Last print version of the Book of Common Prayer

by

by George Clifford

Part 1

The 1979 Book of Common Prayer is the last printed version of the prayer book that The Episcopal Church (TEC) will ever publish. Three rationales support that prognostication. First, a growing majority of TEC congregations struggle financially. They often lack the funds to meet their current expenses, much less purchase new prayer books. Second, e-books are rapidly overtaking traditional printed books in popularity. Some Episcopalians already participate in worship by following the service on a tablet, smartphone, or other electronic device instead of printed books or a leaflet. Third, TEC is so theologically, liturgically, and linguistically diverse that developing sufficient support for any prayer book revision seems problematic. Instead, the number and variety of liturgies authorized for trial will almost certainly continue to proliferate.

Lamenting or applauding the shift from printed to electronic media is unproductive. The change is occurring both rapidly and irreversibly. However, the increasing reliance on electronic versions of the liturgy represents a troubling and growing challenge to TEC’s identity as a church united by common prayer rather than common belief. Unlike printed prayer books, altering an electronic version of the liturgy to suit local needs, preferences, or theology is very easy, costs little or nothing, and already happens. Furthermore, this ongoing move toward multiple liturgical forms, some locally adapted, even when authorized by proper ecclesiastical authority, is a centrifugal force pulling TEC away from its historic connectional ethos toward a congregational ethos.

Many Episcopalians value, as do I, our tradition of unity rooted in common prayer rather than common belief. Is the demise of common prayer inevitable? If not, how do we preserve common prayer with the shift toward electronic versions of our liturgy and our growing congregational ethos? Perhaps more basically, how do we maintain our unity in view of these changes?

In 2012, the 77th General Convention established a Task Force for Reimagining the Episcopal Church (TREC) to “create a plan for reforming the Church’s structures, governance, and administration.” If tinkering at the margins or making other simple fixes to reform structures, governance, and administration could reinvigorate the denomination, then TEC (or another of the many denominations experiencing similar declines in attendance, participation, and giving) would probably have already taken those steps.

TEC needs a radical makeover, not incremental reform. Radically reimagining TEC –holding on to the essentials of our identity, letting go of anachronistic non-essentials, and embracing new forms and styles appropriate for the early twenty-first century – has the potential to reinvent and reinvigorate TEC while also charting a path toward preserving unity rooted in common prayer.

TREC, at their July 2013 meeting, enumerated five key themes for restructuring (their report is available here):

Breadth/expansiveness

Incarnational view of human life

The arts, liturgy, and mystery

Continuity and change

Social engagement and prophetic dissent

Those themes represent a good description of who Episcopalians have been and want to be. However, those themes afford no assurance that TREC’s reimagining of the Church will lead to the substantial changes TEC needs if it is to reinvent and reinvigorate itself (with God’s help, we pray!) as a twenty-first century missional force.

The Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral of 1886 and 1888 emphasized the importance of Church unity and outlined the terms on which Anglicans seek unity. The Quadrilateral includes two principles essential for a radical reimagining of The Episcopal Church:

That in all things of human ordering or human choice, relating to modes of worship and discipline, or to traditional customs, this Church is ready in the spirit of love and humility to forego all preferences of her own…

and

The Historic Episcopate, locally adapted in the methods of its administration to the varying needs of the nations and peoples called of God into the unity of His Church.

In other words, TEC insists on retaining the historic episcopate but in most other matters recognizes that neither Scripture nor tradition provides a timeless, authoritative pattern of ecclesial structure or governance. Thus, the options for reimagining TEC are numerous and have few inherent limits. Perhaps the greatest barriers to radically reimagining TEC are entrenched groups and individuals who enjoy their privileged positions and powers under the status quo and our own blinders with respect to what may be possible.

Historic patterns of ecclesiastical organization have ranged from unstructured collegiality to authoritarian and from almost complete reliance on individual initiative to corporate clericalism. What pattern and style of organization best suits TEC’s liturgical and theological emphases in ways that accommodate or, better yet, utilize social changes over which we have no control (e.g., electronic communication and heightened individualism) to promote the community, ministry, and mission of God’s people in and through TEC?

In the second part of this essay, I suggest two proposals for a radical makeover, offering them as conversation starters intended to stretch our thinking about what is possible and not as definitive ukases.

George Clifford is an ethicist and Priest Associate at the Church of the Nativity, Raleigh, NC. He retired from the Navy after serving as a chaplain for twenty-four years, has written Charting a Theological Confluence: Theology and Interfaith Relations and Forging Swords into Plows: A Twenty-First Century Christian Perspective on War, and blogs at Ethical Musings.

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22 Responses to "Last print version of the Book of Common Prayer"
  1. Our liturgy is sacramental. I'm no Luddite, for sure, but what do we stand to lose spiritually by removing the book and replacing it with another gadget?

    We use candles in worship. Should those be replaced by LEDs?

    I guess I'm trying to sort through this aloud, so to speak, but part of the beauty of sacramental liturgy is the tangible ways in which we participate in that great Mystery we sometimes call "grace."

    Thom Curnutte (added by editor)

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  2. I'm not sure about an argument that hinges on e-books becoming more popular than paper books. (The argument that we won't in the near future be willing to put out another prayer book seems to me quite persuasive.) It does seem very likely that electronic media will continue to overtake print, including books, although of course what an electronic book looks like in 50 years may be very different to what we think of them looking like now.

    But does the Church always march with the pace of progress, and should it? Even ignoring secular progresses, the Church does not even uniformly stay along ecclesiastical paths of progress that probably seem inevitable to those swept up in them at their heights, and that's not always a bad thing. Is the future of the Episcopal Church expanding into new territories accreted to the United States and establishing missions overseas (whether in colonies, territories or otherwise)? It probably looked like it was at one point. After all, the United States was growing and growing fast.

    Are all of our candles going to be replaced with CFL bulbs? I think that most (but not all) would say that of course they won't, that candles mean something different and are used for something different; we already have all the CFLs we need (and can't find anyone to change when they go out) for illumination. Candles are something the world has left behind, but the Church has picked up, and people appreciate something about that.

    Printed Prayer Book use (though not the use of printed media more generally) is not the most common way of being involved in worship in my home congregation. When I've led small services or been in groups where it was appropriate to pull out the bound Book of Common Prayer, people respond differently to those books than when they're sitting in the back of a pew unused. There's something interesting about that little book, about all of its little secrets, about holding it. It doesn't grip everyone but it does grip some. I imagine that many don't much care about candles, either. So, too, professional clothing is less and less common, to say nothing of academic robes; vestments still grab some people in some way that means we'll probably continue to see them for quite some time.

    Our Prayer Book is also not just about how the assembly uses it in worship; it's as symbolic as the candles when a presider reads a collect from it, or holds it (perhaps with the actual words they're using taped in) during a wedding or a funeral. And it's not just a book of prayers, but in a very frontier church way it's all you can't do without for the church in a single volume; giving them might remain significant long past the point at which any church tries to ensure there's one in every pew. After all, we give people candles at baptism who almost surely will never use them, but can retain them as symbols, and perhaps even symbols they can engage in some way; lighting that candle at anniversaries, or looking through it in times of trouble.

    I grew up completely immersed in digital life, and I'm acutely-aware that there are some things for which there is no digital equivalent, and that churches tend to be full of them, and that's a very good thing. Few people go to church looking for something that is exactly like everyday life in every way, and many go looking for something that is completely-different, and which might perhaps better engage their full humanity. Right now one could extrapolate from trends that every church will have congregants engaged with the preacher through Twitter throughout the sermon, and that it will be acceptable for people to be doing work or answering E-Mails in worship; one could just as well imagine that many churches in the future will provide an experience even more like the medieval, with silence and incense and no technology at all, because there will be nowhere else where there is silence, nowhere else one's senses are engaged rather than simply being flooded with information by unavoidable technology. Are books a fading thing of the past? Probably. Does that mean that Prayer Books are? I'm not so sure.

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  3. One thing that the author missed in his reasoning is that we also only use a fraction of the Prayer Book on a weekly basis. Take a look at any BCP and you see the darker and well-worn pages beginning on Page 323 or 355. My suspicion is that many congregations will simply put together their own "prayer pamphlets" with the Eucharist, Prayers of the People, and other things in it. The risk, of course, is that we lose familiarity with things like the Daily Office when they are not in front of us.

    I do think it would be good and useful, however, to continue to have an unalterable liturgical "base" from which our church may grown in all sorts of different directions. Whether that is a physical Book of Common Prayer or an electronic version on a web site remains to be seen.

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  4. There could be good things to learn from the C of E's way with Common Worship. Very many parishes use the downloadable and editable material to create seasonal booklets and orders of service for special occasions, or even powerpoint material for projection. I've come to realise that for far too long, congregations have been staring at a book in their hands rather than looking up, looking around, watching and listening, being aware of each other. Worship is far more than following words in a book, however much we may have become used to that mode.

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  5. They may replace real candles with flameless ones, but I doubt that anything can make a thurible safe and yet still able to do its job. After all these centuries, lighting the coals and producing an impressive cloud of smoke constitute the messiest, most dangerous liturgical action of all. If there's a way to clean this up, I haven't thought of it.

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  6. The other good thing about the CoE's resources is that they are free and not tied to buying The Rite Stuff (or whatever it is called).

    Re: candles - we have already gone to the abomination of desolation of oil candles (oil burning faux candles). Oil lamps are nice, candles are nice but oil candles while loved by altar guilds and cheaper than candles - are a terrible idea.

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  7. In my opinion TEC will always need to have a "core liturgy" that is printed and distributed to all Episcopal congregations. It doesn't have to be a book, it can be a well-printed booklet, and it should be something that can be followed straightforwardly without requiring insertions or alterations. Yes, it should even be memorisable!

    We unconsciously internalize the language we pray with regularly and it shapes our thinking and even our souls. That's what we need to have in common across the board--shared praying shapes shared living. This does not preclude the use of other varied forms of liturgy appropriate to special occasions or situations, but it stands as a sort of "bedrock" liturgy for all Episcopalians, to which other liturgies are added. Think of the way advertising jingles and phrases stay in our memory--and recall the old liturgical phrases that were so familiar to so many generations of Episcopalians: "full, perfect and sufficient", "Guide us waking and guard us sleeping", "we have erred and strayed like lost sheep", and so many others. While these archaic rhetorical forms don't need to be perpetuated into a time where no one understands them, the usefulness of alliteration, repetition and similar tropes still work in advertising, and they will still work in Christian formation in our churches. Liturgy is too important a component of Christian formation to let it scatter to the winds of variety. We need to share a core liturgy written with all the aesthetic, as well as theological, skill that we can muster, so that we all may be one.

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  8. Why do you assume liturgies will continue to locally morph and multiply? That is the pattern of the past, true.

    Today, the service trending in popularity is Rite I--the service with the least variations. There is a cry for the universal over the trendy.

    The generation raised on the Zebra Book needs to stand aside to let those coming up figure out how to create and distribute the standard services.

    Bob Chapman [added by editor]

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  9. Actually, they now make electric thuribles that require no charcoal.

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  10. I will never forget the Sunday morning several years ago when an obviously experienced church goer walked up to me at the shaking hands line after the service. "I grew up in the Lutheran Church," she said loudly, "I love your church, I love the people, but I just can't handle three books and a pamphlet...and pray too."

    Since then bulletins are printed for every service. They include everything except hymns from the '82 hymnal. Sunday mornings, clergy announce the page number of the start of the service in the BCP, just in case. No takers thst I can see.

    Just the other day I went into the sanctuary and grabbed a couple of prayer books. There is a line of discoloration, right where the top of the holder hits them.

    So things change: now it's "and blessed be God's kingdom, now and forever...Lord God of our fathers and mothers."

    Slippery slope, grass roots liturgical change, I guess you pays your money and takes your choice,

    One thing for sure, the Church that kept our grandparents in the pews won't keep our kids there

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  11. I seriously doubt this will be the case. I do think it will be many years before the BCP is revised, and personally I think it's probably a good idea to let current controversies die down a bit to avoid a completely dated revision (it's amazing how well the '79 has held up given when it was being revised actually). I also believe there will be an abundance of downloadable liturgical materials, and the odd person here and there who uses their iPad or smart phone during worship, however, I don't see evidence of this becoming predominant in the Episcopal Church. Indeed, I don't think ebooks will really threaten all book sales, even in non-religious sectors. They'll replace mass market paperbacks to a large degree, sure, and to the degree that technology allows annotation, ebooks may replace some study texts, but more important books will continue to be purchased in a physical copy.

    To the extent that we do may use of electronic media for our liturgy, we'd do well to consider some of the drawbacks of the medium (see this insightful blog post for some thoughts on that: http://churchandmarket.wordpress.com/2013/08/13/why-i-dont-believe-in-the-bible-app/ )

    I agree with the comment above about people spending too much time staring at texts rather than looking around. I have an ambivalent feeling about scripture inserts for just this reason. People really ought to spend more of their energy listening to the lessons, except for those folks who retain better by reading along. But inserts have meant the bibles haven't left the pew racks except during teaching times for years.

    That said, if we want to determine why people spend so much time looking down, we'd probably do well to look at the frequency of variation rather than the existence of the Prayer Book. Most long-time Episcopalians are *attached* to their BCP's but they do not *need* them during Sunday worship, having memorized the central elements of the liturgy. A multiplicity of downloadable DIY liturgies isn't going to make people look around more, it's just going to deprive them of one of the central gifts of our tradition: stability. So what if their eyes are glued to words on a page or to a bouncing ball on a projection screen, neither will be seeping into their souls.

    In terms of a full text bulletin vs. a more simple bulletin and the BCP, I have had experience with both, and I know how comfortable some visitors will be with a full text bulletin. At the same time, I know how labor intensive and wasteful they are. It's interesting to me that Trinity Wall Street stopped using their full text bulletins a few years ago (assuming they haven't started back) for precisely this reason. Being hospitable to those who are not familiar with our worship without the accessibility of a full text bulletin, or the benefit of a (well designed and tastefully implemented) screen can require patience on the part of the officiant and the congregation, as well as the allowance for longer pauses, but that can be a great benefit.

    I will observe my 33rd birthday and my 7th anniversary of ordination to the priesthood in December of this year. I'd offer the suggestion that we be careful making blanket statements about what this or that generation will or won't gravitate toward, or what the church will need to do universally. Certainly there will be congregations that use downloadable liturgies in the future, just as some use Enriching Our Worship regularly now. There will also be those that prefer the Book from the pew rack. As our parish has grown, it has been growing with young parents and just recently with more 20-somethings (quite a change for the congregation which had been primarily grey). I won't say that these folks are representative of everyone in their demographic. Indeed, they obviously aren't, given the size of the megachurches around us and the number of people in those age groups who attend them. But, they are the people in that demographic who *have come to our parish.* I'd caution against making decisions about the future based upon what people who don't come might want, and instead look at what those folks in under-represented groups who do come were attracted by. That will help us build on our strengths rather than dilute them into who knows what.

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  12. I have never been in a cogrgation so small that it did not have the service printed for the congregation to follow at Eucharists. The BCP was used mainly for said Morning and Evening Prayer and Compline.

    Adelaide Kent (name added by editor)

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  13. "Actually, they now make electric thuribles that require no charcoal."

    ANATHEMA SIT!

    On a more serious note, the idea that navigating the Prayer Book is an impossibly complicated task beyond the capabilities of the average lay person is far-fetched. It may be something that takes more than one visit to an Episcopal parish, but it's not the barrier that some make it out to be. Your average person does, after all, know what page numbers are, and if they are provided can find them even in a book they've never picked up before.

    My parish uses leaflets with the entire Mass printed out on Sundays, and I hate it. It's wasteful, it's noisy ("I believe in God, the Father *rustlerustlerustle* Almighty..."), and it's aesthetically unappealing. It's probably unavoidable in the near term, though, since we use the Anglican Service Book and only have enough copies for the Lady Chapel.

    I do hope it's many years before the BCP is revised. There are lots of changes I wouldn't mind seeing made to it, just as I wouldn't mind seeing changes made to the US Constitution. But I have no faith that the present socio-political climate is conducive to making any positive change in either document.

    Bill Dilworth

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  14. As I juggle with my BCP, 1982 Hymnal, Supplemental Hymnal, and bulletin, the concept of having it all on an electronic device is attractive. But then, we still have to go to the bulletin for the parish prayer of purpose, for the paraphrased Bible readings the children read, and for the other prayers not found in the BCP. Several years ago, we printed everything out in the weekly bulletin, and it sometimes ran to 22 pages. That was so wasteful, but the last time I tried to help a newcomer navigate through our paperwork, I was embarrassed. The electronic medium sounds like a 21st century version of my BCP-Hymnal combination, but I may be too old to learn how to flip between the screens.

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  15. To some extent what I'm hearing is: our parishes don't use what's printed in the BCP, so we have to print a full text bulletin, so everyone should print a full text bulletin and not use the BCP because no one can juggle all the supplementary materials we'd have to juggle if we didn't print a full text bulletin.

    I say this, again, as someone who has put a lot of effort in the past into full text bulletins for the mission congregation I served. The wastefulness was, I think, balanced by the context of a majority of attendees being new Episcopalians and some being new Christians. But really, there is a virtue in simplicity. I agree, we shouldn't be juggling so many books... but why in the world are so many of us using more than a BCP and hymnal, and perhaps an insert with music not in the hymnal? I agree with Bill Dillworth in thinking that such "juggling" hardly seems beyond the capabilities of the average person.

    That said: we should have a hardback version of the BCP hymnal combo for pews.

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  16. Our current parish seems to print seasonal bulletins which contain an entire Sunday Eucharistic liturgy which is "set" for that season with weekly inserts for readings and non-hymnal hymns. They then re-use the bulletins every week. I rather like having a set of familiar prayers and "mass parts" for a whole liturgical season or portion of the year. This sort of thing allows familiarity for members and accessibility for newcomers. Why we should feel we need to change the entire liturgy every week is beyond me...

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  17. I think that the Roman Catholics do a good job with seasonal "missalettes". That could easily be the answer. I also think that Adam Spencer's parish is another alternative. We just need to think outside the box - neither latest cultural fad, nor traditional objects. By doing so we may well decided on either of those. The thought of going digital and using my cell phone or other technology just does not appeal to me at all.

    All that being said, I believe we need to maintain a uniform liturgy and however a local community decides to share that in writing is up to them. I live in Louisiana. There are several small churches in rural areas who prefer the prayer book. I have been to New Orleans and seen a variety of printed materials (song books, etc.) being used. It is the liturgy and not the dissemination of the wording that matters most to me.

    [D -- please sign your first and last name next time you post. thanks, editor]

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  18. We should republish the BCP to bring it into the 21th Century with all the Convention approved Episcopalian liturgies, et al. That could be our "last" bound volume, rather than 3/4 into the 20th Century. New Zealand has their own BCP, so should the USA.

    We should have a bound book to establish our beliefs and to serve as a guide and tool for believers. Our Book of Common Prayer distinguishes us from less liturgical Christian denominations and reflects our identity.

    Long live the BCP.

    (my church publishes bulletins each Sunday, a "supplement" for the Liturgy of the Word, and bulletin for the Liturgy of the Sacrament that lasts for a season, or at least a month. The Supplement includes references to songs in the hymnal.)

    [Stina - please sign your name when you comment - thanks -- editor]

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  19. "New Zealand has their own BCP, so should the USA."

    If I'm reading the Canons of Anglican Church in Aotearoa, New Zealand and Polynesia correctly, that BCP would be... the 1662 edition, with certain modifications. They very deliberately did not give A New Zealand Prayer Book the title, the Book of Common Prayer.

    Bill Dilworth

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  20. Lately I've come up with the following two part test when folks propose doing away with printed texts in worship:

    In the event of a disaster in your locale with limited or no electric power for an unknown period, with or without available clergy, how useful are e-texts in providing spiritual comfort to victims? Second, what prevents e-texts from being modified and presented as original texts?

    My thought is plan and practice for the worst and be thankful to God when it doesn't occur.

    A printed pocket sized BCP, a Bible, and a Hymnal in every Episcopalian home with a guide to their daily use might be something worthy of a discussion....

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