by George Clifford
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):
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…
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.