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The Weight of the BCP at General Convention

Editorial

The 2024 General Convention will consider a second reading of a revision to Article X of the Constitution, which governs the establishment and revision of the Book of Common Prayer in Resolution 2024-A072.

This article picks up where my series on this topic back in 2022 left off:

For the reasons I outline below, I am convinced that it would be very unwise for the General Convention to pass this revision to Article X and I urge the General Convention to reject it.

And it turns out I’m not alone. One friend, the inimitable Scott Gunn over at Forward Movement, in his long-standing series of blogging through all the resolutions at General Convention, also urges defeat of this revision in quite strong language: “We have a mess now with the current Title X of the constitution. I agree it needs to be amended. But this is not it. It will sow confusion.” The Liturgical Commission of the Diocese of Georgia has also published a memo urging its deputies to vote against this canonical revision.

Below, I lay out

  • Where this proposal came from,
  • What is in the proposal,
  • Why this proposal should be rejected, and
  • What we should do instead.

This article isn’t short, I know. But this is about the Book of Common Prayer and the worship of the Episcopal Church. If this is not part of what is central to our common life, I don’t know what is. And so I ask you: please, read carefully.

Background

Most of us probably don’t keep the history of specific resolutions close to hand, so I encourage you to go back and read An Explanation and an Exploration of 2022-A059 to understand the history that led to this first reading. But in case you’re pressed for time, here’s the condensed version:

It originated with a resolution proposed by the Task Force on Liturgical and Prayer Book Revision on which I served and created by Resolution 2018-A068. At the end of our work the Task Force proposed Resolution 2022-A059 to the 2022 General Convention in Baltimore. Before that resolution was debated, however, a substitute resolution (2022-B011) was proposed by Bishop Lawrence Provenzano of Long Island along and other bishops and it was that resolution that was passed by the House of Bishop by a margin of just two votes. Immediately after the vote, the Presiding Bishop Michael Curry addressed the House and indicated that, in his opinion, the discussion had revealed just how significant a matter it is to consider changing how the Episcopal Church thinks about the Book of Common Prayer. He suggested that a working group be formed to craft an alternative resolution that might be able to garner much wider support amongst the bishops.

An alternative was crafted overnight, led by Bishop Andy Doyle, and it too was discussed extensively the following day by the bishops, after which it was passed almost unanimously.

This history is important to keep in mind, in part because I’ve heard folks say that this was the result of three or six years of work by the SCLM or the Task Force on Liturgical and Prayer Book Revision and that we should not to scuttle years of work by group of experts.

It is important to separate completely the revision of Article X from the question about adding the new same-sex marriage rites to the Prayer Book (this change is being proposed here at the 2024 convention in Resolution 2024-A116). Some argued back in 2022 (and have continued to argue) that this revision to Article X is necessary in order for the new marriage rites to the BCP. But this is clearly not true. A revision to Article X is not necessary to add the new marriage rites to the prayer book. The current version of Article X clearly outlines the process for revising the BCP. These marriage rites were authorized for Trial Use in 2018 and they now will be considered for inclusion in the BCP by passing a First Reading of this change. This is all in accord with the Constitution. Thus, the revision to Article X must be considered on its own merits without Convention being misled that such an act is necessary to authorize the new marriage rites.  

One of the guardrails created in the Constitution and Canons is that any revision to either the Constitution or the Book of Common Prayer requires a First Reading at one General Convention and then a Second Reading at the next regularly scheduled Convention. Given how fundamental the prayer book is to the life of this Church and the ways in which the Constitution sets the parameters and key principles from which flow the canons, this guardrail guarantees that the changes to either cannot be made quickly or unadvisedly, but deliberately and soberly.

A Second Reading is also an opportunity to assess a significant action that this church is contemplating but has not yet taken. Second Readings are sometimes treated as a rubber stand, a fait accompli. But this is not only irresponsible but an abdication of the General Convention’s responsibility. Every Second Reading is the opportunity to ask: Is this proposed action what we really want to do? Are we clear what this change will accomplish? Do we still think that this action is a good idea?

What is this revision?

Consider this table with the current canons and the proposed revision in parallel:

This resolution would make four changes to Article X:

  1. It introduces section divisions, making the Article easier to read and to cite.
  2. It adds two sentences at the beginning:

The Book of Common Prayer is understood to be those liturgical forms and other texts authorized by the General Convention in accordance with this article and the Canons of this Church.

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. The Book of Common Prayer shall contain both public worship and private devotion.

  1. It adds another sentence later in the Article, proposed Sec. 3 about Trial Use:

No alteration thereof or addition thereto shall be made unless it has previously been authorized for Trial Use in accordance with this Article and the Canons of this Church.

The rest of the changes are not substantive and simply smooth out language.

The Strengths of A072

First, the division of this article into sub-sections is very helpful and makes it much easier to use and to cite. Changes such as this to the Constitution and Canons come to every Convention.

Second, the intention to further strengthen the guardrails against quick or unconsidered revision of the Book of Common Prayer by requiring a period of Trial Use before the General Convention votes on a first and second reading of a revision or addition to the BCP is welcomed and incredibly wise.

Weaknesses of A072

There are three substantive weaknesses of this approach plus two important, related issues.

First, the opening sentence is extremely vague and open to a range of contradictory interpretations.

The Book of Common Prayer is understood to be those liturgical forms and other texts authorized by the General Convention in accordance with this article and the Canons of this Church.

My first question was, “Did anyone ever wonder if this was in question? Of course Article X governs the Book of Common Prayer!”

Others have concluded that this revision would mean that any liturgical texts that have received two authorizations by the General Convention would be included in the Book of Common Prayer. But I think the latter part of the sentence — “in accordance with this article and the Canons of this Church” — means that the Convention must intentionally add rites to the BCP if they are to be included.

So then the question is this: What is the substantive change brought about by this sentence? The Task Force on Liturgical and Prayer Book Revision used the term The Book of Common Prayer to refer to a physical book (as it does now) AND to a collection of texts that includes the rites in the physical book but also additional rites which the General Convention gives “Prayer Book status.” When Scott Gunn said that this change would “sow confusion,” he points to this change as “the straight-up Orwellian strangeness of calling something a book when it is, in fact, not a book.”

If this change were to pass, we would be in a situation where, when someone referred to the Book of Common Prayer, we would need to ask, “The Book or the one beyond the Book?” Scott Gunn adds, “Clergy are held accountable for teaching the doctrine of the BCP and for obeying its rubrics. How can we hold clergy accountable if it becomes murky what, exactly, is the “Book of Common Prayer”?

In sum, the first sentence is problematic because

  • It’s open to at least three quite different interpretations, and
  • Its intended meaning is to introduce the idea of “Prayer Book Status” where “The Book of Common Prayer” can refer to a book or a collection in the clouds, which is both misguided and deeply confusing.

Second, the language that intends to require Trial Use before a First Reading to add to or amend the prayer book could actually mean two quite different things. This is the new sentence:

No alteration thereof or addition thereto shall be made unless it has previously been authorized for Trial Use in accordance with this Article and the Canons of this Church.

Does it mean that a text needs to be authorized for Trial Use first, and only later at some subsequent General Convention be approved for a First and then a Second Reading? Or is the authorization of something for Trial Use the same thing as the First Reading?

Trial use + First Reading + Second Reading

or

Trial Use as First Reading + Second Reading?

Since the adoption of the 1979 BCP, when revising the calendar to add new saints, the General Convention has often passed the revision as a Trial Use and it functioned as First Reading. I assume that because this is a new sentence added to Article X, the intention is to introduction a change to the current practice. But the problem it: it’s not clear either way. I think it is wise to require Trial Use of any rite before we consider a First and Second reading to add it to the BCP. This can be clarified quite easily by amending the language to say:

No first reading of any alteration thereof or addition thereto shall be made unless it has been authorized for Trial Use by a prior General Convention.

Third, the first reading of this revision (2022-A059) ends with this final resolve clause:

A working group of nine members to include the Custodian of The Book of Common Prayer, some members of Committee 12 of the 80th General Convention, some members of a Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music, and others as needed to review the Canons relevant to the implementation of this Article and propose revisions to the 81st General Convention.

But here’s the problem: This working group was never created and the corresponding canons were never drafted. I think that the 81st General Convention deserves to consider this Constitutional amendment alongside canonical revisions that further clarify any revision to Article X and, just as important, clearly define the process for authorizing rites beyond the Book of Common Prayer and also to clarify what sort of authority those rites have.

In the last few days, a resolution has been submitted by Bishop Andy Doyle of Texas that seeks to address these needed canonical revisions in Resolution 2024-B008. There is much in this proposal to commend and I am grateful for the substantive work and collaboration that went into this. But this does not change the fact that a direction of General Convention that directly concerns the First Reading of this revision of Article X was not followed and thus a group of liturgical and canonical experts were not able to carefully and deliberately consider all the factors involved and propose canonical changes for us to consider in Louisville.

There remain two more significant, related issues.

Memorialization of the 1979 Book of Common Prayer

Resolution 2018-A068 memorialized the 1979 Book of Common Prayer, in large part because of the impending addition of the new marriage rites to the BCP and thus to assure the minority that it will continue to have access to the 1979 BCP as it now stands. But there are two sources of confusion here:

  • First, memorialization remains an undefined term. The first meeting of the Task Force on Liturgical and Prayer Book Revision spent the entire first day of our meeting debating this and we never came to an agreement.
  • Second, once the new marriage rites are added, the revised book will still be called the 1979 Book of Common Prayer, which will then raise the question, Which version of the 1979 Book of Common Prayer is memorialized?

There is a simple solution to this.

First, add the following sentence to Article X, after the sentence that establishes the use of the Book of Common Prayer through the church:

Any Book of Common Prayer memorialized by the General Convention is authorized for regular use at any service in all dioceses of this Church.

Second, add this sentence to the canons:

The content of any Book of Common Prayer memorialized by the General Convention is understood to be version in use at the time of the memorialization.

Liturgical Texts Beyond the Book of Common Prayer

Clarity about the level of authority of texts that General Convention has authorized beyond the BCP was precisely what motivated Bishop Provenzano’s substitute resolution at the last General Convention (2022-B011). Article X speaks of Alternative and Additional liturgies. It seems quite clear that Alternative means alternatives to rites in the BCP (such as Enriching our Worship 1 for the Office and the Eucharist) and Additional are rites that supplement the Book of Common Prayer (such as The Book of Occasional Services).

I would suggest the following friendly amendments to Bishop Doyle’s resolution:

  • Replace the section about Supplemental Liturgical texts and divide it out into two sections: Alternative Liturgies and Additional Liturgies. Thus, the canons would clearly delineate four clear categories that are straightforward and self-evident:
    1. The Book of Common Prayer
    2. Trial Use Rites
    3. Alternatives to the BCP
    4. Additional texts to supplement the BCP
  • Use the same language as used in Canon II for Trial Use to describe the process of authorization for both the categories of Alternative and Additional texts.
  • Clarify that all alternatives to the BCP are subject to the bishop ordinary.
  • Clarify that the enabling resolution for Additional liturgies must clarify if the text in question is subject to the bishop ordinary, and specially state that the General Convention has the authority to authorize a Book of Occasional Services as well as a volume of propers for the celebration of lesser feasts and fasts.
  • Clarify that the content of any Book of Common Prayer memorialized by the General Convention is understood to be version in use at the time of the memorialization.

Conclusion

As the General Convention considers this question, we must remember several points:

  • We have an obligation to carefully consider every second reading and make sure we are clear: Is this proposed action what we really want to do? Are we clear what this change will accomplish? Do we still think that this action is a good idea?
  • A revision to Article X is not a necessary precondition to add the new marriage rites to the Book of Common Prayer. The current version of Article X clearly outlines the process by which alterations may be made or things added to the BCP. These marriage rites were authorized for Trial Use in 2018 and they now will be considered for inclusion in the BCP by passing a First Reading of this change. This is all in accord with the Constitution.
  • The key new sentence in the proposed revision to Article X has two serious flaws:
    • It’s open to at least three quite different interpretations, and
    • Its intended meaning is to introduce the idea of “Prayer Book Status” in which “The Book of Common Prayer” can refer to a book or a collection in the clouds, which is both misguided and deeply confusing.
  • The language that intends to require Trial Use before a First Reading to add to or amend the BCP could mean two quite different things. This must be clarified.
  • The working group of experts required in the first reading of this revision (2022-A059) was never created. This means that the 81st General Convention is not able consider this Constitutional amendment alongside canonical revisions that further clarify any revision to Article X that was crafted by experts as the 80th General Convention intended.
  • “Memorialization” remains an undefined term and is best clarified in Article X of the Constitution.

Some might argue that the Constitution is by nature general and vague and that it is the job of the Canons to clarify what might be unclear in the Constitution. But we must remember that the function of a constitution 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.”  “It lays down broad powers; details are left to the Canons.” 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,” and both require two successive Conventions to amend or revise (see Article X and Article XII). Both are “amendable” but “not easily amendable” (see Daniel B. Stevick, Canon Law: A Handbook [New York: The Seabury Press, 1956], pp. 97, 98, 119, 98).

It is one thing to revise the Constitution in such a way that makes possible a number of different paths in the Canons. But it is quite another thing to revise the Constitution in ways that are vague and open to conflicting interpretations at the very point that it revises the original version of the Article. We must remember that while it may seem this “slows down the process of liturgical and Prayer Book revision,” here’s the truth: there is nothing that is prevented or curtailed in the next triennium if we do not pass this revision to Article X in 2024. If we made carefull revisions and passed a new First Reading of a revision to Article X, it would mean that in 2027, the General Convention could pass a second reading of a new Article X and add the new marriage rites to the BCP.

There is no rush. Let’s make sure to get it right.

Disclosure: I am a member of Legislative Committee #2, Constitution and Canons, which considered this resolution. This editorial reflects only my opinion.

4 COMMENTS

  1. My Dad, born in 1897, said he had difficulty with BCP 1928, just like I had with 1979, as certain words were changed because they acquired slightly different meanings, that distracted my prayer attention.

  2. Structural changes that reduce the commonality of prayer in the Church ought to be carefully and conservatively considered. A Book that isn’t a book lends itself to liturgical and, perhaps, theological incoherence in practice. The author’s caution that the second reading ought not to be pro forma is also well-advised.

  3. I have always been a fan of Fr Olver ever since he was at Incarnation in Dallas. A Rite for same-sex marriage is very important to me, but i totally agree that it could be in an alternate service book as opposed to BCP. I agree we should take establishing a new Prayer Book very slowly.

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