Prayer Book Revision: The Time Is Now

One of the items to come before the Episcopal Church’s General Convention this summer is a decision about whether or not to move forward with the process of revising the Book of Common Prayer 1979. The Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music has put forth two options:

Option One: to begin the costly and painstaking process of revising the current Prayer Book. The study, work, trial use, etc would take nine years (three triennia of General Conventions) therefore likely resulting in the adoption of a new Prayer Book in the summer of 2027.

Option Two: to enter into a season of deeper exploration and study of the riches of the 1979 BCP postulating that we have not begun to explore the theology and implications of this Prayer Book and that should be undertaken before actual steps of revision would begin.

I am one who believes the nine-year journey into actual revision should begin this summer. While Option Two has a good bit of support, even on the SCLM, it seems to me too timid and too little to do in response to the rapidly-changing church and world in which we live. If we have not sufficiently explored the riches of the ’79 Book in nearly forty years, it is unlikely that we will do so over the next triennia or two.

My liturgics professor in seminary in the early 1970s predicted that, one day, there would be a “Society for the Preservation of the 1979 Book of Common Prayer” just as there was a SPBCP 1928. Prayer Book fundamentalists exist in all times and in all places! His insight seems prescient today.

Many of us have worked long and hard to introduce, celebrate, and live by the baptismal ecclesiology and more catholic rites of the 1979 BCP from its adoption, sometimes suffering the consequences from those who resisted such emphases. In fact, our current Prayer Book has changed this church, mostly for the better, in countless ways over these last 40 years.

It took 50 years to replace the 1928 Prayer Book with the current one. It will be just about the same length of time to follow the proposed timeline and replace the ’79 Book with BCP 2027. Yet, the pace of change in theology, the use of language, and societal norms have moved in a much-more accelerated pace than one could have imagined from 1928 to 1979.

The time to begin the process of revision…is now! (Future posts on the site will explore what some of the changes might include…and why. Stay tuned.)

8 Responses to “Prayer Book Revision: The Time Is Now”

  1. Keith Hoffman Says:

    Agreed, though I loved the 1928 prayer book at the time, but have grown to love the 1979 one. The 1979 is wonderful and was needed at the time due to so many social changes in our culture. Many more things have changed since the 1979 prayer book and it is time to change some parts again to be more inclusive with the use of our current language and most definitely our societal norms.

  2. John F. Miller Says:

    I disagree that this is the appropriate time for prayer book revision. I feel like the process would invite division in a time when churches need unity, and involve introspection and self-focus at a time when the Church needs to be focused outward. I was willing to countenance technical fixes which left the shape and form of 1979 intact, but I am of the opinion that the time, money and focus we might spend on the full-scale revision envisioned by the Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music would not be good stewardship of our resources.

    I hope you will address the question of why a new BCP should become the focus of the next decade for the church and what opportunities and ministries you feel it is acceptable for the church to pass up in order to devote resources to this work.

    • Christopher Epting Says:

      You raise valid points, but I do not believe liturgy is an inward focus. It is one way we present ourselves to the world. Prayer and action are not mutually exclusive. They are two sides of the same coin. We can do both.

  3. Bill Moorhead Says:

    I agree that the 1979 BCP needs some fixing. (Some of the needed fixings we knew about in 1979, and after 40 years many of them we have just gone ahead and fixed anyway!) But I think the issue is bigger than that. A “Book of Common Prayer” worked in 1549 (well…!) and in 1662 and for us in 1928 (mostly) and in 1979 (on the whole). But it seems clear that in today’s church, which among other things is seeking inclusivenesses, “multiple options” is where we are and I don’t see us going back on that. We have outgrown the 1979 Book, which was a bit unwieldy even then as a “BCP-in-the-pew,” and the New Zealand Prayer Book, for all its brilliant content, is unusable as a book-in-the-pew. What is it we want our “Book of Common Prayer” to be? I think no longer what Cranmer wanted/hoped for, or 1662, or 1928, or even 1979. This is a difficult issue, which we need to address, and I don’t think we are yet ready to embark simply upon a revision of 1979.

  4. Christopher Epting Says:

    I agree, Bill. But over nine years, with our best minds at work and the participation of the faithful, we just might be ready!

  5. Michael F Says:

    I think the reasoning here is sound, but it may not speak to the deeper issue. I think BCP revision should occur only if (i) there is a fresh, shared theological vision within the Episcopal province and (ii) the current BCP is not adequately capable of expressing that vision. The fact that the current BCP has shortcomings is not grounds for revision; every BCP has shortcomings, and always will. Piecemeal changes are not grounds for a sustained revision. Only a theological vision deeply grounded in scripture, tradition and history that will guide an overarching revision can be a sufficient reason for revision. In light of these considerations, the comments about time elapsed seem like non sequitur. It doesn’t matter how much time elapses between BCP revisions, no matter how much the world is changing. Sometimes the most profound way to speak to the instability of our context is by providing a timeless stability. In fact, the worst thing we can do for any BCP is make it dated. I am continually impressed whenever I encounter different BCPs in different provinces of the Communion at how well they transcend their contexts and reflect truths about God, Christ and Humans that are timeless. To revise in response to contextual change is to create a BCP that will be dated and useless very quickly after. I’m not sure if there is a theological vision yet in place to justify a BCP. But we should not revise until there is. And if there is such a vision, that needs to be foregrounded as the wellspring for all concrete proposals for revision.

    Regardless of theological vision, one fact about the current state of affairs is that, despite a ministry of “radical welcome,” more and more people are feeling unwelcome in The Episcopal Church. I really think we need to do better on this. The schisms with ACNA, the tensions with the Anglican Communion, many of these are as much failings in our own theological vision as they are reactions by traditionalists. One goal I would hope to see in a BCP revision would be a text that unifies, not one that instigates further schisms the Body of Christ. A parish church is supposed to be a church where ALL people worship together: all ethnicities, all genders and sexualities, all political persuasions, all socio-economic groups. We’ve done a good job welcoming various minorities, but surely there must also be room in our parishes for Liberals, Anglo-Catholics, Evangelicals, and Broadchurch people like myself. A BCP that simply becomes an expression of liberal theology is dead on arrival, and the same is true of any BCP that was purely evangelical, or an anglo-catholic missal. The Anglican tradition is to be true catholic, in the best senses of the term, and it is such a goal that I think has the best chance of giving our church the theological foundations to heal tensions in the Communion and bring an end to the exodus from our pews.

    Also, a word on “BCP fundamentalists.” I’m not sure this is a charitable or fair characterization. After all, the whole point of Christian faith is to be at once conservationist and progressive. We labor to conserve not only the heritage of our faith but the legacy of Church history in how that faith has been proclaimed and received. I did not grow up in The Episcopal Church. When I came into the Anglican tradition, I intentionally spent time in a 1928 BCP parish so that I could learn the older traditions first, and then later learn the 1979 BCP so as to understand what was revised and why. That decision was incredibly edifying, and I am so thankful that I have sisters and brothers in the Lord who preserve that legacy. They’re not fundamentalists, but indispensable servants to the Church, and I do hope that the ’79 BCP gets equal treatment. The fruits of my decision are that I appreciate in a very personal way many of the reforms undertaken in the ’79 revision. I can see their liturgical logic and make them my own. I can also see many of the ways the ’79 was inferior to the ’28 BCP. A true revision would take that reality into account, and create a new BCP that both conserves the best of the ’79 and restores the best of earlier BCPs which were lost in revision,in addition to making bold new liturgical developments, all of course under the guidance and increase of a new, shared theological paradigm.

  6. Sally Says:

    Very good article. I definitely appreciate this website.

    Continue the good work!

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