Revisiting Revision: A059 and the Future of Common Prayer

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The Episcopal Church is not considering a single resolution to revise the 1979 Book of Common Prayer at the 80th General Convention, which convenes on Friday in Baltimore. But it will take the first step in determining how the prayer book is revised, and, beyond that, how it is defined, if it passes Resolution A059, proposed by the Task Force on Liturgical and Prayer Book Revision (TFLPRB).

And if it does, a quietly surprising moment in the final meeting of the legislative committees on Prayer Book, Liturgy and Music, in which Bishop Wayne Smith spoke a few words that he acknowledged surprised even himself, may have been the turning point.

The moment came as the House of Bishops and House of Deputies committees—meeting together on Zoom—were discussing the fundamental differences between A059, which had been proposed by the task force on which Smith, former bishop of Missouri and provisional bishop of Southern Ohio, had been considered one of the more traditionally minded members, and Resolution B011, which had been submitted at the resolution deadline by Bishop Lawrence Provenzano of Long Island.

Both resolutions had their roots in the realization that, in the words of the Standing Committee on Prayer Book Liturgy and Music’s (SCLM) 2018 Blue Book report:

“Texts that churches use every Sunday, across the breadth of the Episcopal Church, have very tenuous constitutional and canonical authorization. These include the texts of Lesser Feasts and Fasts and its successor texts, along with Enriching Our Worship. The Constitution and Canons are silent on whether General Convention can authorize liturgies not included in the Book of Common Prayer, short of amending Article X. Further, it doesn’t authorize a process for authorizing liturgies.”

The church, in other words, had been “authorizing” new texts that it had no plans to include in the Book of Common Prayer, without a thought about whether it had the authority to do so, or about what process gave these approvals the greatest legitimacy. Article X currently allows for trial use of “a proposed revision of the whole Book or of any portion thereof,” but is silent on the issue of authorizing liturgical texts not contained in the Book of Common Prayer itself. 

In  Resolution A063, the 2018 SCLM proposed a change to Article X of the constitution allowing the church to “[a]uthorize for use throughout this Church … alternative and additional liturgies to supplement those provided in the Book of Common Prayer.” That resolution passed, and, as constitutional changes require two consecutive approvals, the change returns for consideration by the 2022 convention, this time as Resolution A145.

Passing A145 a second time would establish some of the “constitutional net” that the 2018 SCLM said was lacking in the church’s liturgical authorization process. But it leaves open several larger questions, mainly whether and how the church should accomplish any further liturgical revisions.

One way forward, an immediate and comprehensive initiative led by the SCLM and costing $1.9 million, was embodied in the original draft of Resolution A068, which was debated by the House of Deputies during a lengthy special order of business at the 2018 convention. It passed, but with a narrow margin in the clergy order, and met immediate resistance in the House of Bishops. Overnight, Bishop Andy Doyle of Texas and several other bishops crafted a grand, sprawling compromise resolution meant to give all parties to the debate something they wanted. It passed both houses.

While the resolution was politically adroit, its significance was not readily agreed upon. Deputy News headlined its coverage of A068 “HOB Opens the Door to Liturgical Revisions,” while the Living Church went with “Bishops Kill Comprehensive BCP Revision.” Both of these headlines were accurate. 

Among the most important clauses in the substitute resolution was one creating TFLPRB and charging it with proposing “revisions to the Constitution and Canons to enable The Episcopal Church to be adaptive in its engagement of future generations of Episcopalians, multiplying, connecting, and disseminating new liturgies for mission, attending to prayer book revision in other provinces of the Anglican Communion.”

TFLPBR—the pronunciation of which occasioned some good-natured Twitter debate—was a 30-member body including 10 bishops, 10 clergy and 10 lay people. It met twice in person for seven days and four times on Zoom, working in subcommittees in between. The task force created Resources of Common Prayer, the first website that gathered all of the church’s authorized liturgies in one place, and it proposed numerous resolutions that will come before the 80th General Convention.

Perhaps the most significant of these is A059, which proposes two noteworthy steps. First, it would define the Book of Common Prayer as “those liturgical forms authorized by the General Convention,” not simply those between the covers of the 1979 Book of Common Prayer or any of its printed successors.  Second, in establishing the Prayer Book as all liturgies approved by two successive conventions, it collapses the current hierarchy of authorized rites and resources, some of which can only be used with the approval of a diocesan bishop.

The task force reached these recommendations after significant give and take, says Deputy Ruth Meyers, the Hodges-Haynes Professor of Liturgics at Church Divinity School of the Pacific, who was a member of the task force and chairs the deputies’ legislative committee on Prayer Book, Liturgy and Music. Meyers is perhaps the best-known advocate of liturgical revision, but she said the task force included numerous members who had long opposed revision, and several bishops who were protective of a diocesan bishop’s authority over liturgical practice in their diocese. The conversation, she said, was respectful, soul-searching and intense.

The compromise the group reached, embodied in A059, cleared the task force, but not unanimously. Testifying against the resolution at an online hearing of the legislative committees in February, Deputy Matthew S. C. Olver, of Dallas, assistant professor of liturgics and pastoral theology at Nashotah House, said redefining the Book of Common Prayer as all convention-authorized liturgies would be “a significant departure from basically how any province, including ours, has approached liturgical authorization.

“One important effect of this proposal is that it would mean that any text in this category automatically articulates this church’s ‘Faith and Order,’” he added, “and would be part of the ‘doctrine, discipline, and worship’ to which ordinands would be required to subscribe.”

As an alternative, Olver proposed a solution “that articulates the levels of authorizationthat we actually have been working with but which the canons don’t specify.”

He described these categories as The Book of Common Prayer; texts that are authorized for use everywhere, such as Marriage Rites for the Whole Church; texts the church would like to experiment with, “but which are subject to ecclesiastical authority;” and supplemental texts such as the Book of Occasional Services; Lesser Feasts and Fasts and “much of Enriching Our Worship.”

Despite its potential significance, A059 was not one of the more high-profile resolutions that the liturgical legislative committees received. Those included proposals to add Bishop Barbara Clementine Harris to the church’s calendar of commemorations, several proposals to respond to criticisms that the church’s Good Friday liturgy and readings use anti-Semitic language, and a quixotic, but closely-followed resolution that would have requested the repeal of the canon requiring a person be baptized before receiving Holy Communion. Testimony on A059 was divided, with those who were pleased to see a path opening for liturgies and services that use more expansive language for God and respond more nimbly to the changing cultures and contexts in which the church finds itself on one side, and those who feared a loss of both quality and commonality in the church’s worship life if all approved liturgies were equally available for churchwide use on the other.

For months, however, opponents of A059 had no competing resolution to support. Then, just before the June 6 resolution deadline, Provenzano, with the endorsement of Bishops Jennifer Baskerville-Burrows of Indianapolis and Daniel Gutierréz of Pennsylvania, filed B011.

Provenzano had previously found success in 2018 by filing a competing resolution long after a task force that energetically solicited churchwide opinion on a divisive issue had completed its work and made its recommendations. In that instance, the issue was marriage equality, and Provenzano, with the endorsement of Bishops Nicholas Knisely of Rhode Island  and Dorsey McConnell, then of Pittsburgh, proposed Resolution B012, which was intended to “ensure that all God’s people have access to all the marriage liturgies” without following the task force’s proposal to placing such rites in the Book of Common Prayer. Provenzano’s effort was substantially amended in the House of Deputies, but formed the bones of the compromise that was eventually approved by both houses.

Stepping into the debate on liturgical revision at this convention, Provenzano again proposed a resolution that would keep the marriage liturgies—and all liturgies approved since the publication of the 1979 Book of Common Prayer—out of the prayer book.

After critiquing A059, the explanatory section of B011 proposes a liturgical ordering much like the one Olver sketched out in his testimony in February with the 1979 Book of Common Prayer at the top, followed by a newly created category of authorized rites that are approved for churchwide use, but not included in the prayer book. Texts in the remaining categories—experimental rites and supplemental rites—could only be used with the permission of their diocesan bishop.

The committees’ final hearing was their first chance to take testimony on B011, and it drew support from several deputies and witnesses who feared a proliferation of liturgies, a diminution in the quality of the church’s authorized texts, and a loss of commonality in its  prayer life. As Deputy Richard Pryor of Ohio put it in an online conversation after his testimony, a Book of Common Prayer in the cloud would not a book, nor is the prayer it contains likely to promote common worship.

Former deputy Sophie Kitch-Peck of the Diocese of Bethlehem, had a different view. B011, they said, showed “a lack of trust in the greater Episcopal Church to make decisions about our common prayer.” Further, they argued, the resolution could slow needed revisions to the prayer book that could not currently be foreseen. “As a non-binary lesbian, I am not someone that our predecessors in 1979 imagined as a member of this church,” they said. “And we, as the Episcopal Church in 2022, cannot predict what the church of the future may look like.”

Kitch-Peck expressed particular concern over the creation of a category of what they referred to as “other Authorized Liturgical Rites.”

“Sometimes, I am the only non-binary person in a church or church-affiliated group,” they said. “I could be considered ‘the other.’ …. Grouping liturgies under a named category of ‘other’ based on the recommendation of a small group of people could be othering to the Episcopalians most looking for alternative authorized liturgies. It sends a message that minority groups are not considered part of our common prayer and exist outside the common ways of the church.”

The committee had decisions to make on dozens of resolutions, and that increased the sense of urgency around A059 and B011. They had what Bishop Matt Gunter of Fond du Lac identified as “a pretty fundamental choice between these two resolutions.” Gunter was concerned that, in the latter moments of its last meeting before the General Convention, the committees “might not have enough time” to give the two differing resolutions sufficient consideration. He proposed deferring a decision until the next convention cycle.

Meyers agreed that B011 “fundamentally changes what the task force proposed,” and acknowledged that the time was late. “My heart is with the task force’s work,” she said, but she agreed to send both resolutions to the SCLM for further consideration if that was the committee’s will.

That was when Smith spoke up. “I can’t believe I am going to be less restrained than Deputy Meyers,” he said, seeming to intuit that others could not believe it either.

There were fundamental differences between the resolutions, he acknowledged. One difference “is the one coming from the task force has been thoroughly discussed and thoroughly vetted,” he said. And while he understood that people were concerned about a proliferation of liturgies, “that cat is already out of the bag,” he said, and had been ever since people learned how to copy and paste from a pdf.

Shortly thereafter, both committees voted to approve Resolution A059 and to take no further action on B011.

The passage of A059 is by no means guaranteed. Several bishops remain touchy that they failed to notice when Resolution D046 of the 2018 convention took authorization of Enriching Our Worship out of the hands of diocesan bishops. It is not clear they will be willing to surrender authority over the uses of many current liturgical texts they must approve before they can be used, nor over future liturgical texts that are yet to be created. Nor is it clear that bishops who worked hard to keep marriage liturgies that can be used by same-sex couples out of the prayer book are ready to give up that struggle.

What is clear, however, is that both the Task Force on Liturgical and Prayer Book Revision and the legislative committees that received its report have made their choice.