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The Book of Common Prayer in TEC’s Constitution

Prayer Book Revision and General Convention, Part 1:

By Matthew S. C. Olver

In July of 2022, the 80th General Convention passed 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. The passage of this first reading of the amendment was, without doubt, the most significant and wide-reaching action taken by this Convention.  Building on the foundation of my initial response to General Convention, this series of four essays will bear out why I believe this was the most significant action taken by the Convention.

This installment moves down from the 30,000 foot view into specifics and details. In this essay, I provide what I think to be the necessary background to understand this proposed revision to Article X and the effects this could have on Episcopal Church’s understanding of the Book of Common Prayer and to its own self-understanding.

To do this, we must understand how the constitution functions in the Episcopal Church. The current Constitution of the Episcopal Church contains a preamble that was proposed in 1964 and adopted by the following Convention in 1967. Since the U.S. Constitution also contains a preamble (and one whose opening words — “We the People of the United States…” — are well-known to nearly every American), one can be forgiven for assuming that TEC’s constitution always contained one as well. But that is not the case. Instead, it originally began with the title, “The Constitution of the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of America.” While certain aspects of the structure of the nascent American republic — such as a bi-cameral legislative body — are also found in the structure of the Episcopal Church (they also both adopted their constitutions in the city of Philadelphia!), there are a number of ways in which the structure is quite different. For example, while the House of Deputies is an analogue to the House of Representatives, it is not proportionally representative, as is the congressional entity (again, see my initial essay).

Further, neither the TEC’s Preamble nor its Constitution contain anything like the aspirational language of the Preamble of the U.S. Constitution. The current and only preamble was not added until 1967, when the classic definition of the Anglican Communion from Resolution 49 of the 1930 Lambeth Conference was incorporated into a robust declaration of self-identity that is constituted by its membership in the Anglican Communion:

The Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of America, otherwise known as The Episcopal Church (which name is hereby recognized as also designating the Church), is a constituent member of the Anglican Communion, a Fellowship within the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church, of those duly constituted Dioceses, Provinces, and regional Churches in communion with the See of Canterbury, upholding and propagating the historic Faith and Order as set forth in the Book of Common Prayer. (Emphasis added)

Unlike the Preamble to the U.S. Constitution, the Preamble to TEC’s Constitution is not aspirational, which is to say, its purpose is not to communicate the intentions of its framers. Rather, it is a declaration of self-identity and, thus, is itself law.

The very notion of a constitution as part of canon (as opposed to civil) law seems to have originated with the American Episcopal Church; constitutions are, in fact, an invention of the 18th century. The fact that a constitution’s place in ecclesiastical law originates in the United States should not surprise us. In this literal sense, of course, the provinces of the Anglican Communion are autonomous. The bodies of canon law in the Roman Catholic Church and in the Eastern churches contain no constitution (though some religious institutions and societies within the Catholic Church do have particular constitutions),[1] and there is also no analogue to local or diocesan canons in those churches. The Church of England, like the English Parliament, also has no constitution and no diocesan canons, only its Canons and Measures.

In order to properly understand Article X, it is important to be clear on the function of a constitution, which is to provide “a concise statement of the most basic and important of the Church’s laws,” to embody “the organic law or principle of government of an organized society,” and to articulate “those laws which are ‘constitutive’ of the nature and function of a community.”[2] “It lays down broad powers; details are left to the Canons.”[3] It is important to remember that, “[l]egally, the Prayer Book and its rubrics stand on the same level of authority as does the Constitution,”[4] and both require two successive Conventions to amend or revise (see Article X and Article XII). Both are “amendable” but “not easily amendable.”[5]

The Preamble articulates that the Book of Common Prayer is constitutive of the nature and identity of the Episcopal Church. The church is identified not by a claim of exclusive preeminence among the various ecclesial bodies but by its membership within a particular communion of churches, itself a fellowship within the one Church confessed in the creeds.

The particular communion of which we are a part, namely, the Anglican Communion, is defined by a particular, formal shared communion with the historic See of Canterbury and by its preservation and propagation of the historic Faith and Order that is said to be set forth in only one place: the Book of Common Prayer. The disciplinary canons of the Episcopal Church fill out this picture somewhat: “the basic and essential teachings of the Church and [are] to be found in the Canon of Holy Scripture as understood in the Apostles and Nicene Creeds and in the sacramental rites, the Ordinal and Catechism of the Book of Common Prayer” (Canon IV.2).

The Church of England, in contrast, does not mention the Anglican Communion in its self-description in the Preface to the Declaration of Assent, found in Canon C 15. Just as noteworthy is the fact that it speaks about doctrine in language that is rather different from TEC’s Preamble:

The Church of England is part of the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church, worshipping the one true God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. It professes the faith uniquely revealed in the Holy Scriptures and set forth in the catholic creeds, which faith the Church is called upon to proclaim afresh in each generation. Led by the Holy Spirit, it has borne witness to Christian truth in its historic formularies, the Thirty-nine Articles of Religion, The Book of Common Prayer and the Ordering of Bishops, Priests and Deacons.

Here, doctrine is described in two ways. First, the Christian faith is “revealed” in Holy Scripture and then “set forth in the catholic creeds.” It then speaks of the Church of England “bearing witness” to said faith in three documents: the Articles, the prayer book, and the ordinal. Thus, the Book of Common Prayer carries even more doctrinal weight in the Episcopal Church than in the Church of England, since the canons of this church do not appeal to any doctrinal document beyond Scripture and the prayer book.

Anglicans often speak of the adage lex orandi, lex credendi (literally, “the law of prayer [is] the law of faith”), as if Anglicanism has some unique purchase on it. But consider: it would be rather preposterous for any church to authorize liturgical rites that express things contrary to what they believe. Thus, at a basic level, this law should be true for all churches. It is in the Preamble that we see how the BCP functions in a rather unique way for the Episcopal Church in particular: namely, as the one central place where Faith and Order is expressed.

In November 2008, the Inter-Anglican Standing Commission on Unity, Faith, and Order was created, whose purpose is to consider these matters at a communion-wide level. The Preface to the first American prayer book, reprinted in the 1979 book, refers to faith and order in the opening paragraph, where it distinguishes between “Doctrine” and “Discipline” and acknowledges that any changes to the 1662 prayer book are minimal enough that “it will also appear that this Church is far from intending to depart from the Church of England in any essential point of doctrine, discipline, or worship” (1979 BCP, pp. 9, 11). Thus, belief and structure, theology and polity, doctrine and ecclesiology, are, for the Episcopal Church, expressed principally in the BCP. Theoretically, at least, what is expressed in the Constitution and Canons is entirely consonant with the BCP and expresses Faith and Order to the extent that it is necessary to describe how this particular church orders its common life.

The difference between the Episcopal Church and most other Western ecclesial bodies, especially those that are explicitly credal, sacramental, and liturgical, is in the degree to which the authorized liturgy carries the weight of Faith and Order. The reason for this is that most other churches have one or more places outside of the authorized liturgical texts where Faith and Order are expressed. For Roman Catholics, the Church’s Magisterium is the “living, teaching office of the Church, whose task it is to give as authentic interpretation of the word of God, whether in its written form (Sacred Scripture) or in the form of Tradition. The Magisterium ensures the Church’s fidelity to the teaching of the Apostles in matters of faith and morals.”[6] The various Lutheran and Reformed churches produced Catechism and/or Confessions, which were considered authoritative and to which the clergy were required to give some sort of profound deference or adherence.

The closest document to this in the Church of England is the Articles of Religion. But the main difference with the Articles (which, along with the BCP and Ordinal, became known as the Formularies in the Church of England) is that they don’t even pretend to be comprehensive in their scope: “they repeated some central Christian affirmations and established some guides against specific errors; but they did not set forth a complete, self-consistent doctrinal system.”[7]

Hence the Church of England’s decision to refer to Scripture, catholic creeds, prayer book, Articles, and Ordinal together, not in the manner of a magisterium, but much more modestly: as revealing (in the case of Scripture), setting forth (in the case of the creeds) and bearing witness (BCP, Articles, and Ordinal). They self-evidently are not a survey of the whole teaching of the Church of England. Especially in light of the GAFCON movement, which places the Articles at the center of a confession of unifying doctrine, there is a renewed debate about the extent to which the Church of England was ever confessional in the sense of the various continental bodies that sprang from the Reformation.

Regardless of how confessional one wants to argue that the Church of England was, there is no ambiguity about the doctrinal freight carried by the prayer book, most especially for the Episcopal Church. It is absolutely clear that to change the nature of the BCP in general, and to engage in revisions of and additions to the BCP more specifically, could not cut more directly to the very identity of the Episcopal Church. Resolution 2022-A059 has the potential to change the nature and identity of the Book of Common Prayer and will lead almost certainly to revisions and additions.

This foray may seem like just an unnecessary academic exercise for someone who, admittedly, teaches canon law (and enjoys it, thank you very much!). But as we will see in the essays that follow, it is much, much more than that. Resolution 2022-A059 is a conscious, self-described attempt to change the nature of the Book of Common Prayer in the Episcopal Church. As I trust I have demonstrated, to do so is to do nothing less than change the nature of the Episcopal Church. “For which of you, desiring to build a tower, does not first sit down and count the cost.” This proposed revision was written as a compromise in less than twenty-four hours. And as we’ll see in the coming essays, I don’t think we have duly counted the cost and considered carefully the causes for which the prayer book was ordained.

[1] Rhidian Jones, The Canon Law of the Roman Catholic Church and the Church of England: A Handbook, second (London: T&T Clark, 2011), 43..

[2] Daniel B. Stevick, Canon Law: A Handbook (New York: The Seabury Press, 1956),  97.

[3] Stevick, Canon Law, 98.

[4] Stevick, Canon Law, 119.

[5] Stevick, Canon Law, 98. The language is Stevick’s but he does not make the analogy that I do here.

[6] Glossary, Catechism of the Catholic Church (Vatican City : Washington, DC: Libreria Editrice Vaticana ; Ligori Publications, 1994), 887.

[7] Stevick, Canon Law, 115.


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