Is there a future for the Book of Common Prayer?

by Derek Olsen

The pieces that George Clifford wrote a few weeks ago cover a lot of different territory around the future of the Episcopal Church, ultimately ending with some unusual possibilities for restructuring the Church. I won’t try and comment on all of what he has written, but I do want to focus some attention on and address one aspect of what he has said—the initial attention-grabbing statement that “[t]he 1979 Book of Common Prayer is the last printed version of the prayer book that The Episcopal Church (TEC) will ever publish.”

While this bold thesis statement turns out to be more a lead into how digital technologies can lead us to re-envision the art of doing and being church, it is worth attention in its own right.

What is the future of the Book of Common Prayer especially with regard to format and media? I’ve spent a fair amount of time thinking about this question from three different angles.

First, I study liturgy—especially liturgy over time. Most of my work has been in the liturgy of the medieval West from about the 6th century to the 16th with most of my time spent in the smack-dab middle, England’s 10th century Benedictine Revival. Within the short space of time between when I started my PhD to when it was signed, sealed, and delivered—from 2001 to 2011—the study of liturgy was revolutionized by the Internet. At the beginning, I had to hit the library to look up most anything. By the middle, I could look up copies of old scholarly editions of liturgical manuscripts on Google Books. By the end, I could access a host of digital archives giving me access to high quality images of the manuscripts themselves. Today, ever increasing numbers pour online at some of my favorite libraries—and particularly interesting images are tweeted. Between the archivists at the British Library (@BLMedieval), Notre Dame (@d_gura) and my local treasure trove at Baltimore’s Walters Art Museum (@MedievalMss), the hits of manuscript illumination—many liturgical—flow through my Twitter feed every day.

When it comes to the Books of Common Prayer, a whole host are now available from every conceivable time and format in which they were printed, most in PDF for convenient download. Do you want an exact copy of the original manuscript of the English 1662 Book of Common Prayer? You can get that. Do you want to admire the layout and printing of Daniel Updike’s edition of the American 1892 Book of Common Prayer? You can do that. Under the conservation of Charles Wohlers and through the good graces of the Society of Archbishop Justus, the authoritative BCP site can lead you to all of these and more.

It isn’t just the future of the BCP that’s online; its past is there too, enabling anyone with the time, patience, and curiosity to gain first-hand knowledge of its changes through the years.

Second, I’m a database programmer. One of my hobby projects over the last few years is the St. Bede’s Breviary, an online site with a customizable Daily Office app. I put it up for my own use because I could never find an Office book with the perfect blend of options, and it gave me an outlet to hone my coding skills. I now get upwards of 1300 hits a week, and my code-base is behind Forward Movement’s digital initiative. The experience of coding this application has taught me a lot about the various possibilities and pitfalls of putting the BCP into an electronic format. I had to make a host of decisions—what programming languages to use, how to represent the various elements, how to get it to work properly. At various points I’ve even back-tracked and reworked entire sections once I figured out I’d made a wrong turn. Literally tens of thousands of lines of code, over a dozen database tables, and countless development hours go in to making something that manifests itself as nothing more than a basic web page. And that’s just the Daily Office!

Third, I’ve recently become the chair of the Electronic Publications subcommittee of the Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music. In particular, we are dealing with a set of resolutions for General Convention that have been passed or have been referred to us for study that relate to electronic resources and official Episcopal liturgies: 2009-A102 which resolves that the completed portions of Enriching our Worship be made “freely available in electronic format on the internet,” 2012-D060 (PDF) on a format and platform-independent means of making our liturgical and musical materials available, and 2012-D079 (PDF) also calling for “electronically available and easily accessible” liturgical materials. Envisioning such a digital resource is easy; working through the issues and making it happen in a way that respects the complex interactions at work is a lot harder! What if there are copyrighted items from outside authors included in our materials? (The hymnal is full of this—check out the several pages of very small type from 931 to 936.) What exactly does the language of “freely available” mean—“easy to find” or “provided without cost”? What would this move do to Church Publishing and its parent, the Church Pension Group?

The very simple response to George’s provocative statement is pretty clear to me: The ’79 being the last printed (American) Book of Common Prayer? I wouldn’t bet on it.

Several factors play into this assertion. First, the Book of Common Prayer is an authoritative document. Whether people like it or not—I know some on both sides—the prayer book is legislated by both our constitution and canons. Digital materials are, by nature, ephemeral. While our culture has made many strides towards embracing digital media, as the travails of print newspapers clearly display, an authorized document is one that will and must have a particular physical embodiment. Even if an electronic version becomes more widely used, this will not relieve us from the need of having an authorized and authoritative physical document upon which the electronic version is based. If a document is authoritative, there must be a stable text and assurances that it cannot and will not change without agreement by General Convention. I can’t see there being enough trust across the church in an electronic text held by “the leadership” with no concomitant physical copy.

Second, I doubt that the use of books of common prayer in parishes will convert quickly or easily to digital devices. One of the things that has surprised me as the curator of a digital Office site is the number of requests I’ve received to make my contents of my breviary available in physical form. The first few times this happened I was very confused: don’t they understand that the whole point was making it digital? That a digital text gives greatly enhanced feature flow and accessibility? What I didn’t understand initially was the importance of the object itself. Many people prefer to have a physical object to pray with—a screen or a device just doesn’t cut it. They want a well-bound book in their hands. It’s a tactile thing. Now—is this purely a generational thing that will pass away as we “digital natives” become a larger percentage of the population? I don’t know.

Third, I think the perspective that George advocates suggests a wider interest in clerical experimentation and variation than I have seen on the ground. As a layman, I understand the prayer book operating as a contract. This is the book that the church has established itself upon, and I ought to be able to expect that when I go into a church with an Episcopal sign out front for the primary Sunday service it will be a service from the prayer book. I understand that clergy may like to tinker. You want to do a New Zealand prayer service with elements from the Quakers and the Eastern Orthodox? Fine, knock yourself out—in the middle of the week. As long as there is a coherent expectation of a stable Sunday morning service, though, there’s no need to suggest that a printed book is inadequate for handling the possibilities. Does that mean that there couldn’t be digitally available alternatives for non-primary services? Of course not—I wouldn’t say that at all; but to assume that nothing would be stable to the degree that a printed book could not serve would represent a theology and ecclesiology that I would no longer recognize as “Anglican.”

I don’t see the printed prayer book going away any time soon. That having been said, this can’t be where the conversation ends. Just because we will need a printed prayer book doesn’t mean that there aren’t all sorts of fabulous things that we could and should be doing in the digital space! Let me offer just a few rather random observations based on my multiple perspectives…

1. The Church needs to recognize the digital world as its own distinct sphere with its own missionary aims, activities, and strategies. My jaw about hit the floor when the Mission Enterprise Zone and New Church Start grants were announced in August as innovative initiatives that were tied to geographical areas. What—nothing about digital initiatives? Interaction with social media is one of the best ways going to spread ideas, feelings, and convictions. Isn’t that a big part of what we want to do? Isn’t there potential for digital initiatives that lead into connections with local embodied communities? Digital and geographical shouldn’t have to be binary options—it can (and should!) be a “both/and” rather than an “either/or.”

2. The digital realm is creating new opportunities for spiritual renewal. As the article posted on The Lead a bit ago indicated, new spiritual practices are growing out of faithful interactions with technology. On the other hand, some very old ways of doing things are also seeing a revival. Over the last several years, the Daily Office—Morning and Evening Prayer—have received greater visibility and use due to electronic means. Mission St Clare, Josh Thomas’ Daily Office site, and my own efforts have made praying the Office a lot easier—far less page-flipping required—and have also made it a more digitally visible act. Of course, if you’d rather pray with others, there’s the Office feed from @Virtual_Abbey on Twitter! We’re not done seeing things here. The interaction between spirituality, liturgy, and technology is still new and I expect we’ll see quite a lot of interesting things develop in the next decade.

Either the Church will get on the notion of a stable, correct, digital prayer book text—or someone else will! I have a group of dedicated volunteers who point out to me the typos in my breviary. Well, hey—you can’t expect to have 900+ collects in the cycle without a few missed keys somewhere along the line! Unless they were coming from a stable, corrected source… While there are arguments to be had and factors to be considered around putting all of the Episcopal Church’s liturgies online in a digital form without cost, there’s one text where this shouldn’t be an issue and that’s the prayer book itself. It is in the public domain. There could be a digital prayer book with an API (a kind of electronic interface) that allows apps or websites to tap into a single corrected source. Will the Episcopal Church create such a thing? I don’t know. On the other hand, most of the cool, innovative, useful resources out there on the web haven’t been started by church initiatives. It’s been by individuals with a vision and a passion. The Church may well choose not to do such a thing—but that doesn’t mean that it won’t be done.

The printed prayer book isn’t going away any time soon as far as I can tell, but that doesn’t mean that the digital space and electronic alternatives aren’t going to be major players in the future. On the contrary, I think they will. My crystal ball doesn’t work better than anyone else’s; I have no idea what we’re going to see in the coming decades. Mobile technologies are only taking off. App integration into personal products will only accelerate. What will this mean spiritually and liturgically? I have no idea—but I can’t wait to find out…

Dr. Derek Olsen is a layperson in the Diocese of Maryland where his wife is a priest and his daughters are an acolyte and boat-bearer respectively. He serves as Theologian-in-Residence at Church of the Advent, Baltimore, and as the Secretary of the Standing Commission on Liturgy & Music. An IT specialist by day, Derek created and maintains the online Daily Office site The St. Bede’s Breviary. His reflections on life, Anglo-Catholic identity, and liturgical spirituality appear at Haligweorc

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10 Comments
  1. Pmgentry

    Another great option for the Daily Office is the Morning Prayer podcast recorded by the Rev. Chip Lee, available for free on iTunes. The musical accompaniment is fairly atrocious, and I’m not smart enough to know about the theological implications of passively listening to the service, but I do know that I love being able to spend 15 minutes of my morning commute engaged with structured spiritual reflection.

    Phil Gentry

  2. George Clifford

    Derek, I agree with your thoughtful analysis about the importance of having a definitive, printed version of the Book of Common Prayer. However, that agreement notwithstanding, I still think that we have seen the last printed edition of the Book of Common Prayer. Replacement costs, lower utilization rates of the printed book by people using either locally produced leaflets or electronic versions, an increasing proliferation of local adaptations, and TEC’s continuing internal theological conflicts all make finding and funding agreement on a new Book of Common Prayer edition improbable. I’m not suggesting that this is a positive development, but a change that poses new challenges for TEC.

  3. Forgive me for being simplistic, but some of us like to carry our personal copy of the Book of Common Prayer with us at work, school, etc. Personally, I like the feel of an actual book in my hands and I would not want to lose that option if a new Book of Common Prayer is published. Then again, at my current age of fifty-nine, it might be a moot point.

    Barry Chitwood

  4. Susan Snook

    Derek, I agree with you that we will always need a printed BCP. What would also be extremely useful would be a digital version (of both BCP and Hymnals) that converts easily to Powerpoint or other digital projection format. Reading the words off a projector screen is a different technology than a book, but not a wrong one (despite the howls of protest that ensue from some quarters at the idea – remember that bound books were new technology too, once upon a time). My experience with projected worship services is that converting the format from the BCP Online or Rite Stuff is a time-consuming and awkward process, with many opportunities to make mistakes. A program that does this conversion accurately and non-awkwardly would be extremely helpful. It would also be helpful to have a non-Powerpoint-based platform, since Powerpoint is a linear program – you have to go through the slides in the order they are input. What if you skip the last communion hymn? What if the presider adds something unplanned? A projector operator should be able to adjust to these contingencies with a program that doesn’t require him/her to page through slides while the congregation looks on in confusion. It would be great to have a proprietary program that makes it much simpler to project a BCP/Hymnal service (and takes care of whatever copyright issues are involved, in the case of the Hymnal).

    Susan Brown Snook+

  5. Gregory Orloff

    Beside the fact that I like the physicality of holding a book and leafing through pages — as well as the fact that paper is more often easier on the eyes after working in front of a computer day in and day out, all day — there is an economic factor to consider here. Not everyone can afford the latest mobile digital reader — and it is much more within my, my parish’s and my diocese’s means to buy someone a copy of the Book of Common Prayer if he or she can’t afford to buy one. Imagine the cost of the bishop presenting each confirmand with a Nook, EBook or Kindle with the BCP on it! There is room — and a need — for both paper and digital media.

  6. Hi Susan,

    Great suggestion! I would not want a proprietary program, though. Too expensive and not enough scale to get it upgraded efficiently. Easy Worship/ProPresenter and the other big worship projection programs work very well.

    Options, of the sort Derek is good at programming, for being able to broadcast the entire liturgy or just the responses (which is what we do), would be helpful as well.

    Matt Marino+

  7. Derek,

    You won’t be surprised to learn that I’m more interested in ways the church sustained unity before Rome’s effort to standardize and Romanize the Western liturgy and wonder if The Book (a medium the church invented) and print have made us servants of the book that we developed to serve us in our Divine Service.

    But your piece also happily reminds me how much you and I share in the different questions we ask and different conclusions we reach. Both lines of inquiry and practice come from a very like concern for church unity. Looking at different particulars in practice and seeing different perils, we both continue to reflect on what our church and our churches share from congregation to congregation and how each gathered congregation finds a common Spirit in shared practice.

    My own interest in ancient, pre-print and pre-standardization ways of experiencing and acknowledging unity (and my focused attention on how we sing together) leads me to hope we’ll recover such bonds of affection, spirit and understanding as cyber resourcing and the globalization that makes us more aware that Anglican diversity (and unity) are like other human diversity (and unity).

    Global consciousness and cyber connections allow us to begin seeing how what’s most authentic locally still touches something universally Christian and human. Context and inculturation make very different liturgies from one place to another. I suspect that liturgy evolved differently before books and especially before print offered the opportunity (and sometimes illusion) of standardizing words and practice. New media give us the blessing (and peril) of making every priest, musician and liturgist a potential editor/innovator/creator of liturgy. I think we’re seeing it puts us back into something like whatever evolutionary process shaped Christian liturgy before print and before centrally funded and enforced Roman standardization.

    My hope is that with open hearts and a commitment to be faithful to one another, we can find the common Spirit in the common shape and dynamic of our sacramental action. Much will happen that you and I both will find troubling. But I think much more will happen that represents the Spirit’s readiness to move us to fresh discoveries of the ways and work of God in Christ.

  8. barbara snyder

    I was talking awhile back with somebody about the Prayer Book, and its uncanny ability to meet and deal with the depths and heights of emotion and experience that human beings go through over the course of a lifetime.

    She mentioned the fact that, after the Sandy Hook school massacre, she drove 25 miles out of her way to attend what she knew would be a straight-ahead Prayer Book service – an Anglo-Catholic one, I believe, in this case – because she knew of its power to face and deal squarely with the tragic and horrific.

    I knew exactly what she was talking about, because I, too, have made that kind of drive. Most of the invented liturgies I’ve experienced haven’t had this kind of power at all – and have had no staying-power, either, since I can’t remember a word of most of them. That’s because we as individuals have very little to say about most of the important things in life; that’s only normal, because we’ve experienced only a tiny slice of what there is to experience.

    What I like about having the set liturgy is that it’s the collective knowledge of many centuries; it’s been use-tested for thousands of years, and we know from experience that it works. (We know this even now, from first-hand experience, so the effect hasn’t, apparently, expired quite yet.)

    So, I agree 100% that the Sunday service should be something that people can absolutely depend on, for the sake of their mental and spiritual well-being. Somebody’s always suffering, and will need the real stuff.

  9. Walter J. Tanner

    Because we are still so in thrall of the digital revolution, most of us are not aware how precarious digital data storage really is. Unlike a high-quality manuscript, you can’t put a hard drive in a library somewhere and assume that in a thousand years it will be readable…hard disks with their billions of ones and zeros degrade just like ink on paper (faster I believe), not to mention a significant solar flare or nuclear explosion that can wipe a hard drive clean. Luckily our monastic brothers and sisters will keep those paper copies, as they always have.

    It seems to me that George’s contention is more about the doubt that TEC will ever be able to reach consensus again over a BCP revision, not that he is a techno-fabulist who thinks the cloud will deliver us to an eternal data-kingdom…

  10. Vik Slen

    The Book of Common Prayer as we (think we) know it is surely a thing of the past. It is, in any case, more a fiction than the stable liturgical authority we imagine it to be.

    First, though it does, to some extent, unite members of the Episcopal Church, we often claim that it unites all Anglicans. Since Anglican Books of Common Prayer are clearly very different from one another, and ours bears a resemblance to the “classic” 1662 Book that only a liturgical scholar can see, clearly in this case we mean some kind of, usually ill-defined, “Book of Common Prayer tradition” – not an actual book.

    It is very interesting to see the Anglican provinces (England and Canada – are there others?) that have given up on updating The Book of Common Prayer, and worship instead using resources with different names — not all of which necessarily are printed in one book. Other churches, such as the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (whose standard pew-edition prayer book is combined with their hymnal, granted) have various versions of their book with different materials in each.

    Similarly, the authoritative liturgies of the Episcopal Church are now found in The Book of Common Prayer, The Book of Occasional Services, Lesser Feasts and Fasts / Holy Women Holy Men, several volumes of Enriching Our Worship, and numerous other resources.

    At 1,001 pages, the 1979 Book of Common Prayer is already much too long. This has struck me since it was developed. I have my own preferences of things to leave out of the BCP (and include in another volume or medium), but I find it very difficult to settle on enough material to leave out to get the book down to a manageable size. And that’s just me. How much more difficult would it be to get the Church as a whole to agree on how to get the book to a reasonable size! Of course, we could reduce the type and/or increase the page size, but there are substantial drawbacks to doing either.

    Should we have a master Book of Common Prayer including all the material found in BOS, EOW etc., and then print different volumes (under whatever titles as needed? Or what? I suspect we will keep developing new rites and forms, so I don’t think such a “book” would be stable for long.

    Many Anglicans do love worshiping from a book, and the idea of a single, manageable book for all to worship from does have an appeal for me as well as for others. But it has never really worked that way.

    The ELCA’s Evangelical Lutheran Worship and the service-book-and-hymnals of its predecessor bodies points to one of the major issues: the Book of Common Prayer has no music. It is very regrettable that Anglicans and Christians of other folds have in modern (and late medieval?) times come to see worship as a quantum of words to be said (mainly by the presiding celebrant). Of course, movement, action, gesture are also very important, but my point is that many of the texts of our worship are intended to be sung. Today we don’t require that they be sung, but: human beings over the course of history have always sung in worship; song affects a much deeper level of the human psyche than liturgical chatter ever can; and at least some texts of our liturgies – canticles, psalms, the Gloria in excelsis and the Sanctus come to mind – are specifically meant to be sung. Yes, they can be chanted on a monotone, improvised, or taught by ear (in some cases), all practices that I think are very helpful, but it would be unsatisfying to sing the whole body of our liturgical texts without the use of some music that is too complex to memorize or learn by ear.

    Even if going back and forth between pages in The Book of Common Prayer is acceptable for long-time or virtuoso worshippers, and even if we think it’s okay to let newcomers muddle through until they become virtuosi, it is high time we consigned having to juggle prayer books AND hymnals AND leaflets and who knows what else (especially considering that many clergy and other Episcopalians are allergic to giving oral cues during worship) to the dustbin of history.

    So yes, worshipping communities need to produce materials with texts and music (and rubrics, if necessary), as they use them, in a format that’s easy to use. Ways can be found to minimize the use of energy and other finite resources to produce these materials.

    I really don’t care if they’re on scrolls, codices, electronic readers, projected overhead or something else. I think texts and rubrics printed on paper will continue to have a certain kind of authoritative status for some time to come. The medium isn’t the issue. But – what can and should The Book of Common Prayer (if that’s what we choose to call it) really be?

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