For such a time as this… an electronic prayer book?


Continuing our conversation about the possibility of a new prayer book, longtime contributor George Clifford argues that we should ditch the “book” part of the BCP and go all digital


by George Clifford


The 1979 Book of Common Prayer badly needs revision:

  • It is sexist, e.g., in its presumption that clergy and God are male;
  • It is exclusionary, e.g., the marriage rite is only for heterosexual couples;
  • It is limited, as evidenced by the proliferation and popularity of authorized alternative liturgies.

Others may add additional theological and liturgical reasons to that list.


Printing a revised Book of Common Prayer is inadvisable:

  • Many small congregations already struggle financially. Their having to replace the 1979 Book of Common Prayer with a revised book will only compound pre-existing financial problems.
  • Determining the contents of a new prayer book might prove impossible or even a catalyst for schism as individuals and groups fight over what to include in a volume that by its various nature is both limited (e.g., a 2000 page book would be unmanageable) and static.
  • The pace of social change is accelerating. Creating another static volume would probably result in a volume that was dated and in need of revision before it was fully implemented across the denomination.
  • One unmistakable direction of change is away from print toward electronic media. Some congregations have already effected this change. Instead of (or in addition to) a printed bulletin, they publish their bulletin electronically for access by people using smartphones and tablets.
  • Juggling the prayer book, one or more of our authorized hymnals, a bulletin, and perhaps a bulletin insert with the scripture readings, can leave a visitor to our worship services feeling bewildered and out of place. Consequently, numerous congregations now print their entire liturgy in the bulletin. This tactic welcomes visitors – a critical tactic for a denomination both suffering from numerical decline and one in which a majority of our current growth comes from adults moving to the Episcopal Church from another denomination.

Moving from a printed Book of Common Prayer to only an electronic version clearly represents the best alternative to a printed prayer book:

  • An electronic Book of Common Prayer can be user friendly, enabling easy preparation of electronic or printed bulletins as well as conveniently accessible daily offices in which the readings appear in situ after the user has selected her/his preferred version of the Bible. Furthermore, all of our authorized hymnals can be seamlessly integrated into an electronic prayer book, thus eliminating the need for printed hymnals in the pews because bulletins, whether printed or electronic, can include hymn texts with music. This shift would also facilitate updating music resources for our liturgies.
  • An electronic prayer book is a “living” document. Establishment of a permanent process for authoritatively updating would help to ensure comprehensiveness and currency.
  • Scattered congregations presently create their own liturgies, diverging from the basic precept that our common prayer unites us. Consistent use of authorized liturgies depends upon the priest-in-charge and not upon the medium used to publish our prayer book.
  • An electronic prayer book avoids costly replacement of printed prayer books.
  • An electronic prayer book with proper indexing and internal links can be easily accessible and expansively inclusive with no practical upper limit on its size.
  • An electronic prayer book embraces technology and the indisputable direction of social change toward greater reliance upon electronic media.

Perhaps the two biggest obstacles to shifting to a revised, electronic prayer book are the institutional inertia common to most large, venerable institutions and our proclivity to cling to tradition regardless of its merit. Parishioners, even most of those who initially opposed printing the full liturgy in the bulletin, soon tell me that they enjoy the liturgy’s accessibility. However, they do not want to let go of having a printed prayer book. When I politely remark about the contradictory nature of these feelings, the most common response I receive is a shrug indicating the genuineness of their feelings, their awareness of the contradiction, and their reluctance to either stop printing the entire liturgy in the bulletin or to let go of the printer prayer book.


I predict that within five years of promulgating a revised, electronic version of the prayer book opposition to the idea will have largely given way to people asking “Why didn’t we do this sooner?”




George Clifford, a priest in the Diocese of Hawai’i, served as a Navy chaplain for twenty-four years, has taught ethics and the philosophy of religion, and now blogs at Ethical Musings.

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Thom Forde
Thom Forde

I disagree with just about every reason given. In addition to issues cited by Ms. Gordon, the rationale with respect to social change reverses and destroys the correct dynamic between church and society, although that horse left TEC's barn long ago. That said, I do greatly appreciate the ability to say the Daily Office on my train commute. I use St. Bede's Breviary and find it to be fantastically useful.

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Deborah Lawson
Deborah Lawson

I am assuming that the prayer book would be downloaded onto my tablet and would not require access to streaming data or WiFi. What I would really like about it is the ability to change the font to one I can easily read without grabbing my glasses. Juggling all the papers and books is bad enough without also juggling glasses. As far as outlets for charging, tablets last for days on one charge when they are just used for reading. I am 100% in favor!

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Mary Beth Butler
Mary Beth Butler

I love the printed prayer book and always use one when possible (I pray or sing the Psalm from the BCP rather than the printed lectionary leaflet). I wouldn't mind using my phone to access an electronic BCP during services, but it's true, not everyone has smart devices. We'd have to have printed versions for those who don't.

I greatly object to printing the entire liturgy each week on environmental grounds.

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Charles Scheid
Charles Scheid

The solution is to update and reorder the Prayer Book so that it works with both dead trees and electrons. (I once tried to pull this off for just the daily office. But there is so much jumping around that I had to abandon the project.) And we could update the horrible typography. (All instructions should be in Italic and everything said by the congregation should be in bold. So the heading should not be in bold unless they are in bold Italic.)

Congregations can just have a few hard copies around, but print, project or otherwise make available the order of service.

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Alexia Gordon
Alexia Gordon

Not everyone has access to smartphones and tablets.
Not everyone with a smartphone or tablet has access to unlimited data or free WiFi for streaming.
(Ever been on a mission trip? The BCP is not only for well-to-do Americans in urban/suburban areas.)
Not every church has enough outlets to recharge smartphones and tablets in the middle of the liturgy.
Not everyone wants to sit through a service with everyone staring at their smartphone or tablet.
Not everyone has their electronic device surgically attached to their hand, unable to put it down for an hour. Some people look forward to one small block of time that's electronic device-free

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