sir. 4:10; Matt. 23:37), it does not use a name or mode of divine address that is definitely feminine. (Note: unlike English, the word for spirit is feminine in Hebrew and neuter in Greek, but it seems imprudent to try and draw too many conclusions from this). In this approach, both scriptural language and the attendant relationality of that language are preserved.
  • Still another tack is to avoid gendered language altogether. And this is the approach of EOW1 and the new prayers in Holy Women, Holy Men. There are a number of ways to avoid gendered language. One approach (though I’ve never seen this in a liturgical rite) would be utilize the non-gendered procession language that was so central to the pre- and post-Nicene debates, such as Unbegotten (αγενετος) and Only-begotten (μονογενής). Thus, Prayer 1 in EOW1 could read, “Blessed are you, gracious Unbegotten One [replacing Gracious God]…” and then later, “Then, in the fullness of time, you sent your eternal and Only-begotten [NB: this phrase is added] Word, made mortal flesh in Jesus” (is made what we want to say?). EOW1, however, takes the non-gendered route and also avoids any language of begetting, procession, or relation.

One way to evaluate the Trinitarian theology of EOW1’s eucharistic materials is simply to ask about the basic shape of the theology presented therein, which is what I shall do in later posts. The claim that the Prayer Book holds a special place in Anglicanism as an expression of doctrine is part and parcel of its self-identity. Without an authoritative magisterium that speaks with any binding authority, and without an official confession or catechism like what is found in many of the magisterial Protestant traditions and in the Roman Catholic Church, the Prayer Book and our canon law (to a much lesser extent) express our doctrine, albeit in the mode of liturgical language. Nonetheless, given the weight it carries for us vis-à-vis other families of Christian, a doctrinal evaluation of a new and proposed rite is one of the first and basic steps when considering liturgical revision.



[1] These essays can be found in How Shall We Pray? (1994), A Prayer Book for the 21st Century (1996), and Gleanings (1999), all edited by Ruth Meyers, and Lionel Mitchell’s essay “Background” published in both Commentary on Prayer Book Studies 30 (1989) and Supplemental Liturgical Materials (1991).


  1. “Without an official confession or catechism”: we do have the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed and the Apostles’ Creed, neither of which, I believe, was “inherited…from the 18th and 19th centuries.”

    I will be interested to read more of your account, not only of how EOW1 deals with the catholic consensus that God is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, but also how and why it was led to “avoid any language of begetting, procession, or relation.”

  2. Thanks for your comments, Tarik. You are quite right that we have the two catholic creeds. These have usually been distinguished from confessions or catechisms, which are usually not ecumenical in the way that the Creeds are, and were usually forged post-division from another Christian body. These really don’t appear until after the Reformations – Trent famously issues theirs after a number of reformation bodies issued theirs.

    As to why the goal of non-gendered language and the avoidance of “language of begetting, procession, or relation” I do have a more scholarly version of this piece which is much longer that goes into some of this. The reason for the latter choice is that all of that language is considered too technical and not understandable to most people. The non-gendered language decision is for basically the same general reason: it both makes people think that God is a man like I am a man and also furthers the patriarchy of the status quo.

    But what we don’t get is a very nuanced discussion of why the abandonment of certain language doesn’t result in a different theology. Please post your comments on the second and third installments in the coming days.

  3. Fr Olver, I believe you have omitted the important word “response” from the last sentence of your quotation from Prof. Coakley: ‘These problems can only be met satisfactorily by an ascetic response which attacks idolatry at its root’ (p. 7).


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