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By Patrick Keyser
With General Convention wrapped up, some may be asking what was actually decided, especially on the topic of Prayer Book revision. Headlines like “Bishops Kill Comprehensive Prayer Book Revision” (The Living Church) left many with an incomplete picture of what actually transpired at the 79th General Convention (GC79).
The last General Convention asked the Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music (SCLM) to prepare a plan for comprehensive revision of the Prayer Book. In response, the SCLM presented GC79 with two plans. Option One would immediately set in motion a process of comprehensive revision with plans for completion by 2030. Option Two would engage the Episcopal Church in a process of deep and intentional reflection on the 1979 Prayer Book as a means of assessing whether it was the appropriate time for revision.
Comprehensive Prayer Book Revision
In a result that seems to befit our Anglican tradition, a third way that combined elements of Options One and Two was passed by this General Convention.
This plan calls for both liturgical experimentation and continued engagement with the 1979 Prayer Book. The plan memorializes the current Prayer Book as “a Prayer Book of the Church,” ensures its continued use, and asks the Church to continue to engage with its baptismal and Eucharistic theology and practice. At the same time, bishops are directed to engage parishes in experimenting and creating new texts to offer to the wider Church. A key element of this plan is the creation of a Task Force on Liturgical and Prayer Book Revision – consisting of 10 lay people, 10 priests or deacons, and 10 bishops – which will coordinate this process in the coming three years and will report to General Convention in 2021.
In response to urging from across the Episcopal Church, revisions will draw on expansive and inclusive language for God and will also express concern for the care of God’s creation.
Expansive, Inclusive Language & BCP Translations
The need for expansive liturgical language was felt to be so immediate that a separate resolution was passed authorizing for trial use an expansive language version of the Holy Eucharist, Rite II (Resolution D078). This text offers slight but significant alterations to the language found in Rite II, reducing the reliance on masculine language for God, and thus offers the Church an immediate option for more expansive language.
However, the move toward expansive language is not without complications, especially when it concerns the Nicene Creed. The Rt. Rev. Shannon S. Johnston, diocesan bishop of Virginia, said:
“I am entirely in favor of developing trial liturgies using expansive language, such as Resolution D078’s revisions of Eucharistic Prayers A, B, and D. The Church very much needs this to happen—and since D078 was introduced under Article X of our Constitution, the diocesan bishop’s permission is not required. The problem with the resolution is that it also uses revised language of the Nicene Creed not only by removing the filioque clause (‘and the Son’) but also in three other phrases in the Creed. (These phrases are also found in the supplemental Enriching Our Worship texts.) Such trial revisions to the Creed have traditionally required the Bishop’s permission.
“After all, the Creeds are the founding documents of the Christian faith and doctrine, and have always been shared by the Churches in the catholic Tradition. Nonetheless, the process of revision must continue and we should be about the work of producing supplemental and alternative texts. I strongly believe that our Anglican Tradition can produce expansive revisions while holding to our rootedness in the ancient formularies of the faith.”
Resolution D078 also addresses the issue of the poor quality of translations of the Prayer Book. It provides for the translation of the current Prayer Book and Enriching our Worship into Spanish, French and Haitian Creole using the method of dynamic equivalence, meaning that the translations will be produced by speakers of the target languages and will produce texts that maintain the meaning of the source text in a way that is natural in the target languages.
What’s Next for BCP Revision
To get a better sense of what the next steps in this process might look like, I spoke with Ruth Meyers, professor of liturgics at the Church Divinity School of the Pacific, about the plan for liturgical revision and her expectations of what might happen in the coming triennium (2018-2021). She readily acknowledged the ambiguous nature of much of the language of the resolution. “It is not uncommon for General Convention to adopt a resolution containing vague language and then leave the task of fully implementing it to an appointed body,” Meyers said. “That is where the [the Task Force on Liturgical and Prayer Book Revision] will play an important role in the coming triennium. The way forward will be made clearer as we go on.”
Meyers highlighted that the resolution undeniably sets in motion a process of liturgical revision, but that process will be much slower than the one that would have emerged with the adoption of the SCLM’s plan for comprehensive Prayer Book revision (i.e., more than 12 years from now). When I asked her what might be the final product of this process, Meyers offered a response that may quell the fears of those averse to eBooks. “I think the end product will be a combination of both electronic resources and a bound book. I don’t think we are ready to give up on a book. It serves a vital function for our church.”
Same-Sex Marriage Liturgies: Now the Priest’s Call, not the Bishop’s
In addition to Prayer Book revision, marriage liturgies also received a great deal of attention at this General Convention. In 2015, General Convention authorized for trial use marriage rites for same-sex couples, subject to the approval of the diocesan bishop. A large majority of bishops allowed for their use (including Bishop Johnston in the Diocese of Virginia), but eight bishops, for reasons of conscience, did not authorize the rites to be used in their dioceses. Proposals were offered at this General Convention, with some advocating to change the Prayer Book to define marriage as a covenant between two people (rather than a man and a woman) and others advocating for a continuation of current practice. The result was another compromise, one that required sacrifices from both sides but allowed us to continue to live together. The period of trial use for the authorized rites will extend until completion of the next process of Prayer Book revision, and those who desire to be married in their local parishes may do so, with the acknowledgment that any priest may decline to solemnize or bless any marriage.
Those bishops who did not allow for the use of the liturgies in the last triennium (2015-2018) may no longer deny the use of these rites in their dioceses. If a same-sex couple wants to be married in a diocese with a bishop who holds a theological position that does not embrace same-sex marriage, the diocesan bishop is to invite another bishop to provide pastoral oversight in a process called Delegated Episcopal Pastoral Oversight (DEPO). The hope of this compromise is that all Episcopalians may now be married in their local churches and no bishops will be forced to violate their consciences.
This General Convention considered critically important questions related to the liturgical life of our Church, and initiated a process that will invite all Episcopalians to delve more deeply into our liturgical tradition. It is the assertion of this General Convention that our common life of prayer should draw on the wisdom of the entire Church. We begin this process of liturgical revision, and the rest will be revealed as we journey on together.
A Few Terms Explained
Trial Use: Dating back to the revisions of the 1928 Prayer Book, “trial use” liturgical materials allowed parishes to worship in a way not provided for in the Book of Common Prayer, usually (but not always) pending the diocesan bishop’s approval of the specific trial use liturgy.
Filioque Clause: Filioque literally means “and the Son.” The filioque clause refers to the addition to the Nicene Creed that reads “I believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life, who proceeds from the Father and the son.” The clause was added to the Nicene Creed in Western churches as early as the 6th Century, and was a central point of contention in the East-West Schism (or Greek Schism) which resulted in the Holy Roman and Greek Orthodox Churches. “In 1994 the General Convention of the Episcopal Church resolved to delete the filioque from the Nicene Creed in the next edition of the Prayer Book,” (episcopalchurch.org).
Rite II: Refers to services in contemporary language, rather than traditional language (more).
Enriching Our Worship: A collection of supplemental liturgical materials published in 1997 (e.g., forms of Eucharist, Morning and Evening Prayer), which may only be used with permission of the diocesan bishop. Enriching Our Worship is approved in the Diocese of Virginia.
Patrick Keyser is a seminarian at Berkeley Divinity School at Yale. During his time serving with the Episcopal Service Corps in Richmond, Va., he was awarded a grant to start a program that helps low-literacy adults who want to learn to read the Bible. He loves Italy more than most Italians.