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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EH Culver
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EH Culver

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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David Robinson
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David Robinson

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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Tom Sramek Jr
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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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Juli Mallett
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Juli Mallett

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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Thom
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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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