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Changing Trains on Liturgical Revision

Both houses of General Convention have approved a resolution that will move the Episcopal Church closer to liturgical revision, but not closer to a revised Book of Common Prayer. The steps to this decision have been unpredictable, and the result may be equally difficult to foretell.

The House of Deputies passed an earlier version of Resolution A068, Plan for the Revision of the Book of Common Prayer, by a comfortable margin on July 7. Things got complicated when the resolution moved to the House of Bishops on July 9, however, with bishops expressing concerns that the church was ill-equipped for the significant, years-long task of revising the prayer book.

“I’m a supporter of liturgical reform,” said Texas Bishop Andy Doyle. “But I actually have no belief that the present leadership of this church, as much as I love you all, is going to do this any better than we’ve done over the last 20 years.”

Doyle led the charge to produce a substitute resolution to A068 — one that significantly differed from the document handed to bishops. The plan to launch a formal process of prayer book revision — as laid out by the Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music with a $2 million tab for the first triennial installment — was nixed. The new resolution forms a Task Force on Liturgical and Prayer Book Revision that will report to the 80th General Convention in 2021. The price tag was dropped by about 90 percent. The SCLM is absent from the final resolution.

The task force is to represent the “expertise, gender, age, theology, regional, and ethnic diversity of the church” and propose “revisions to the Constitution and Canons to enable the Episcopal Church to be adaptive in its engagement of future generations of Episcopalians.”

The resolution bundles both progressive and cautious considerations. Emerging technologies are to be considered, dynamic equivalence translations of the BCP are mandated, and revisions are to “utilize inclusive and expansive language and imagery for humanity and divinity.” Bishops are to involve themselves in experimentation with alternative texts within their church communities, as well.

However, the 1979 BCP is memorialized as a “Prayer Book of the church preserving the psalter, liturgies, The Lambeth Quadrilateral, Historic Documents, and Trinitarian Formularies ensuring its continued use.” The resolution also declares that ecumenical commitments are to be kept in mind.

At its July 11 afternoon session, the House of Deputies concurred with this substitute resolution, an act recommended by the committee that drafted the original. The choice was not without opposition.

The Rev. Evan D. Garner of Alabama spoke against the resolution. “It is either time for us to revise the prayer book or it is not time for us to revise the prayer book,” he said. “I believe strongly it is not time for us to abandon a Book of Common Prayer. I appreciate the attempt by the House of Bishops to seek compromise, and I appreciate the committee’s report encouraging us to continue forward in our effort for liturgical revision and reform. But I think that this substitute resolution that is before us is a mistake.” Garner expressed concern about memorializing the 1979 Prayer Book while producing new liturgical materials.

In contrast, Joan Geiszler-Ludlum spoke in favor of concurrence. “A068 is a substitute but retains key pieces as it was reported out and considered in this house. It authorizes work to proceed on liturgical and prayer book revision. It empowers churchwide engagement. It incorporates inclusive and expansive language and imagery, along with expression, understanding, and appreciation for care of God’s creation,” she said.

If it sounds like the church has hopped off the express train to prayer book revision and is now on the local, that is one interpretation. Another is that by taking comprehensive prayer book revision off the table, General Convention has laid far straighter tracks to the desired goal: updated, inclusive, and approved liturgies. The new tracks laid with A068 may not have more stops so much as different stops, with opportunities to further consider how revised liturgies might be incorporated into the life of the church without the decade-long formality and expense of prayer book revision.

Memorializing the 1979 prayer book also implies that by the ride’s end, Episcopalians may still find the 1979 prayer book in their luggage, even if it is sharing space with new materials. What this means is also up to interpretation. Posts on social media express dread that this approach could lead the Episcopal Church down a chaotic path similar to that of the Church of England, the Church in Wales, or the Anglican Church of Canada, where venerable old prayer books coexist with modern materials. Other posts express hope that the A068 compromise will lead the Episcopal Church down an exciting path similar to that of the Church of England, the Church in Wales, or the Anglican Church of Canada, where venerable old prayer books coexist with modern materials.

In any event, differing interpretations of A068 suggest the resolution’s fruits, like the birth and rebirth of the resolution, may be unpredictable in nature. The makeup and work of the task force will undoubtedly affect the shape of those fruits.

But as General Convention demonstrates, when a thousand Episcopalians (and dozens of pigeons) enter a confined space and receive a copy of Robert’s Rules, the result is a bit like a billiard break: you can try to guess the outcome, but skill, luck, timing, and the hand of God will be at play. Energized coalitions, opinions on canon law, shrinking legislative calendars, and late-night amending parties can take hundreds of hours of task force or commission work and set them aside. This is visible in the search for a compromise on same-sex marriage and nearly occurred with the readmission of Cuba into the church. The Episcopal Church, like the U.S. government upon which it is modeled, is both democratic and bureaucratic, but democracy wins the day at General Convention.

Is revision of the Prayer Book dead? Will it come to a church near you sooner than expected? Stay tuned.

With reporting by G. Jeffrey MacDonald


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