Getting ready to revise the Prayer Book. There is something slightly surreal about sitting in the Prayer Book, Liturgy, and Music Committee, bleary eyed but looking cheerful, at 7:30 every morning talking about the church’s worship. When I became an Episcopalian in 1986, I assumed that the forms of worship contained in that red book had been around forever. Occasionally I would hear someone talk about the “old” prayer book and the “new” prayer book, but for me there was only the prayer book. The text of the book lifted me heart, mind and soul to a place that I had only barely been able to imagine in my conservative Christian past. You know the phrases: Ourselves, our souls and bodies, will you respect the dignity of every human being, even the slightly Star Wars sounding vast expanse of interstellar space.
But here I am, sitting in a fluorescently lit meeting room in the vast expanse of the Salt Palace, listening to regular Christians just like me, talking about a new revision of the Book of Common Prayer. Far from being a tome dropped down from heaven, our common worship is written by people like me: passionate lovers of language, valiant guardians of tradition, blazing witnesses to God’s loving justice, and people who just barely dare to hope that the way we use words in prayer has the power to transform lives. The Book of Common Prayer is ours to make and remake, ours to love enough to revise and reform and fight over and fall in love with. So, when I heard someone talking about A169 (a resolution to begin to prepare for the possibility of prayer book revision) and heard him mention the “new prayer book” I had to smile.
The question of prayer book revision came to the sub-committee on the Book of Common Prayer quite spontaneously. As we talked about our assignments, one member brought up the idea of prayer book revision, then another chimed in, then another, and so on. It was a completely unexpected thing as far as I can tell. Some people have said that the last time we revised the BCP it was too painful a process, we shouldn’t even think about it. But I disagree.
Everyone knows that one day the Episcopal Church will revise the 1979 Book of Common Prayer. It’s just going to happen. It may happen in a few years or a few decades. My best guess is that it’s going to take less than 20 years – but not much less. It takes two consecutive General Conventions to authorize a prayer book. It took something like 29 years to authorize the current prayer book. We’ve been working on it for years already: all of the “trial use” rites that have been developed since the late 1980’s have been designed to inform the content of the next Book of Common Prayer. We have a lot of material that people have been praying for decades that may be added to the next revision of the prayer book. Some of these prayers are beloved, some not so much. But that is the purpose of trial use: to see what sounds mellifluous to the Church, what can bear the weight of our theology, and what points us to God our Creator, through Jesus our Savior, in the power of the Holy Spirit. Above all, the next Book of Common Prayer must enable God’s people to pray.
This resolution – A169 – is designed to begin a process that will be long by any estimation, one that will probably not be competed by the time I am retired. Like planting a fruit tree, we can’t look for an easy or early crop; one plants another waters and another reaps. I’m not worried about using the “new” prayer book any time soon. But I know that if we do not begin this process now, if we don’t take a chance and see what the possibilities are, we will not be pressing into the work that God has given us.
The Rev. Paul Fromberg is a deputy from the Diocese of California.