Lesson Six: The Current Book of Common Prayer
Newcomers to the Episcopal Church may not be familiar with its Book of Common Prayer, typically found in the pews alongside the Church’s Official Hymnal. While all Christian denominations have core beliefs and practices, members of the Anglican Community are the only Christian denomination that uses a single authoritative text (with some differences between members of the Community, i.e., England and the United States).
The official, authorized version of the Book of Common Prayer is the 1979 version. Its approval with its explicit efforts to eliminate gender bias continues to be controversial. During the General Convention in 2018 in Austin, “delegates butted heads over tradition, theology and what it means to be welcoming. One argued that children of all genders should hear language that allows them to feel made in God’s image. Another speaker, a delegate from an urban parish that serves poor families, said the masculine nature of God is crucial for children growing up without a father. “
Early Efforts of Revision
While there are no official efforts to reform the 1979 BCP, pressure to make changes continues to grow. The 1994 General Convention had approved a resolution calling for “a rationale and a pastorally sensitive plan” for prayer book revision. In 2018, Rev. Dr. Ruth Meyers, a scholar professor at the Church Divinity School of the Pacific and an acknowledged authority on liturgy, responded in an interview published by Sojourners.com that:
“It’s important because our worship needs to speak to this world that’s on fire today and needs to tell this incredible gospel story that we have and draw people into that gospel proclamation… Our worship didn’t reflect people’s experience of God and themselves as children of God and the world as we know it today. So I think it’s vital to revise the prayer book so that it does reflect God as we’ve come to understand God today… So, bottom line, when the prayer book was revised in 1979, the world understood marriage as between a man and a woman. The 1979 prayer book says that marriage is covenant between a man and a woman. As long as that’s in the Prayer book, then we don’t have full marriage equality…. there is a strong voice of evangelical Christianity which says that marriage of same sex couples is contrary to the gospel. Well, that’s not what the Episcopal Church teaches or understands. Revising the prayer book says there’s a different way of being Christian in the world and a different way of understanding and receiving the teaching of Jesus that is about God’s care and compassion and love for each one of us created in the image of God.”
Differing Views and Probable Outcome
Rev. John Thorpe, a former chaplain of St. John’s School, described the struggle between religious traditionalists [conservatives] and progressives as “Conservative Anglicans often hold on to traditional Western meta-values. They want to know what is real, true, and right. Progressive Anglicans frequently agree with postmodern and postcolonial thought: all such assertions of universal reality, truth, and morality are themselves oppressive structures, inseparably keyed to Western imperialism or social oppression. We have a conflict of meta-values.”
Issues range from the definition of marriage – a 2022 poll by the Church Pension Group reported that more than one-quarter of Episcopal priests and deacons identify as LGBTQ+ – to whether the invitation to Holy Communion should be extended to the non-baptized. Resolving these issues through compromise may not be possible, making a schism inevitable. The Episcopal Church is experiencing financial problems with its aging, declining membership. Will Church leaders be able to resist the financial thumb on the scale in future revisions of the BCP?
John Neil Alexander, current Custodian of the Standard Book of Common Prayer in The Episcopal Church, Bishop of Atlanta, and former Dean of Theology at the University of the South (Sewanee), thinks the best strategy is in BCP changes is dealy. He wrote in 1997 that “After twenty years of pastoral use, we have discovered that, like all its predecessors, it is not a perfect book and could stand some general improvement in some fairly critical places. But I believe the Church has other mission imperatives that require its energy and attention at the present time …. We are nowhere near being finished with what this book is calling us to do. For a variety of reasons, I suspect that most of the Episcopal Church is neither ready to abandon the 1979 prayer book nor willing to commit the time and resources required to replace it.”
Whether that position continues to be true remains to be seen.