Reading time: 5 minutes
By Sarah Kye Price
I was a 20-something the first time that I set foot in an Episcopal church. Although that may have made me a star candidate on the people-parishes-want-to-attract list, all I knew in 1989 was that I was still recovering from a painful break-away from the evangelical denomination I was raised in, I had a heart for social justice, and I felt compelled to go to church so I could sing hymns again. I lived a short walk from an Episcopal congregation, so I thought I would give it a try one Sunday, in spite of my unfamiliarity. Within the first two minutes after slipping into a pew, a very kind person introduced herself, asked if I had attended an Episcopal service before (I answered honestly that I had not) and, anticipating my possible uncertainties, took the time and attentiveness to help me navigate the Prayer Book so that the whole service felt easy, welcoming and communal.
When I asked if I could take that Prayer Book home with me, the answer was a hearty, “Yes, of course!” Later that evening when I reached for the Prayer Book, it fell open to page 299, in the middle of the liturgy for Holy Baptism. I held that Prayer Book in my hands, reading the words of the Baptismal Covenant while tears flowed from my eyes. I had thought I was leaving the Church altogether when I left my childhood denomination; now I felt like a homing beacon from my own baptism had pulled me to this place, at this time, into this branch of the Jesus Movement. In that tiny apartment in the quiet space of my heart, I began my relationship with the Episcopal Church and the 1979 Book of Common Prayer.
Today, 29 years later, I’m a Gen-Xer Episcopalian and a second-career seminarian. I admit I have only known the 1979 Book of Common Prayer as “my” prayer book. As a lay leader (especially as senior warden), I listened to the generations ahead of me profess their love for the 1928 Prayer Book and wrestle with this so-called “new” 1979 Prayer Book nearly 40 years after its publication. As a seminarian, I have learned to cherish people and their stories even more as I reflect on the BCP’s important role in the renewal and transformation of my faith.
In short, I admit to a deep and abiding love for the 1979 Book of Common Prayer as well as a deep desire to be open-hearted rather than wistful about Prayer Book revision. So, I have undertaken with great personal conviction a desire to understand the proposals for revision that are being put forth by the Standing Committee on Liturgy and Music (SCLM) for discussion and discernment by GC79.
To recap, the SCLM has proposed two options to be discussed and is asking GC79 to choose and fund one of those options: Option One, which initiates a revised Prayer Book with three years of detailed study and conversation, drafting a new BCP after GC80 (2021), and approving it at GC81 (2024); or Option Two, which invites deeper exploration of the current 1979 BCP while adding to and clarifying the role of supplemental liturgies such as Enriching Our Worship. Both proposals have a detailed action plan and will require a commitment of both time and money. Both options are forward looking. Both also evoke many emotions and reactions among Episcopalians.
Having just returned from my June intensive at Church Divinity School of the Pacific, I seized every opportunity to discuss these proposals with my faculty and student colleagues. I specifically asked the Rev. Paul Fromberg — parish priest, CDSP instructor and member of the SCLM — to talk with me about his thoughts on the work of the SCLM and the hopes of this committee as GC79 approached.
As he often does, Paul began the conversation with a phrase that would continue to resonate in my mind: “The future direction of the Church is fundamentally evangelistic.” Perhaps that doesn’t sound Prayer Book related, but it has everything to do with the SCLM’s proposals. “Going in, it’s not really a question of whether the Prayer Book will be revised but when,” said Paul, “and if the answer to that question isn’t now, then the larger question is: What criteria will we use to measure and evaluate when we are ready?”
This spoke to my academic heart as well as to my evangelistic spirit. The Church, of course, was never meant to be a static entity. We are designed to build on our knowledge, learn from our diversity, and are called to share the Good News of Jesus Christ–not only across people and places but also over time. The contemporary issues of 2018 were not in Thomas Cranmer’s wildest imaginings (whatever those may have been!). Even our “new” 1979 Prayer Book did not have a vision of our digital world, our changing demography, or the call to new forms of ministry that are emerging in today’s global society. If we believe in the movement of the Holy Spirit, then we have to believe that the time will come when expanding our common prayer speaks to that movement. My conversation with Paul summed it up well, “We cannot allow our fear of change to derail God’s mission in the world. The best strategy to move us forward will be to walk together in hope, not fear.”
The SCLM has done a bold thing: They have asked all of us, the Episcopal Church, to engage in discernment about what that direction will look like. As a member of the SCLM, Paul reinforced both the work of the committee and the hopes for GC79: “Members of the SCLM have engaged this process with a great deal of love and mutual respect, which is why we have two very well-crafted and specific options to present,” he said. “It isn’t that we can’t decide; it is that we trust General Convention’s wisdom to make a choice that will serve the Church in the long term.”
I’ll continue to follow these developments throughout GC79, not just because I am here writing for Center Aisle but because it is important to my life of faith, and my commitment to serve this Episcopal branch of the Jesus Movement. I’ve found that I’m not really pulling for one option over the other, but I am deeply invested in our ability to discern together how to best respond in hope as a people of common prayer. I am praying for our wisdom, for our hopefulness and for the future of the Church.
Like our Baptismal Covenant, perhaps our best petitions surrounding our hopes for Prayer Book revision will also close with a heartfelt, “I will, with God’s help.”
Sarah Kye Price is a professor of social work at Virginia Commonwealth University and a seminarian at Church Divinity School of the Pacific. She was recently awarded a grant by the Episcopal Evangelism Society for her project, Faith from the Margins to the Web, a blog and Gospel commentary co-written by people living with homelessness, poverty or food insecurity. She’s a mild-mannered professor by day, and a multi-tasking superhero by, well, also by day.