Anglicans have been in the news a lot lately, between the General Convention of the Episcopal Church in the US (July 8-11), the first Lambeth Conference since 2008 which just concluded (officially 26 July to 8 August), and news from other provinces caught in the midst of wars, ecological disasters, or internal politics. For the official gatherings, the extra-ecclesial press always leans toward headlines that will sell – the more conflicts the better – and while the national as well as the international disagreements are important, there was much that was quietly ecclesial in the best sense of the word at both of these gatherings. Because the nature of these Anglican gatherings is very different, I will discuss them in separate blog entries, beginning here with the General Convention in the US.
Gatherings like the Episcopal General Convention (which includes actual voting and decision-making) delight those who are really invested in the structures of the institutional church and energized by its corporate politics. Even with restrictions in place because of ongoing COVID issues, the bicameral gathering still saw representatives from the 99 US dioceses, the 11 dioceses of outlying territories, plus the Convocation of Episcopal Churches in Europe. For those of us who would probably go for the root canal option, we have to work at being attentive to both the conversations and decisions as well as the workings of the Holy Spirit in the midst of the gathered community. For the Pray Tell community with its focus on liturgy, the General Convention made headlines with its “non-activity” regarding the controversial resolution CO28 “All Are Welcome at the Table” in which a diocese advocated for opening eucharistic participation to the non-baptized. The challenge to existing canon law did not make it to the floor of the General Convention, with a decision for “no further action” taken on 27 June 2022 (which ended the conversation at this 2022 gathering).
An ongoing conversation about the role of the Book of Common Prayer as the “container” for the liturgical structures, texts, and rituals, however, continues in a variety of ways. The BCP is the authorized liturgy for the Episcopal Church in the US – indeed one of the ordination promises is: “I do solemnly engage to conform to the doctrine, discipline, and worship of The Episcopal Church.” It is shaped in ways inherited from but dissimilar to the Roman Catholic process of, say, English-language changes to the liturgy, but is equally different from a number of carefully curated liturgy books in Protestantism which are available or encouraged, but not required for use. The conversations ranged from the desire on the part of some to continually expand liturgical options (particularly with regard to expansive and inclusive language, as well as expanding ritual options) to the very idea of a book in the 21st century. What is a book? Is it a body of information available online? Is it what is authorized? Is it ‘contained’ in a literal book or in a curated-collection available in many different forms?
What emerged is a new definition of the BCP as now including: “those liturgical forms and other texts authorized by the General Convention.” The likely outcome is that rites not literally bound into the book may achieve “prayer book status” because they have been authorized to do so (whether replacing existing rites in the book or in addition to those rites). This is a change from the historical understanding of the prayerbook. Prior to this the BCP could be revised (and the 1979 BCP is the 4th prayer book in the US) but all new authorized liturgies were intended to literally end up in the book, even if they had a ‘trial’ usage before that inclusion in the bound BCP. While not yet a constitutional change (a second approval at the next General Convention is required), the Rt. Rev. Jeffrey Lee, bishop provisional of Milwaukee and chair of the House of Bishops’ Committee on liturgy, says “what A059 is about, really, is acknowledging that common prayer is evolving, and it creates a framework for that evolution to happen, including the inclusion of a number of different rites in a curated collection.” What is particularly interesting about the decisions made in June is that this decision does not change the existing 1979 BCP, but it leaves that ‘book’ as it is, surrounded by the at-times-confusing array of various approved “experimental,” “trial,” and “alternative” liturgies.
The conversation and pending decisions have raised both praise for the reality of a world beyond bound books, as well as concern for the temptation to “anything goes” now. “The cat is already out of the bag,” Bp. Lee continued, “the idea of the prayer book [evolving from] a book bound and physically present in a pew to a curated collection of texts that lives online – that’s already the case, perhaps with different understandings of authorization. But we decided to do that when we first decided that you could cut and paste a PDF.” The conversations leading up to this point, of course, began long before 2022, but the immediate concerns from many bishops and lay delegates was to honour the BCP and not go the route of “a wiki-prayer book.” Instead, a compromise was shaped which reasserts that “the Book of Common Prayer in this Church is intended to be communal and devotional prayer enriched by our church’s cultural, geographical, and linguistic contexts. The Book of Common Prayer shall contain both public worship and private devotion,” and “the Book of Common Prayer, as now established or hereafter amended by the General Convention, shall be in use in all the Dioceses of this Church.”
While many other liturgical conversations were had at GC (including addressing the messy and contradictory calendrical resources), a very helpful decision which emerged from this convention was to have all the authorized Episcopal liturgies compiled together and available online. This has been the case with other member churches of the Anglican Communion around the globe for a while, and it will be helpful to members of the Episcopal Church (and beyond) to have the same in this province (episcopalcommonprayer.org) “the official liturgical website of The Episcopal Church.”