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The Prayer Book as a Constitutional Document

Debate over Resolution A059 (Amend Article X of the Constitution of The Episcopal Church) has brought attention to a fundamental question for Episcopalians, namely, what is the Book of Common Prayer? It is often said that the prayer book is a “constitutional document,” but what precisely does that mean? The answer to that question is to be found in the prayer book itself as well as in the Constitution and Canons.

Preface to the 1789 Book of Common Prayer

When the Preface (found on pages 9-11 of the 1979 Book of Common Prayer) briefly describes the origins of our church as an autonomous institution it characterizes the Book of Common Prayer as a principal institutional document. It says “when in the course of Divine Providence, these American States became independent with respect to civil government, their ecclesiastical independence was necessarily included” and, in response to this change in circumstance, “[t]he attention of this Church was in the first place drawn to those alterations in the Liturgy which became necessary in the prayers for our Civil Rulers,” and then also to “a further review of the Public Service, and to establish such other alterations and amendments therein as might be deemed expedient” (italics mine); it then insists that, despite these revisions, a comparison of the American and the English prayer books would reveal that “this Church is far from intending to depart from the Church of England in any essential point of doctrine, discipline, or worship; or further than local circumstances require.” Thus it is clear that the prayer book does more than prescribe a form of worship. It also prescribes doctrine and discipline — because what we say together in our prayers indicates our shared beliefs and because our liturgy requires more than simply a script. It regulates the order for reading Scripture in public worship, the administration of sacraments, the setting aside of officers to read the services, to preach, to administer sacraments, and perform the pastoral and administrative duties that are necessarily tied up with these.

The language A059 proposes putting into Article X — “The Book of Common Prayer in this Church is intended to be communal and devotional prayer enriched by our church’s cultural, geographical, and linguistic contexts” — suggests a much narrower view of the function of the prayer book. The Preface describes design intentions and functionality beyond providing a script for church services; the Preface sees the prayer book as necessary to constituting the Episcopal Church. As a corollary it must be added that this assumes the contents of the prayer book form a unified whole rather than a library of options which may not harmonize with each other. Such a view limits the range of interpretations than any one part of the prayer book can bear, excluding interpretations of one part that render it incompatible with others. But, of course, some may regard the 1789 Preface as merely of historical value, no longer binding — though that is far from clear, nevertheless, the constitutional function of the prayer book can be seen in the current Constitution and Canons as well.

Preamble to the Constitution and Canons

The Preamble to the Constitution and Canons added in 1967 provides an ample description of our identity. It says, “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.” Like the 1789 Preface, this Preamble describes the prayer book as constitutional. In it the “Faith and Order” of our Church are “set forth,” a description which places greater emphasis on the constitutional function of the prayer book than its practical function in public worship (which is, in this description, subsumed under Order).

The question of which Book of Common Prayer is in view in this Preamble, interesting as it is, must be left to one side at present — nevertheless, this language also confirms a view of the prayer book as a unified whole, a book the parts of which logically cohere, cooperate, and define the identity of not only our own Church but the other autonomous Churches with constitute the Anglican Communion. While it is certainly the case that the Preamble characterizes the prayer book as having a constitutional function, as a genre, preambles are necessarily vague and are not uncommonly given to rhetorical flourishes that raise thorny questions at the level of detail (for example, who precisely is referred to by “We the People” in the US Constitution?). However, what the Preamble indicates concerning the prayer book is confirmed with greater specificity in the document it introduces.

Articles X and XII

Article X of the Constitution describes the Book of Common Prayer and the process by which it is amended, while Article XII describes the process by which the Constitution can be amended. The requirement in both Articles is identical — official notification must be sent to each Diocese and the amendment must be approved by two consecutive General Conventions. These identical amendment processes — the most difficult process for the passage of any resolution presented at the General Convention — indicates the identical status of these two texts. Canons can be permanently changed by the vote of a single General Convention; not so the Constitution and the prayer book. By design they are equally difficult to change, which is quite appropriate to their similar functions. That which changes frequently or easily by definition cannot be said to constitute an entity. But, still, this only points to constitutional status; a description of the constitutional functions of the prayer book, aligning perfectly with the Preface to the prayer book and the Preamble to the Constitution is found in the Canons.

Canons Title IV.2 and IV.4.1(b)

This particular section of the Canons under the Title of Ecclesiastical Discipline provides a list of key terms used in the Canons. Among these are found “discipline” and “doctrine.” These are key terms because the Ordinal — the rites in the prayer book for ordaining bishops, presbyters, and deacons — involves vows concerning doctrine and discipline. Bishops vow to “conform to the doctrine, discipline, and worship of the Episcopal Church” and to “guard the faith, unity, and discipline of the Church.” Priests and deacons vow to be “be loyal to the doctrine, discipline, and worship of Christ as this Church has received them” and, like bishops, “to conform to the doctrine, discipline, and worship of The Episcopal Church.” These vows naturally raise the question, where can one go to find the doctrine and discipline of the Church, which her officers have vowed to uphold, spelled out. The 1789 Preface to the prayer book indicates that it contains the doctrine and discipline of our church and the canons indicate the same thing.

The Canons stipulate that the discipline of this church is to be “found in the Constitution and Canons and the Rubrics and the Ordinal of the Book of Common Prayer.” Rubrics are, of course, instructions that accompany the liturgical script, like the stage-directions in a play. So, for example, the rubrics regarding how to administer Holy Communion constitute part of the discipline or order of our Church — matters which are not left to local or individual discretion. Title IV, Canon 4 concerns standards of conduct for clergy, within which Sec. 1(b) stipulates that clergy must conform to the rubrics found in the Book of Common Prayer, further underlining the book’s constitutional nature.

Doctrine is described as “the basic and essential teachings of the Church and is 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.” Here the prayer book — its rites and catechism — are characterized as a means of teaching what is found in the Bible or a lens through which to understand the teaching found in the Bible. It should be noted here that doctrine is not identical to theology — the latter is the systematic investigation and/or presentation of religious beliefs, while the former, doctrine, refers to the beliefs taught by a church and held to be true by its members. Doctrine imparts a sense of identity and a basis for action (e.g., praying a certain way) and so is inherently constitutional in its function.

This then is what is meant — or at least a substantial part of what is meant — when it is said that the Book of Common Prayer is a constitutional document of the Episcopal Church. It not only regulates our worship but our doctrine and discipline, which means that its contents form or ought to form a unified whole. Therein lies the significance this proposed amendment of Article X. The definition and contents of the prayer book cannot be changed without changing our common identity. While A059 retains the high bar for passage of an amendment of the prayer book (two consecutive General Conventions), by attempting to define or redefine what the prayer book “is intended to be” in such a way as to exclude its doctrinal and disciplinary functions and by describing the Book of Common Prayer as simply “those liturgical forms authorized by the General Convention” the resolution undermines the constitutional nature of the prayer book and would render Article X at odds with the Preamble to the Constitution, the Canons, and the prayer book’s own Preface.

Dr. Drew Nathaniel Keane is the assistant registrar and lecturer in Early Modern Studies at Ralston College in Savannah. He is a member of St. John’s Church in Savannah and serves on the Liturgical Commission and Commission on Ministry for the Diocese of Georgia. With Samuel L. Bray (University of Notre Dame), he edited the 1662 Book of Common Prayer: International Edition (IVP Academic, March 2021) and is presently writing, also with Professor Bray, How to Use the Prayer Book (forthcoming from IVP), a guide for new users unfamiliar with the Anglican tradition. You will find more of his work at drewkeane.com


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