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Robust Conversation on Prayer Book Revision

Review by Calvin Lane

Issues in Prayer Book Revision, Volume 1
Edited by Robert W. Prichard
Church Publishing, pp. 260, $24.95

Conversations about prayer book revision have been happening for years within the Episcopal Church. Bishops have been talking. Theologians have been talking. Musicians have been talking. Clergy and lay alike have been talking. TLC, among other media outlets for Episcopalians, has featured several articles on the subject. The issues at hand vary: gendered language, communion without baptism, our baptismal ecclesiology, the congruence of our liturgy with our canons, the norm of scripture in our corporate worship, and the whole concept of common (i.e., recognizably uniform) prayer.

This collection of essays, edited by Robert Prichard, recently retired professor at Virginia Theological Seminary, appeared in a rather unusual window. General Convention 2015 set up General Convention 2018 for some decision-making about the possibility of prayer book revision; various options were developed by the Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music, including the option of doing nothing.

The essays here were written on the eve of the 2018 General Convention but the volume itself appeared after the convention opted for what most would describe as a middle path, namely to work toward revision while memorializing the current 1979 Book of Common Prayer. That itself does not in any way mitigate the value of these articles. Moreover, there is still enough ambiguity about our future common prayer life (including what exactly “memorializing” means) that the conversation needs to continue with the kind of robust theological resources offered in this valuable collection.

The volume presents twelve relatively short but well-researched essays composed by nine scholars. Eight of them are clergy of the Episcopal Church, the ninth being a Lutheran. Eight, likewise, are current or former faculty of Episcopal seminaries, the ninth being an Episcopal priest currently earning a doctorate. These are diverse voices but what they (mostly) have in common is a three-fold skill set: deep experience within the Episcopal Church, an acumen for liturgical studies which draws on Biblical studies and history, and a knowledge of how we have, broadly speaking, engaged worship over the past two generations.

I would venture that such a three-fold skill set, representing ecclesial commitment, scholarship, and pastoral experience, needs to be present in every conversation about prayer book revision. Where one of those three is lacking, the conversation can go sideways. One of the strengths, though, is that these pieces are written in an accessible tone so that the gifts of these authors can reach non-specialists. In a church so committed to democratic decision-making, there is always the danger of conversations in silos, the phenomenon of talking past each other in our own balkanized ghettos in unfamiliar idioms. Then we’re all surprised when the voting happens. These well-written essays work against that pitfall.

After Prichard’s helpful introduction, the conversation begins with essays on principles. Nathan Jennings of the Seminary of the Southwest draws out four criteria from Anglican history for common prayer: that it is (1) grounded in scripture, (2) agreeable to the order of the early Christian church, (3) unifying to the church, and (4) edifying to the people. These have been the targets for previous revisionary efforts. Jennings is especially salutary in his advice that our prayers and rites should sound like scripture, like the God who speaks to us through scripture.

Prichard then dives into one of the most obvious and theologically important issues of revision, that of language. Writing as an accomplished historian and charitable theologian, he details the history of language choices in previous revisions of the prayer book. He considers the relevance of ecumenism, e.g., the International Commission on English in the Liturgy and the International Consultation on English Texts. He also discusses the divergent attempts toward balanced, inclusive, and expansive language. These have included the formula developed more than a generation ago of Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer, a depersonalized and functionalist approach to God that echoes the ancient notion of modalism. On the other hand, there have been moves to add female imagery for God drawn from scripture and Christian history. Prichard offers a fine analysis not only of the recent history of liturgical change but also current philosophical scholarship on language.

Beyond these orienting essays, there are a host of specific topics to address and because of space only a few may be mentioned here. In treating the lectionary, Shawn Strout, the doctoral candidate, observes the steady move from simplicity to complexity and the toll it has taken on formation and a common Biblical diet.

Patrick Malloy, formerly of General Theological Seminary and now sub dean of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City, offers a discussion of burial offices, encouraging the presence of the body to avoid a disembodied spiritualism and emphasize instead resurrection hope.

Drawing on current patristic scholarship, Yale’s Bryan Spinks dispels an influential but inaccurate piece of liturgical history learned by so many in the second half of the 20th century, that is, the fallacy that the “Apostolic Tradition” was written by Bishop Hippolytus of Rome, c215. Given the influence of this tale when the 1979 book was formed, Spinks asks, quite reasonably, why that moment in Christian history should govern our current corporate prayer life.

VTS professor James Farwell’s proposal about Buddhism and eastern religious philosophy helping us to connect the Incarnation and the Atonement was not entirely clear. However, Farwell offers a valuable reflection on the 1979 prayer book’s move to expand our focus in the Eucharistic prayers from a narrow interest in Good Friday to the whole of God’s mighty works in Christ, from Incarnation to his second coming in glory.

The essays collectively provide a careful reflection on where we are as a church with the current 1979 Book of Common Prayer. The assumption is that if we are to talk about revision, we must first recognize the revolution of the liturgical movement, and second, ask if we as a church have actually lived into its vision. That focus courses through the book, but nowhere as obviously as in the two connected essays contributed by Sewanee’s James Turrell.

In both pieces Turrell focuses on baptism in the 1979 book. He charts the severing of the three-fold rite of baptism, hand-laying, and first communion during the middle ages and the attempted reunification in our current prayer book. He explains the goal of recovering catechesis not simply as absorbing ideas but as adopting a new way of living in the world. He discusses the prayer book’s intention of a renewed emphasis on evangelism and the norming of adult baptism. He highlights how this baptismal theology is embedded throughout the whole of the ’79 BCP.

Yet at every turn this revolution has met with only partial success. Over the past generation the Episcopal Church has not, Turrell explains, engaged in a widespread mission to the unchurched as the framers of the ’79 book expected. Most baptisms are of infants; they are paraded around the church; baptism is seen as some sort of genetic inheritance; and godparents function as honorees rather than as mentors in the counter-cultural Christian life. The medieval pattern of confirmation, not as a reaffirmation of baptism but as the completion of initiation, is still prevalent.

As congregations, we are not widely reaffirming the baptismal covenant on the four baptismal feast days. Catechesis is a hoop one jumps through in her teenage years on the journey to civic adulthood rather than a deepening awareness of new life in Christ. And this is no wonder, as the resources for serious catechism are thin on the ground. “Most serious,” Turrell writes, “is the practice of communion without baptism, which reflects a profound misunderstanding of the sacramental ‘grammar’ of the 1979 prayer book.”

Borrowing from Farwell, Turrell observes that there have been varying speeds of reception for different parts of the ’79 book: quick on weekly Eucharists, moderate on some aspects of baptism, and slow on the Holy Week liturgies that vividly express that same baptismal ecclesiology. One thinks here of the verdict made years ago by both Louis Weil and Neil Alexander, which seems still true today: The Episcopal Church has yet to live into the revolutionary vision of the 1979 Book of Common Prayer.

The Episcopal Church needs to continue these conversations and every member needs to be attentive and informed. Liturgical change of any sort is not a straight timeline nor a foregone conclusion. My own diocese is hosting a conference featuring a genuine diversity of scholars on November 2 of this year at Christ Church Cathedral in Cincinnati (learn more at dsojubilate.org). Jubilate, which is open to anyone, is emphatically not meant to move us toward certain revisions as a fait accompli. Rather, much like this volume, it is to help us foster the kind of informed and theologically robust conversations that this book seeks to spark. It’s promising that the book is designated Volume 1. We need more of this.

The Rev. Dr. Calvin Lane teaches for Nashotah House Theological Seminary and Wright State University, and is associate rector of St. George’s Church, Dayton, Ohio.


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