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The impulse to revise: The habit of American prayer books

This is a response to the Necessary or Expedient series on prayer book revision. Numerous submissions and responses have come in during the past several months, and we will publish some of them here at Covenant. Some traditional letters to the editor will appear in the pages of The Living Church.

The Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music’s proposal that we consider prayer book revision has prompted a lot of discussion in general and especially on this site. Rather than go into the details of prayer book revision, in this post I would like to consider things a bit more anthropologically.

As human beings, whenever we encounter something we make a decision about it, even if the decision is to do nothing. The decision leads to some kind of behavior. Often that behavior becomes habitual, especially if we encounter the same thing more than once, or if the encounter is significant enough.

Sometimes we make a good decision and the habit that follows remains a good habit. Sometimes we make a bad decision and the habit that follows remains a bad habit. But, oddly, sometimes we can make a good decision in the face of some encounter — especially a significant or dangerous one — that nevertheless forms habits that are thereafter not truly helpful, perhaps even bad.

Let me explain with some examples. We encounter our parents encouraging us to brush our teeth when we are children. This forms into the good habit of brushing our teeth regularly. On the other hand, we might encounter teenage peers who pressure us to smoke our first cigarette, which forms a bad, even life-threatening habit.

Finally, let us imagine that we encountered a spider that bit us when we were very young. We swept off the spider in fear, hurt, and disgust. From then on, we were frightened and repulsed at the sight of any spider, any arachnid. Later in life we may even develop full-blown arachnophobia. We may jump back in disgust and fear anytime we encounter anything our minds might mistake as an arachnid, such as a fur ball or leaf blowing past us in the wind. An initial good behavioral response to a significant encounter led to an irrational habit.

Now, as Christians, we do understand that humans are not simply individual bodies. We also understand that humanity comes in corporate forms: the species as a whole, certain nations, tongues, and people groups, and, most importantly, the body of Christ and its local Catholic instances.

This means that not only individual but even corporate bodies may form habits. A corporate body may have an encounter that leads to a behavioral response. And that response may, in turn, form a habit at an entire corporate body level. As with individuals, these habits can be good or bad. Bad habits may even form from what seemed to be, initially, a very good or at least neutral response.

Let’s now turn to the proposal to consider yet another prayer book revision. Is this a rational response to a current encounter? Or could this perhaps represent a more habitual response? Then, is it a good habit? A bad one? Or a bad habit resulting from the ingraining of an initially good response? Remember the case of arachnophobia.

In the United States, we live in a culture of rebellion. In order to justify throwing off the “tyranny” of British rule — perhaps it was tyrannous, but my scare quotes are meant only to imply that, as a matter of human interpretation, we may never know for sure — we developed a cultural habit of interpreting just about anything or anyone in authority as potentially, if not already, tyrannous. This cultural habit follows the turn to liberal politics and its assumption that there are no real corporate bodies. The individual precedes society, and society is a legal fiction agreed upon by collective fiat. This very political ideology prevents the recognition of corporate habit formation.

So, is the desire to revise and revise again simply American? Of course not. We are a church of the Reformation. All Western churches are, including Roman Catholicism, let us not forget. An event followed by a behavior as huge as the Reformation may certainly form a corporate habit. It even has a slogan in our Protestant heritage: Semper reformanda. This impulse has led to countless continual schisms and hivings-off of the Church into greater fragmentation. The Reformation is such a significant event in Western culture that Brad S. Gregory wrote a book arguing that even modern secular society finds its roots there.

But did the Reformation happen in a vacuum? Of course not.

In his book A Secular Age, philosopher Charles Taylor argues that a “Reform Master Narrative” characterizes Western culture. And not just recent Western culture, but Western culture going pretty far back. Before the Reformation we had the Cluniac reforms. Before the Cluniac reforms we had the Carolingian reforms. Before the Carolingian reforms we had the reform of Western monasticism in the Rule of St. Benedict. There are, of course, many other examples intervening between those I list. Who knows how far back the impulse to reform may go in our Western tradition?

What might have been the original encounter that set this pattern of behavior, this habit (vice?) into motion? Who knows, exactly, at this point? But the Holy Spirit is not the “Spirit of 1776,” and Christ’s making all things new is not the same thing as an obsession with novelty.

Does the call to consider another revision of the prayer book represent a legitimate response to fresh encounters that need immediate attention? Or may it perhaps be the quick reaction of a body caught in a habit that once made sense but now controls our ability to think and respond clearly? I don’t know. I would even assert that we don’t know, as a corporate body. How could we, since we have never taken the time for the spiritual direction necessary to discern and address such a habit?

Perhaps that would be a good place for our discernment to begin.

1 COMMENT

  1. There’s an interesting observation from the 1835 work on America by Alexis de Tocqueville who recorded that “The Americans dwell in a land of wonder in which everything is in a constant state of motion and every movement seems a step forward. The concept of newness is, therefore, intimately bound up in their minds with that of improvement. Nowhere do they see any limit placed by nature upon man’s efforts; in their eyes, whatever does not exist has simply not yet been tried.”

    It seems to me, however, that the concept of newness equaling improvement makes little sense. Are we really in need of a radical revision or a revision at all? Since 1979, can it really be said that we have begun to truly understand our theology? Has our theology become richer to the point that we are so far removed from the theology of 1979 that a revision is not only necessary, but required? The grand cultural changes that are taking place in our society took place because of our theology, reflected in the 1979 prayerbook, not in spite of it.

    Even if one agrees in a radical revision of the 1979 BCP, one must ask if a brand new prayerbook is even necessary. Are there no already existing prayerbooks from our rich Anglican tradition from which to draw inspiration? Our church does not exist in a vacuum but is the product of countless souls who have drawn strength from the beauty, austerity, and reverence of our Anglican tradition. Are we wanting to forget our history and venture into a forest that our own fragile Church may not be able to endure? Is defining God precisely and overthrowing our history all in the name of present-day attitudes and outlooks really the most appropriate use of our time and energies? Is the church only one more schism away from nonexistence? Sure the Church itself will go on; we are assured of that by Christ, but can our fragile Episcopal Church endure another breakup? For me personally, I don’t know.

    As a young millennial, I’m scared there is a generation of Episcopalians who are taking the church away from me. I’m afraid they are wanting too much change for a church that won’t exist in the future as a result of their efforts.

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