For much of the last five years, I’ve been immersed in a once-in-a lifetime project, revising the worship book of my denomination, the Presbyterian Church (USA). The work has been exhilarating, terrifying, humbling—and a labor of love.
Presbyterians have an unusual relationship with liturgy. The denomination was born out of conflict over whether or not to use a prayer book. For a long time, we had only a directory for worship, which outlined our theological convictions and described our best practices. Because there was no liturgy in it, however, our detractors called it a book of rubrics. The first Book of Common Worship was published in 1906, not to replace the directory, but to supplement it; ever since, it has been recommended, but not required. Some pastors and churches use it regularly; others never do. Some of our churches worship with words and rituals very similar to our Roman Catholic, Episcopal, and Lutheran friends in Christ, while the worship in other of our churches seems more akin to Baptist and other free church traditions. We are bound by theological convictions around the sovereignty of God, the Lordship of Jesus Christ, the ongoing activity of the Holy Spirit, the authority of Scripture, and the priesthood of all believers. Historically, our worship has been centered around the Word of God, occasionally punctuated by two sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper.
The revision of the Presbyterian Church (USA)’s Book of Common Worship, which will be published in the spring of 2018, builds on the 1993 edition. The 1993 book showed how much we learned from Vatican II, and the 2018 BCW reflects an ongoing sacramental deepening. Our new book includes thanksgivings for baptism and makes clear how central baptism is to the life of discipleship. Eucharistic prayers still reflect the classic trinitarian model we learned from the early church, but newer prayers flex the form and use less didactic, more poetic language. Our marriage service is biblically grounded, historically informed, and theologically rich; it is also inclusive and able to be used by all sorts of couples. New services for times of crisis and liturgies related to the care of creation reflect contemporary concerns, while ancient and classic prayers pepper the volume.
As co-editor of the 2018 Book of Common Worship, I have been blessed to spend the last several years talking to people all around the country about how they use the book (or don’t), what they love about the book (or don’t), and what they hope a new book will include. Obviously, the new book won’t make everyone happy, and there are limits to what any kind of book can do. Yet we hope and pray that this new edition of the Book of Common Worship will provide the church with liturgy that is theologically rich, poetically evocative, and imbued with the love and grace of God, whose reign of justice and peace we await, even as we pray and work for its coming.