Liturgy and music group offers General Convention two ways to approach the prayer book

This summer’s meeting of General Convention is being invited to consider how it orders its common prayer and why.

[Episcopal News Service] The prospect of revising the current Book of Common Prayer is filled with risk, complexity and “potentially great promise.”

That is the gentle invitation the Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music has put before the Episcopal Church five months before the start of the 79th General Convention.

The church does not revise the prayer book lightly or frequently. The current book dates to 1979, which replaced the 1928 version. The General Convention asked in 1997 that the Standing Liturgical Commission, as it was then known, develop a comprehensive plan for prayer book revision. The group did so, and convention approved it in 2000 but failed to provide adequate funding. However, that effort resulted in the liturgical commission’s developing a series of supplemental liturgies known as “Enriching Our Worship.”

In 2015, General Convention charged the liturgy and music committee with presenting to the upcoming July 5-13 gathering in Austin, Texas, a plan for a comprehensive revision of the Book of Common Prayer. After considering four different approaches, the SCLM is offering a comprehensive plan for revision, as requested, as well as a way for the church to spend time discerning the future shape of its common prayer. The SCLM has included “guiding assumptions,” work plans, suggested processes and tools, hundreds of pages of supplemental material and budgets for each approach.

The approaches are described in a portion of the SCLM’s Blue Book report released to the church Feb. 13. The prayer book subcommittee’s report is here.

All the information represents what the group explored and synthesized, the Rev. Devon Anderson, SCLM chair, told Episcopal News Service. It is being offered to General Convention as a resource to help guide the conversation on what should be done.

The current edition of the Book of Common Prayer dates to 1979. It is the result of a long process of discernment and congregational use of various proposed liturgies. Photo: Mary Frances Schjonberg/Episcopal News Service

The first option would move the church immediately into a full-blown prayer book revision process that would be complete in nine years. “As a church, we are engaging energetically in our presiding bishop’s call to assert our place in the Jesus Movement. We are turning outward to our neighborhoods, exploring new modes and ancient ways of being church, and rethinking our structures,” the commission says in its so-called Blue Book report. “This may well be a time when we are primed for change.”

The commission added that it is important that the church be intentional about the direction of the change. Thus, it said, it is offering a second approach.

That option calls on the church to plumb the depths of the current Book of Common Prayer’s theology, as well as its usefulness as a tool for unity in a diverse church, for evangelism and discipleship. “The more we thought about Option One, the more we focused on the essential need for the church to take stock of its devotion and commitment to common prayer, not only to be clear about why we have a Book of Common Prayer in the first place, but to embrace a common life that celebrates our unity in difference,” the report says.

Anderson said that the SCLM “spent a lot of time making sure that Option Two wasn’t just the anti-prayer book revision option.”

Instead, she said, it is meant to seize the attention of General Convention and suggest a way for the church “to have a real discernment about our common prayer” and about where God is calling the church to be now.

“The whole point about everything we put out there [in the report] is to equip General Convention to have a unifying discernment about our common prayer and trying to elevate the debate above asserting our personal piety.”

If convention agrees to the second approach, this would include new BCP translations. The commission says it is “generally recognized” that the current word-for-word Spanish and French translations are inadequate. Moreover, the book needs to be translated into Haitian Creole and many other languages, especially First Nations languages. The present state of BCP translation “belies our oft-stated desire to be fully inclusive” and can be solved by handing the task of translation to the communities most affected and giving them the resources they will need, the report says.

The commission sees this work as part of the reconciliation to which Presiding Bishop Michael Curry has called for in Becoming Beloved Community: The Episcopal Church’s Long-Term Commitment to Racial Healing, Reconciliation, and Justice. “One concrete way to invest ‘in the flourishing of every person’ [as described in that document] is to offer the poetic beauty and depth of the Book of Common Prayer in the languages in which it is prayed,” the commission’s report says.

For generations, Episcopalians have valued their personal copies of the Book of Common Prayer. Photo: Mary Frances Schjonberg/Episcopal News Service

Finally, the second option would include an expansion of the canonical categories for forms of authorized worship. While there is a provision for liturgies approved for trial use, there is no canonically supported or authorized category for liturgies beyond the Book of Common Prayer. “Yet, over the last two generations General Convention has created a confusing field of ‘supplemental’ liturgies with no canonical home,” the commission says, suggesting that remedying this situation would make for good order in the way the church approves and uses liturgies and would expand the range of liturgies that “could richly inform any future revision.”

“Such an expansion would also be vastly less expensive and more efficient than the wholesale revision of the prayer book, not diverting precious funds from urgently needed mission,” the commission members say.

The commission estimates that beginning comprehensive prayer book revision would cost $1.9 million in the 2019-21 triennium alone, and the entire revision process would cost between $7 and $8 million. The estimate for the second approach is $1.1 million for one triennium only, a price tag that includes the suggested translations project but not a formal prayer book revision process. The budgets in the SCLM’s report details what that money would cover.

Anderson told ENS that the commission felt it owed the church “a very detailed budget analysis to accompany each of the two options.

“To the extent possible we were exhaustive in parsing out every single step and resource at market rate to substantiate the price tags attached to the different approaches.”

Anderson said she is proud of the work the commission accomplished, given its “huge mandate” that included much more than just the issue of prayer book revision. In addition, General Convention sent resolutions to the SCLM asking for a plan for revision of the Hymnal 1982, a complete revision of the Book of Occasional Services, a revision of the church’s calendar of saints, development of new prayers about racial reconciliation and pursuing efforts of the commission’s Congregational Song Task Force. Anderson estimated that convention sent SCLM upwards of $500,000 worth of projects.

Despite the scope of that work, SCLM’s initial funding from convention allowed for only two face-to-face meetings in two years, and as many Adobe Connect video conferencing and teleconferences as it needed. Convention did not provide money for work on any of the projects it requested. The Executive Council gave the commission more money at midterm, and the group also found some additional small grants.

The order of the Eucharistic liturgy in the Book of Common Prayer has changed over the years. Photo: Mary Frances Schjonberg/Episcopal News Service

“Liturgy and the act of worship is, at its foundation, relational,” Anderson said. “While Adobe Connect and other online tools can be helpful, they are no replacement for the kind of team- and trust-building that happens in person.

“While these tools are also cost-efficient, when we rely on them too heavily, what we sacrifice is the full inclusion of the church. Both prayer book options would require real relational engagement – visiting and listening where Episcopalians are gathered to pray. Spending time in the ‘natural habitats’ of Episcopalians everywhere, and developing relationships there, would allow either option to benefit from the experience, cultures, knowledge and poetry that live across the church.”

Read more about it

The SCLM plans to post on its blog a series of essays about the various projects it worked on this triennium, and will host online discussions there. The lead-off posts on the prayer book report is here.

– The Rev. Mary Frances Schjonberg is interim managing editor of the Episcopal News Service.

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