Further thoughts on an all-digital BCP

by

 

by George Clifford

 

In my last contribution to the Episcopal Café, I proposed that The Episcopal Church (TEC) publish its next revision of the Book of Common Prayer exclusively in a digital format. That proposal triggered a flurry of comments, mostly negative. Those responses are worth answering even though they failed to address many of the issues I raised in support of TEC utilizing an exclusively electronic (digital) Book of Common Prayer.

Revising the Book of Common Prayer will require at least ten years from today. If next year’s General Convention (GC) appoints a task force or tasks an existing body to draft a revision, the 2021 GC might forward that draft to dioceses for comment, asking the body that drafted the revision to carefully consider those comments; the 2024 GC could then debate the revised draft, probably amending sections and perhaps authorizing trial use; if the trial enjoyed popular acceptance, the 2027 GC might adopt the revision as TEC’s new prayer book. The actual timeline would conceivably (probably?) take longer, especially if some groups find some of the proposed revisions particularly problematic.

By 2027, our world will be far more digitally dependent than it is in 2017. Comfort with electronic media will be even more widespread. Some elementary, middle, and high schools already issue each student a personal computer or tablet, increasingly relying upon digital instead of printed materials. A growing percentage of college textbooks are available only in a digital format. Commercial sales of e-books continue to grow rapidly.

Consequently, for many people juggling a bulletin, prayer book, and one or more hymnals while trying to worship will feel increasingly awkward, distracting, and unhelpfully anachronistic. A forward-looking TEC will choose to adopt contextually appropriate technology rather than clinging to outdated media. As one response to my proposal noted, printing the first Book of Common Prayer represented utilizing the best technology then available. Since that time, branches of the Anglican Communion have published various editions of the Book of Common Prayer adapted to their context and in their language(s). Moving to an exclusively digital version of the Book of Common Prayer is simply the logical progression of this living tradition.

Furthermore, the proposal to publish any revision in an exclusively digital format is actually less radical than it might appear. TEC and others (some unauthorized) already make the Book of Common Prayer, other liturgical resources, and much of our hymnody available electronically. Illustratively, growing numbers of people, ordained and lay, say the daily office utilizing digital resources that incorporate the relevant Book of Common Prayer materials and prayers, scripture readings, and sometimes music and/or historical information about the saint(s) or event commemorated that day.

Incorporating hymns and service music into the revised electronic Book of Common Prayer may likely, as another respondent noted, raise copyright issues. That is not a reason to reject electronic publishing. Instead, it constitutes an issue that those who draft the revision and TEC’s lawyers will have to address. A printed Book of Common Prayer that incorporates hymns and service music would be both physically unwieldly and too large to fit in most pew racks. Only an electronic version offers the convenience of having all of our liturgical resources in a single, readily accessible source.

A digital resource will allow congregations and dioceses to make unauthorized changes, a problem that more than one respondent to my original proposal highlighted. These respondents ignored my observation that this already happens. Like them, I value being part of a Church that is defined by common prayer rather than common belief. However, ostrich like behavior that tries to ignore the unfortunate practice of local, unauthorized changes to the Book of Common Prayer’s liturgies and rubrics is not constructive. Not printing a revised Book of Common Prayer will neither accelerate or decelerate the use of unauthorized changes to the liturgy. This is a separate issue, one that deserves our attention, but not a reason to object to publishing a revised, comprehensive Book of Common Prayer in an exclusively digital format.

Currently, TEC has a number of alternative liturgies (e.g., for the eucharist) that congregations may use with their diocesan bishop’s permission. These liturgies are not in the Book of Common Prayer. Thus, congregations utilizing these liturgies must either print a service leaflet that contains the full liturgy or leave attendees in the dark about the timing and wording of participatory responses. These liturgies represent a de facto step away from total reliance upon a printed prayer book and a step toward use of a digital resource. The same issues arise when using the Book of Occasional Service’s seasonal and other liturgical resources.

Advantageously, relying upon a comprehensive, digital version of TEC liturgical resources will allow timely, no cost updates to language and content, e.g., replacing the outdated, exclusionary masculine terms in the rubrics with gender neutral ones and including both newly adopted materials as well as items authorized for trial use. As the multiple revisions to the Book of Common Prayer in this and other Anglican provinces attest, the Church’s worship is framed in continually evolving language and liturgy.

Finally, none of the respondents to my original piece adequately addressed the substantial financial costs to congregations and individuals who would need or desire to purchase printed revisions of the Book of Common Prayer and other TEC liturgical resources. These costs would greatly strain the financial resources of many of our small congregations. And TEC consists primarily of small congregations. One respondent did raise the important issue of environmental harm attributable to an increased number of congregations printing a leaflet for each service containing the full liturgy. However, that cumulative negative effect will very probably be significantly less than the combined adverse environmental effect attributable to printing both tens of thousands of copies of a revised Book of Common Prayer (TEC has over 5000 congregations) and the weekly leaflets containing the full liturgy that many congregations presently print.

I appreciate some people deriving personal comfort in holding a printed book. However, the Church is not about me or any other individual. The Church exists to minister to the world, particularly those hurting or spiritually empty persons who seek a different or new form spirituality. Over half of all Episcopalians began their Christian journey in another denomination. Concurrently, the fastest growing religious demographic in the US is the number of people who self-identify as having no religious preference, many of whom lack any religious background. Meanwhile, our culture is relentlessly switching to digital.

Becoming a people who truly welcomes both those moving from another denomination and those with no previous religious identity requires TEC to make its worship resources and materials as user friendly as reasonably possible. One vital component of this welcome is to provide the entire liturgy, words and music, in an easily accessible format, e.g., leaflets printed with the full liturgy, loaning attendees a handheld electronic device that displays the liturgy, projecting the liturgy onto one or more large screens, or a mix of these options. A digital Book of Common Prayer that includes our hymnals and other liturgical materials best supports all of these options, best utilizes TEC resources, and is most contextually appropriate for TEC as it lives into the twenty-first century.

 

 

 

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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28 Responses to "Further thoughts on an all-digital BCP"
  1. "My way or the highway" does not befit the Episcopal Church.

    There is a place for an electronic version and also for a printed version.

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  2. I use three versions already; the BCP, our Sunday bulletin and a digital version on my phone. I can see the church using a fully digital prayer book in the future. Why not it would still be common prayer.

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  3. The Episcopal Church is full of people who love tradition and revere the holy paraphernalia of our liturgies. We are Episcopalians precisely because we don't want to be that megachurch down the street with projectors and electronic music and elaborate technologies co-opting the service. I don't think this perspective is limited to just a few individuals. Many want to worship in the same way that generations have before us. it was what attracted me to the denomination after decades in precisely one of those "modern" churches. The joy of holding such a fabled and holy book in my hands is something that connects me to that "great cloud of witnesses," and my paper copies (of multiple versions since the medieval English) get plenty of additional use at times other than during services. E-readers are no substitute, and not just with the older generation. Children still love the feel of books in their hands, and love holding turning the pages even before they learn to read. (And by the way, the Church Publishing Company also has long published a highly-usable combined version of service music/hymnal/BCP; most Episcopal choir members use it, as have many other parishioners in the variety of congregations I have belonged to. It IS a bit pricey, but it's neither physically unwieldy nor too large to fit in pew racks.)

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  4. The author cites cost as a reason not to have new hard copy prayer books. What about the cost of iPads to be used during the liturgy? Also, there are some people, young and old, who don't know how to use these electronic prayer books. My church prints the liturgy in the weekly bulletin. The psalter takes up a lot of pages in prayer book. A separate book with the psalms and another for morning and evening prayer, and The Eucharist and Baptism, would be less to revise in the future. Services such as ordinations and others could be printed in booklets at a much lower cost to print.

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  5. Better check sales numbers with Amazon. It's no secret that print books have been making a comeback for several years and are far from being supplanted by e-books But as usual, a certain brand of leadership is wiling to make a headlong charge into the past.

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  6. "none of the respondents to my original piece adequately addressed the substantial financial costs"

    If you were THAT worried about financial costs, you'd be talking about the buildings themselves -- and priests salaries. That's where the real costs are.

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  7. I could live with a digital version of the BCP provided the congregation would place e-readers in the pews. But deliver me from the PowerPoint projection screens that litter the space in so many churches these days.

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  8. Thanks for commenting; in future we ask you use your first and last names - Thx, editor

    I did not have to charge my BCP this morning, nor was I afraid it might have been hacked by mischief makers. Had I spilled something on it, it would have dried, and had one of the children dropped cookie crumbs on it, the book would have suffered no damage. Low tech has its advantages. Augment with the new technology if it seems more convenient, but don't replace the medium that has kept Word and our ceremonies, prayers, songs, and sacraments for millennia.

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  9. Cannot understand why it can't be both... seems both would allow for choice ... and the middle way seems delightfully Anglican to me.

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  10. I fall into the both-and category. I would be willing to use an electronic version of the liturgy and music in the service, but I want a physical BCP-hymnal to read at home or while others are waiting for communion. I find it difficult to browse through an e-book, but can find favorite parts of the BCP quickly. Our parish provides an electronic version of each Sunday's service and only one person uses it. By the time a new BCP is approved, more will find it user-friendly, but I still want a physical book.

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  11. I have no particular objection to digital media, but I find the claim that books are awkward, to be ridiculous and groundless.  Here are a couple of suggestions from an old-school Episcopalian.  Anyone who attends any given service for 52 weeks in a row has that service memorized.  Don't argue with me, it's true, and you know it.  At that point, or earlier, the turning of pages in a book has become redundant. So, put the BCP down... or better yet, get a combination BCP & Hymnal of your own.  They come with ribbons to mark the hymns and readings for the day, and then you only have one book to deal with in the first place.  Most of the cues are in the bulletin, anyway.  That leaves the hymns, and surely it's not too much trouble to find four or five hymns during the course of the service.

    Now, you really need to stop referring to books as "inappropriate technology" or "outdated media."  It's rude, insulting, and hath no basis in fact.

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  12. Amen, Roger!

    In the printed BCP, I know where on the page a particular line is. I can quickly glance at the page to find my place.

    If it were some electronic gadget I would be fiddling with the buttons and screens to find the place. No thanks.

    Imagine a deacon or priest ceremonially holding up an I-Tablet or whatever and proclaiming, "The Holy Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ according to Luke." Oy veh.

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  13. "Commercial sales of e-books continue to grow rapidly."

    Actually, they are not. Commercial sales of e-books are declining. Double digit declines. Likewise, iPad sales are declining as well.

    Meanwhile, print books sales are increasing...

    This proposal is what happens when church leaders encourage us to chase trends... by the time the proposal is made, the trend is over.

    links:
    http://money.cnn.com/2017/04/27/media/ebooks-sales-real-books/index.htmlhttps://www.theguardian.com/books/2017/mar/14/ebook-sales-continue-to-fall-nielsen-survey-uk-book-saleshttps://9to5mac.com/2017/05/04/ipad-tablet-shipments/

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  14. To introduce either a revised BCP or Hymnal in a digital-only format and not a printed version would likely induce pressure on local parishes to justify the use of screens and projectors in worship...and when that happens (if I am still alive) I am 'outta here!

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  15. I'm unsure about the digital version delivery methodology of the prayer book and hymnal to the folks in the pews. I also think that digital media may effectively discriminate against senior citizens who are uncomfortable with digital technologies. I'm a kindle user myself, but I think we need to avoid the "mega-church" approach as alluded to above. Finally, I am ex-military (24 years Air Force) and I sense a bit of a "power point ranger" mentality going on here. We "love" digital "bells and whistles" in the military and now the USG in general. One reason I go to church is get away (at least for an hour) from all of that.

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  16. Your article is excellent. At Saint Cecilia Catholic Community, where I am pastor, EVERYTHING we have is in digital format. That enables us to produce the color-illustrated complete service booklet we provide to every worshiper at every service. Our church has 63 icons on the walls, and many more in our service booklets as we present graphics relevant to the day's scripture readings and to the various parts of the Mass, for which we print all the words and all the music. We frequently refer to the visuals in homilies, in particular, maps and charts. If the Gospel mentions "Tyre and Sidon" we have a map showing where that is, or if we deal with the filioque clause of the Nicene Creed, we present a chart contrasting the Eastern and Western positions. As to environmental concerns...fear not! We print on recycled paper and recycle the booklets after each Mass along with our water bottles, with the proceeds going to buy canned food for Well In the Desert, our local hunger ministry. I absolutely WILL NOT EVER inflict the juggling of hymnal, prayer book, and leaflet on our congregants! I regard that arrangement as stupid, backward, and most unfriendly to visitors.

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    • I don't go to church for PowerPoint presentations. I get enough of that in college. When I go to church I WANT to walk in and see and smell and feel the old books, the candlelight, the wooden pews, the and all of the things that make my small parish a "traditional" church. Everywhere else in the world has screens, and graphics, and E-everything. I go to worship at my church because it takes me out of that, and grounds me in a sense of timelessness, sacred beauty, and comfort. The books I hold in that nave have been held lovingly and prayed with by countless hands. I can feel that energy in them. And honestly, I have the liturgy memorized, as most weekly-attending Episcopalians do, so I'm not "juggling" books anyway. I think your parishioners are missing out.

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      • Exactly - the sense of all those who have prayed and held those books - plus the smell of candlewax. My eyes don't need electronic assault in church

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  17. George has some good points to make. My take is that we need to focus on the texts of our liturgies and then make them available in a variety of formats. Those parishes and individuals who want the BCP in printed book format can have them, and those that want to use digital can have that.

    One idea I have been thinking of in all this discussion is that Church Publishing should be encouraged to print paperback editions of specific liturgies that parishes can purchase. For example a slimmer paperback copy the Holy Eucharist with the psalms and collects could be made available at a lower expense for parishes to purchase in bulk for their pew racks. The parish could still have copies of the whole BCP available and then also print the texts for less commonly used liturgies when those are needed, but can choose to not make a copy of the entire BCP available in every pew rack. Most of the BCP is not used on a typical Sunday morning, so I don't see the need to have the entire book available in every pew rack. I am also thinking of the paperback missalettes that many Roman Catholic parishes use.

    One other point is, while I do use e-books, including the electronic Common Prayer app and a Bible app, there are also contexts that I minister in as a chaplain where I cannot use an electronic device, so printed books are my only option. So I think we need the texts available in a variety of formats.

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  18. To George's point about a printed BCP locking in liturgical language and the need for our church to be able to update the BCP, I am not sure having a future BCP in digital format will necessarily address this. Yes, the liturgical texts in the current BCP were locked into place when it was approved in 1979. However won't future revisions or updates to liturgical texts need to be approved by the General Convention regardless of whether they are made available in printed or digital format? What I think we need is to address the process by which we as a church update our liturgical texts so that it doesn't take a minimum of 10 years to do so regardless of the actual format they are made available in.

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  19. Rambling reactions: The joy of the BCP and using the same prayers - everywhere I go I used to be able count on the liturgical rhythm to act as a container for my worship - now it seems every priest is his/her own liturgical expert. As a child (with the 1929) I had most of it memorized as I went to church before I could read. The 1979 "new" BCP has become the same. There is such a richness in the BCP - like Compline for instance. Great for reading if one is bored of the sermon!! I like having a printed book best. leaflets okay, electronic and PPT not so much. btw electronic is not more "green"- the resources that go into one iPad are horrendous - to say nothing about the human cost.

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  20. Why can't we do both? Then parishes can make their own decisions on how many books to buy or whether they want to buy books at all.

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  21. TEC, always on the cutting edge of several decades ago. Even if one doesn't buy the suggestion that the growth of ebooks has plateaued, the format does seem to lend itself to certain things more than others. For example, I may want a text book or technical guide in ebook format--or even the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, since it's searchable. I enjoy brain-candy on trips delivered through my kindle. I even use electronic prayer apps on occasion. But print's demise was greatly exaggerated for a few reasons, some of which apply directly to the sacred, and the place of the Book of Common Prayer. Indeed, I can imagine people in the hospital being taken aback or even insulted if I whipped out a smart phone or iPad to do the Ministration to the Sick or Ministration at the time of death.

    There are other issues as well. For example, we know that people remember what they read in physical books more easily than what they read on a screen, just as we tend to remember what we have hand-written more easily than what we've typed. Then there's the anthropological reality that those things which are most sacred change most slowly (one of the reasons we still have, and most people still use, the traditional language Lord's Prayer even in Rite II). People generally want a physical object of things they enjoy or that hold a special place for them. So, if I enjoy an ebook, and know I'm going to read it again, I will buy a physical copy. I might make use of a Bible or BCP app in a utilitarian fashion, but nothing will replace the physical versions when it comes to devotional life and, especially, passing along something sacred to others.

    And in terms of parishes doing their own thing: I don't think that should be encouraged beyond limits. The BCP is a contract between a laity that predominantly likes stability and a clergy that often likes to experiment based on their personal preferences and eccentricities. The bounds of the BCP keep eccentric clergy at least somewhat in check and serves as an agreement among all who worship in an Episcopal Church.

    The idea that a parish wouldn't be able to purchase BCPs is just defeatist and displays the lack of confidence that will continue to fuel decline in TEC. It's the wrong kind of imagination.

    I do hope we have (good!) digital resources--we don't have a good track record on that front--but I don't think they can or will stand in for a bound book.

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  22. I would like to raise three points.

    First, while the article does talk about many of the innovations that technology could bring to worship, I ask if technology is widespread enough to justify getting rid of the physical prayer book? The Episcopal Church is often seen as the church of the wealthy - won't moving to this sort of format exacerbate this perception? It is innovative - but only when everyone if your congregation has an iPad or some type of tablet or phone.

    Second, consider the idea of what worship might look like with an entire congregation bent over glowing screens - how does this make worship any different than being on a subway browsing on your phone? Going into church is meant to be a transition to a different time and space for a time. To commune with God and with each other.

    Third, there is an element of nostalgia to wanting to have a physical book. But there is also a practicality - you don't need electricity to read it. The BCP is one of the reasons I became an Anglican / Episcopalian - I can hold the primarily liturgies and prayers of my church in one book in my hand - accessible to all, clergy and laity alike. The physical BCP is a powerful symbol that should not be discarded lightly.

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  23. I sometimes watch a Sunday Mass from Cologne Cathedral via domradio.de. What German Roman Catholics have is a common service book and hymnal called Gotteslob ("praise of God") that's thoroughly numbered from cover to cover, and there's a small but quite visible electronic sign that displays only the number of the next needed item in Gotteslob. Maybe that's a better use of projection and balance of technology: definitely printed books, but with a fairly subtle yet effective bit of electronic assistance.

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  24. By going to a fully digital BCP, we rule out those who don't have a smart device. I see countless people, even in the younger generations who do not have a smart phone because they either don't want it, or can't afford it. I love the idea of encouraging good stewardship of the Earth, but see a need to have options for those who do not have the resources.

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  25. Discussing an Electronic BCP reminds me that ours is a church of privledge and affluence. Why not focus on the content of the book first and then open the way for people to use it as they see fit?

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