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Committee Divides on Prayer Book Redefinition

General Convention’s Committee on Constitution and Canons issued a rare split decision on a major issue at its first in-person meeting on June 22. The committee’s four bishops unanimously approved Resolution A072, which would amend the definition of the Book of Common Prayer in Article X of the Episcopal Church’s Constitution. The committee’s deputies rejected it by a vote of 4-6.

A072 is the second reading of a resolution that was drafted and passed after a lengthy debate in the House of Bishops at the 2022 General Convention. It is now slated to be considered first on the floor of the House of the Bishops. If passed there, the committee’s recommendation is that the House of Deputies reject it.

A072’s critics contend that its definition of the Book of Common Prayer as “those liturgical forms and other texts authorized by the General Convention in accordance with this article and the Canons of this Church,” allowing for what some have called “the prayer book in the cloud,” is unhelpfully vague and redundant.

“The first sentence, as we saw in our discussions, is open to a range of interpretations, and I think if we’re going to amend the Constitution, its meaning needs to be really clear,” said the Rev. Matthew Olver, TLC’s publisher and a deputy from the Diocese of Dallas.

He added that he didn’t believe it was certain if A072 proposed the addition of material to the Book of Common Prayer over three subsequent General Conventions (first as trial use, then as first reading, then as second reading) or if it allowed trial use and first reading to be approved at the same time.

The Rev. Amanda Kotval, deputy from Virginia, criticized A072’s opening section for its redundancy. “I don’t believe that the first two paragraphs do anything that is not already true,” she said. “I believe that we can already make changes to the Book of Common Prayer according to Article X in our Constitution, and I don’t think we need extra language to say something that’s already true.”

Deputy Bill Powell of Ohio, one of the committee’s chairs, countered that he didn’t think the resolution’s potential vagueness posed a serious problem.

“We had the opportunity to have Bishop [J. Neil] Alexander, as the Custodian of the Prayer Book, testify to this committee, and he said one thing that was very persuasive to me: that is that there is no judiciary to interpret the Constitution. So if it is not exactly perfect, General Convention can interpret it.

“Perfection is the enemy is the good, and I think there are reasons to move this along to a vote to adopt this change to the Book of Common Prayer, and then once we have done all the extra work on the details, we can perfect it.”

Olver countered, “I actually found Bishop Alexander’s comment pushed me in the opposite direction. The fact that there is not a judiciary inclined me to think, if we are going to revise the Constitution, we should do so in a way that to everyone its meaning is abundantly clear. To revise it in a way that we agree is vague is not helpful. I suggest that if we are going to amend the Constitution, we do so in a way that is clear and helpful and provides a clear direction going forward.”

Deputy Kevin Babb of Springfield added, “For me, the problem is that the argument is being made that the General Convention is supposed to inform the Constitution, and my understanding is that it’s the other way round, that the Constitution should inform the General Convention.”

Another area of disagreement focused on whether the passage of other resolutions before General Convention depended on approving Resolution A072.

Powell had informed the committee earlier that the Rev. Ruth Meyers, deputy from California and one of the chairs of the Committee on Prayer Book, Liturgy, and Music, had told him that other resolutions were framed in language that was dependent on A072’s redefinition of the Book of Common Prayer. When queried, neither of the committee’s chairs could give examples of resolutions that might be affected by a failure to pass A072.

“I think that’s important for us to ask ourselves: If we did not pass the second reading, what is impeded?” Olver said.

“What is stopped by not passing it? Is there anything that the General Convention cannot do if we did not pass the second reading? I don’t think there is.”

Earlier in the meeting, Olver had proposed a multi-part amendment to A072 that stripped it of its three opening sentences, including a sentence about previously memorialized Books of Common Prayer being authorized for continual use, and clarified the process for amending the prayer book.

Bishop Kai Ryan of Texas, one of the committee’s chairs, noted that Olver’s amendments were so extensive that they would restart the revision of Article X.

“We have for multiple General Conventions passed or attempted to pass revisions to Article X, and we continue to seek perfection,” she said. “I am opposed to these changes in this way because I do not think they make substantial improvement to justifying delaying for another three years.”

Olver’s amendment was approved by the committee’s deputies 5-4, but its bishops voted it down unanimously.

The committee did agree to amend the final two resolve clauses of A072, which had referenced a working group to review the canons that distinguish between different kinds of additional and supplemental liturgies. That working group was never established during the last triennium.

The amended text resolves that a working group of nine members be convened, and specifically asks that the group develop canons to clarify the steps for adding material to the prayer book and answer the question “What does it mean to ‘memorialize’ the 1979 Book of Common Prayer?”

Several members noted that the amended text’s requirement that canonical proposals be presented at the 82nd General Convention in 2027 stands in tension with Resolution B008. This recently released resolution sponsored by Bishop Andy Doyle of Texas proposes an extensive series of canonical changes on the authorization of additional and supplemental liturgical texts for adoption at this General Convention. The committee plans to discuss B008 at its next meeting on June 23.

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