Last summer at General Convention of the Episcopal Church, while most of us were paying careful attention to the debate around marriage equality, another significant conversation was also happening. After 40 years, our church is discussing whether the time has come to revise the 1979 edition of The Book of Common Prayer so that it better serves the needs of an increasingly diverse church. This discussion is of huge importance, because we are a church that is founded on the notion of “common prayer,” or the idea that people around the world, including those who disagree about particular elements of faith and belief, can be bound together by using the same language to guide their prayers and worship. Ever since Thomas Cranmer created the first edition of The Book of Common Prayer in 1549 to hold the two religious poles of England together, Catholic and Protestant, this book that helps us stay together by praying together has been the unique offering of Anglicanism to offer the world.
Any revision should not be undertaken lightly, as those who lived through the last time our church changed prayer books would attest. To begin with, changing rites that people have used in many of the most deeply personal and important moments of their lives comes with a corresponding amount of pushback. Back in the late 70s and early 80s, many people resented so greatly the idea of changing the prayer book that they simply left the Episcopal Church and never came back.
Even so, the hard work of prayer book revision is about more than just dealing with hostile constituencies, as we learned the last time we did this as a church. Creating the 1979 edition took an enormous effort over the span of a decade by hundreds of clergy, scholars, musicians, and lay people, all of which occurred in the particularly conducive period of liturgical renewal that followed the Second Vatican Council. In those fruitful years, many denominations were actively engaged in reconsidering the way they worshipped, so there was a huge amount of enthusiasm for the project by Christians of all stripes. In particular, leaders of various churches were wrestling with important new discoveries about the worship practices of the earliest Christians and wanted to realign our modern styles with these ancient patterns. Additionally, there was a strong desire to better connect our rituals with our theology – the two best examples of which are the two central sacraments of our church, Baptism and Eucharist. According to the 1928 BCP, Eucharist was typically celebrated once a month in most churches, while the 1979 BCP assumed a weekly celebration, something most Episcopalians today take for granted. Likewise, Baptism was moved from a private ceremony conducted on Saturdays to a central public act of worship on Sundays, one that served as full initiation into both the Christian faith and the Episcopal Church. Again, all this careful, critical thinking about our practices of worship took loads of time and resources and the involvement of a great many gifted people.
As the “new” prayer book turns 40 this summer, some believe the time has come to once more update it for a new generation. This is a conviction I do not share. Foremost, I am convinced that the liturgies and resources in the 1979 BCP still capably provide for nearly all our needs as a congregation, and its language for prayer still inspires me into the nearer presence of God day after day and week after week. Moreover, I am also concerned that we are not capable of providing the human and other resources necessary for such a monumental undertaking. For example, we have fewer liturgical historians and theologians today than during the last process of revision, fewer additional support personnel with the available time and energy to devote to such an project, and far less available money in our church’s extremely tight budget (conservative estimates of conducting a nine-year formal revision process approach $10 million). I don’t know that we can do justice to such a task at this time, nor do I think this is where our church should be deploying precious human, creative, and financial resources at this moment in history.
With that said, I am fully supportive of two particular revisions to our prayer book that can occur without pursuing comprehensive prayer book reform. The first regards the marriage rite and the need to solidify its availability to and suitability for same-sex couples. The rite we now use for same-sex couples is still technically “trial use,” meaning its use requires the express permission of a bishop (something we now receive from Bishop Wayne Smith of Missouri). It is my hope that, at the next General Convention, our church will act to remove this “trial use” label. Doing so could happen in a targeted way, without requiring a complete overhaul of the prayer book.
Similarly, I am strongly supportive of revising our prayer book with regard to gendered language for God. Male pronouns for God have a long history in Scripture and prayer, but this owes more to habit than any belief about the identity of God. Christians do not believe God is male, yet we consistently lean on male pronouns for God in our prayers and conversation, which has unintentionally perpetuated many damaging patriarchal structures in our church. This is not only about the wound inflicted on women, who are subtly (and too often unsubtly) told that their sex is somehow less sacred, but also about an overall impoverishment of our understanding of who God is. We can and should be much more thoughtful and expansive in our language for God. For example, in addition to the image of God as “Father,” Scripture also offers metaphors for Christ such as “mother hen” (Matthew 23:37), the use of which have the potential to grow our spiritual imaginations in ways none other than Christ encouraged.
Thankfully, last summer General Convention approved the use of modified forms of the existing Rite II Eucharistic prayers. Nicknamed “expansive language rites,” these revisions carefully replace the overabundance of male pronouns with other words. For example, in the Sursum Corda, where we have said “It is right to give him thanks and praise,” this revised rite, which actually brings us closer to the intent of the original Greek, will read “It is right to give our thanks and praise.” In the Nicene Creed, the reliance on “he” for the Holy Spirit is replaced with “who,” which again is closer to the original Latin and Greek. And in the concluding doxology of the Eucharist prayer, “by him, and with him, and in him,” is replaced with “by Christ, and with Christ, and in Christ,” to convey the eternal and universal nature of our Savior rather than simply his maleness.
I am delighted to say that, beginning this weekend, we will begin to use this modified language in our regular worship. All changes will be printed in the service bulletins, to make this transition easier to follow, although I realize that those who are steeped in prayer book language may struggle at first with a few of these changes. Old habits can be hard to change! But I also trust that, even if we experience a few hiccups and have to pay more careful attention to the words we say in worship, the overall effect will be one of blessing and growth. And I hope that soon our old, default language will give way to new language that better helps us worship the God we love.
About Father Casey
Casey became the fourth rector of Transfiguration in October 2014 after having served churches in Rhode Island and Houston. He is married to Melody Shobe, also an Episcopal priest, and they have two daughters, Isabelle and Adelaide. Casey grew up in Temple, Texas, and holds a Bachelor of Arts from the University of Texas at Austin. His Master of Divinity was earned at Virginia Theological Seminary and his Doctor of Ministry at the School of Theology at the University of the South (Sewanee). He loves playing golf, road cycling, hiking, brewing beer, and working in his yard.