The Case for Prayer Book Revision

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I am an eager proponent of prayer book revision, but we’re not ready.

We’re not ready because we haven’t had the conversation well. There have been many forums for conversation about liturgy and liturgical change in the past few years. In my experience of sampling such forums, I’ve found them to be prickly at best and openly hostile at worst. Even in the most moderate—and moderated!—forum I found (and tentatively joined), it’s common for exchanges to grow heated, and turn toward name-calling, dismissive language, and accusations of bad faith. As a result, I’ve barely participated. I chose to create the blog “Revision Matters” as a platform for people to reflect openly on where and why they feel the need for prayer book revision without having to fend off attacks or engage in skewed debates. (Revision Matters remains open and we’d love your submission -there’s lots more to say!)

We’re not ready because we haven’t even agreed on what conversation we’re having.  First, what do we mean by common prayer? For some it’s a matter of using the same book, the same words. Others see common prayer as an ancient pattern of sacramental worship that is more robust and flexible than any given text. When we do manage to recognize that we’re talking about different things, it’s easy to dismiss the other side as either rigid or frivolous. Second, what data are admissible as we assess the need for revision? Many dominant voices in the conversation tend to draw on the expert knowledges of history, translation, and formal liturgical theology and to apply the criteria of correctness or incorrectness. What I find far more interesting and important are the data of how enacted liturgy feels in the room and works in minds and hearts of those present. Perhaps what I’m yearning for is a criterion of effectiveness: how well does this liturgy form this particular community, in this context and at this moment, to be Christ’s body given for the life of the world? Ethnographic and subjective data needs a place at the table. That data is difficult to gather, but if the goal of the whole endeavor is to have liturgy in language “understanded of the people,” then we cannot dismiss the project as too hard. I endorse the SCLM’s proposal (in both Resolutions A068 and A069) to study liturgical practice across the church–and hope that it will be well-funded and thoroughly-undertaken.

We’re not ready because we haven’t come to grips with the urgency of the issue. Some don’t feel the urgency because they aren’t convinced by those of us who find that many aspects of existing prayer book language—including exclusively-masculine God-language, gender-binary language for humanity, and frequent imagery of domination and conquest—are distracting at best and damaging at worst. Others don’t feel the urgency because they, or their clergy, have already found work-arounds by tweaking existing texts and drawing on newer liturgical resources. However, for many parishes and dioceses across the church, the ’79 Book of Common Prayer remains our normative liturgical text. If you care enough to want inclusive language for your parish, I hope you’ll care enough to want such language to be readily available and universally-authorized for all parishes. I’ve talked with both long-time Episcopalians and people new to the church, attracted by our Gospel commitment to welcome for all, who are puzzled and impatient that we tolerate liturgical language that belies our witness. I have no good answer for them.

We’re not ready. And that’s why I urgently endorse the SCLM’s resolution A068, “Plan for Revision of the Book of Common Prayer.” We need to begin this work together: learning how to have real, open and respectful conversation; naming the deep issues at stake; asking the church and its people about their worship, and committing to open-minded and disciplined study of their responses; and taking our liturgy seriously enough to treat it as not a distraction from, but a core tool of, evangelism and mission. Committing another three years (on top of the 42 we’ve already had) to dwelling with the riches of the existing BCP, as A069 suggests, makes no sense, not least because there’s no reason to suppose prayer book revision would throw out the good stuff. Let’s start getting ready for revision together, with intention, curiosity, and hope.

The Rev. Miranda Hassett, an alternate deputy from the Diocese of Milwaukee, is rector of St. Dunstan’s Church in Madison, Wisconsin. She is about to start a sabbatical project focused on exploring children’s participation in liturgy.