Hang onto Your Hats: It’s Time for a New Book of Common Prayer

by

 

by Eric Bonetti

 

When the 1979 Book of Common Prayer (BCP) was released, many scholars felt that the task of revision was made more challenging by the theological changes that had occurred since the 1928 version. Indeed, some scholars claimed that the 1979 version represented an abandonment of the Tudor/Archbishop Cranmer notion of deity. Will we face similar challenges this time around? And how might our changing role in society affect the process of revision?

 

I suspect that, true to form, there will be many shifts in focus, while attempting to avoid painting those with differing views into a corner.

 

One big change, I suspect, will be to make the language of the BCP more gender neutral. It’s always struck me that one of the great ironies of the 1979 version, emerging as it did during the push for greater gender equality, is how obviously male-oriented the end result was. How many churches, for instance, which use Eucharistic prayer C, now insert the names of the matriarchs after the language, “Lord God of our Fathers: God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ,”? Surely a good call, and one long overdue to be made official.

 

Similarly, has our view of race relations changed? I well remember the excitement of the 1970’s, where many in the church, myself included, felt that we were on the brink of much wider inclusion and social justice. But in light of recent racial issues in this country, have we made the progress we thought we would? Many Sundays, as I look out over the almost all white congregation in my parish, I sigh deeply, feeling like we have just not made the progress we had hoped for.

 

Of course, marriage equality will be a big issue. In this space, the hymnal will need to evolve, and the rubrics of the BCP as well, for our canons treat the rubrics of the BCP as binding, yet the BCP still treats marriage as being between a man and a woman. This, as well as race relations, might also be topics for inclusion in the Catechism.

 

More thorny will be open communion. Many churches practice de facto open communion, tactfully omitting any discussion in their Sunday bulletin of the need to be baptized to take communion. Other churches are quite clear that all are welcome – as long as they are baptized. Allowing freedom on conscience in this space will be tricky, but my hope is that we will adhere to the highest and best aspects of the via media.

 

Then there’s the perennial tension between high, low, and broad church proponents. It has been said that the 1979 BCP reflected the ascendancy of the high church movement, with greater emphasis on saints days, the Great Vigil of Easter, and more.

 

In this regard, my sense is that many parishes are becoming more liturgical and somewhat high church. Even the church of my childhood, once squarely in the low church tradition, now has a tabernacle and other “Catholic” accoutrements (along with some horrid woodwork dating from the late Seventies, which was intended to make the church less Gothic in appearance. Instead, it now looks like a badly done fast food restaurant.)

 

Even here in the Diocese of Virginia, which overall is decidedly low church, one sees more votive candles, aumbries, and other hints of an increased appreciation for our Roman heritage. So, I suspect these changes will be reflected in the new BCP.

 

There’s also the issue of what to do with some of the loose ends in the 1979 BCP. For instance, there’s the somewhat odd section for a “build-your-own-Eucharist.” Nice idea, but I suspect that anyone who’s been through seminary already has a pretty good idea of the constituent parts.

 

Meanwhile, one of the downsides of the via media is our tendency to weasel-word things when the going gets tough. Understandable, but it’s often the loose ends that get us in trouble. Yet, at the same time, are we still content to envision a God “up there,” a hell “down there,” and the other now-quaint phrases of the creeds? Is of understanding of God now one that transcends the specifics of time and space?

 

What do you think? What things do you need to see in the next Book of Common Prayer? And what things would you like to see go away?

 

 

Eric recently retired, and is enjoying hanging out, going to the gym, cycling, doing volunteer work, and teaching kids’ cooking classes, not necessarily in that order.

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Jack Zamboni
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Jack Zamboni

As a few others have noted, the SCLM will give General Convention multiple options on how to proceed, ranging from leaving the current book in place unchanged to full-scale revision, and several options on the spectrum in between. See https://standingcommissiononliturgyandmusic.org/2016/12/02/four-possible-paths-for-the-book-of-common-prayer/ So it's not at all clear that "Its time for a new Book of Common Prayer." I've no crystal ball, but my guess is we won't go the full revision route. Some kind of alternative service book seems more likely to me.

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Jack Zamboni
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Jack Zamboni

As a few others have noted, the SCLM will give General Convention multiple options on how to proceed, ranging from leaving the current book in place unchanged to full-scale revision, and several options on the spectrum in between. See https://standingcommissiononliturgyandmusic.org/2016/12/02/four-possible-paths-for-the-book-of-common-prayer/ So it's not at all clear that "Its time for a new Book of Common Prayer." I've no crystal ball, but my guess is we won't go the full revision route. Some kind of alternative service book seems more likely to me.

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Betsy Gibson Adams
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Betsy Gibson Adams

I would like to see/experience more poetry and imagery in the prayerbook. I've thought of most of 1979 as the "Hey you God" book. I wonder that we need a new book in a digital age. Perhaps keep what we have and add more alternatives. Think we should put our energies more into the call of our PB to the Jesus movement

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Lionel Deimel
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I’ve always said that I hoped prayer book revision wouldn’t be done in my lifetime. At this point, it surely won’t be completed in my lifetime, but I hope it will happen in my son’s lifetime.

Might I suggest that revision could start with decisions that would require serious consideration but not theological warfare. We could decide on: (1) fonts; (2) order of items, whether or not every item is included or whether additional items of the same sort are added (e.g., Eucharistic Prayers); (3) whether more one color is to be used (as for the New Zealand book); (4) various editing conventions (use of commas, capitalization, etc.; both “Catholic” and “catholic” appear in the 1979 book, and it isn’t clear why); conventions for rubrics, which are sometimes unclear in the current book; (5) rules for line breaks; and (6) other issues that don’t immediately come to mind. Next, we might graduate to such issues as the use of pronouns and how we refer to God. (Referring to God as “It” or “They” seems most logical, though I doubt either of those will fly.) Agreeing on some theological issues may not be too hard (e.g., eliminating of the filioque clause or perhaps coming to some consensus on open communion). Finally, we can tackle the architecture of particular services. Any takers?

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Paul Woodrum
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I'm curious. How would the presence of women (except to serve afternoon tea) or the absence of the
imperial call have changed anything in the Nicene Creed? Despite, or perhaps because or the civil and religious disputatious mix, it emerged as a very sophisticated summary of essential Christian doctrine and a standard of orthodoxy that has held up for over 1,400 years. There is no better lens through which to read and understand the Gospel. It deserves its place in the liturgy. Blessed are those who thought it through and gifted us with it.

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