To Revise or Not to Revise: A Prayer Book Primer

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Since January, when the Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music (SCLM) released its Blue Book Report, the subject of Prayer Book revision has been a hot topic on Facebook, in clergy groups, and at gatherings of liturgy aficionados, For the last three years, the commission has been addressing Resolution A169 of the 2015 convention, which  mandated it to “prepare a plan for the comprehensive revision of the current Book of Common Prayer and present that plan to the 79th General Convention.”

Working over the course of the triennium, an SCLM sub-committee of nine clergy and lay members “discussed, researched, and considered” Prayer Book revision, determining that “SCLM should offer General Convention several ways forward.” As the sub-committee continued its work, it discerned several possible responses to its mandate, then combined and refined these into the two options being presented to convention as A068 and A069.

A068, or Option 1, “envisions a decision … to move into the revision process immediately,” by gathering information and creating structures over the 2015-2018 triennium that would facilitate “drafting [the new Prayer Book] immediately after the 2021 General Convention.”

A069, or Option 2, invites the church “to devote the next triennium to deep engagement with the structure, content, language and theological thrust of The Book of Common Prayer (1979), with a view to increasing the Church’s familiarity with the book in its entirety.”

In its work, the sub-committee interviewed leaders from several provinces in the Anglican Communion that had revised their prayer books within the past decade. (Video recordings of the interviews are on the SCLM’s YouTube channel and transcripts are available on its blog.) Many other Anglican provinces participate in the International Anglican Liturgical Consultation (IALC). However, due mainly to a lack of funding, the Episcopal Church “has been out of the mix in the conversation about liturgy and worship in the wider Anglican Communion,” said Deputy Devon Anderson from the Episcopal Church in Minnesota, who chaired the SCLM during the last triennium. Both A068 and A069 include funding for involvement in the IALC in their budgets.

Through their interviews, Anderson said, the SCLM learned that “Anglican provinces that have revised their prayer books recently are doing so in relationship to their particular contexts.”

One example that stood out vividly to Anderson comes from the Anglican Church of Southern Africa, which is “changing metaphors and imagery to be relevant to their climate,” for instance by taking out winter snow imagery from their Advent and Christmas material. In Southern Africa and elsewhere around the Anglican Communion, prayer book revision is focused on making sure that liturgies are “engaging and recognizable to the people,” Anderson said.

Among the guiding assumptions of  Resolution A068 is that “revision must be responsive to, and solicitous of, the riches of our Church’s liturgical, cultural, racial, generational, linguistic, gender and ethnic diversity.” The SCLM also asserts in its Blue Book report that translations “must be prepared in consultation with laity, clergy, writers, and professional translators who are native speakers of the language. The rationale for Resolution A069 states, “Again and again in our deliberations, we have come up against our failure to translate adequately our current liturgies into the various languages of our church. Since many of these populations are non-white and economically disadvantaged, this surely ranks as a first-order issue of justice.” The budget for A069 proposes devoting $201,000 to translations.

“We talk about how praying shapes believing, so the person praying it [the prayer book] has to be able to access it,” said Deputy Debra Bennett, a deputy from the Diocese of Ohio, who is on the legislative committee that will receive the Prayer Book revision resolutions. “Having people who can translate with the correct idioms makes a difference to the person who is going to be receiving it.” Anderson agreed, saying that more nuanced translations have the potential to “put the beauty back into the words” of the Prayer Book in Spanish, French, and Haitian Creole.

Either beginning work on a 2030 Book of Common Prayer or deepening the church’s engagement with the current prayer book, will require a significant financial investment.  While the budget listed for Resolution A068 appears at first glance to be $1.9 million, the SCLM report emphasizes that this amount is for just the first three years of a much longer project. Moving forward with Prayer Book revision would entail at least three triennia of work, assuming a 2030 BCP, and the SCLM’s “ballpark estimate for all three triennia combined… would be somewhere between $7 and $8 million,” according to its Blue Book report.

Meanwhile, the proposed budget for Resolution A069 is $1.18 million for one triennium, which includes the budget for translations. “The SCLM had a difficult time responding to resolutions because they were sent to us unfunded,” said Anderson. “While we were successful in raising some money to fund some of the work, in the next triennium the SCLM will be unable to respond to any resolution that requires funding but to which funding has not been allocated.”

Anderson suggests that as the debate on prayer book revision moves forward, deputies and bishops ask themselves, “How are we looking at liturgy in relation to evangelism, justice, and reconciliation? Can we make decisions about liturgy based on our values, traditions, and our missional aspirations? And, as a church, are we still called to common prayer?”

Deputy Samuel Candler, chair of Committee 13, the Committee to Receive the Report of Resolution A169, said his hope is that participants in the debate at General Convention will remember two things. “One, that words are important, but that two, our common prayer is held together not just by the words, but the form and the spirit of our common prayer. I am not sure that one book will ever hold together the Episcopal Church. But our true common prayer will indeed hold together the Episcopal Church. In fact, our truly common prayer is what will also generate and energize our mission in the world. Authentic prayer engages us in mission!”

Reflecting on her hopes for the hearings, Bennett said, “we all come with different experiences and different perceptions or perspectives. My hope is that people are able to put those aside and be open to the Spirit.”

Rebecca Watts is a senior MDiv student at the Seminary of the Southwest, and an alternate lay deputy and candidate for holy orders from the Diocese of Central Florida. Prior to seminary, she was associate professor of communication and media studies at Stetson University.

photo credit:  Mary Constance on Flickr; St. Mary’s Cathedral, Memphis