Saturday, May 28, 2011

Why the Need to Tinker with the Prayer Book?

Why are there tendencies in the Episcopal Church to deviate from conformity to the liturgies in The Book of Common Prayer? What explains the need that some feel to tinker with the liturgy, or even (without any valid authority and in violation of ordination vows) to wholesale revise the Prayer Book's liturgies for the sake of _________ (fill in the blank)?

While I've noted several instances of illegal liturgical revision on this blog, I've never really answered the "why" question. But it's a very good question. And it's a question that Bishop Daniel Martins of the Episcopal Diocese of Springfield reflects on in a recent blog posting entitled "Bored With the Book of Common Prayer?" Here's some of what he writes:

From time to time—more frequently now that I am a bishop—I find myself in situations of corporate worship with other Episcopalians. Whether it’s sitting in a pew on a rare Sunday off, or attending a meeting or conference or the like, I have come to expect that what I find when I step into the worship space will probably not be a straight-from-the-book BCP service. Sometimes it is, but more often it’s not. On occasion, it’s one of the authorized supplemental texts from Enriching Our Worship, but not often. And, of course, there is the unauthorized but widespread informal emendation of Prayer Book language to render it more palatable to various sensibilities (“And blessed be God’s Kingdom, now and forever…”, “Blessed is the One who comes in the name of the Lord”, “Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebekah, Jacob and Rachel [and Leah]”). But I’m not actually talking about this sort of thing either (although, arguably, it deserves to be talked about).

No, what I have in mind are worship services that are cobbled together not quite on the spur of the moment, but almost. They appear on a printed sheet or booklet, so presumably some amount of thought has gone into them. They’re not exactly confected from whole cloth, because very often they incorporate substantial material from a Prayer Book rite (“Scenes from Morning Prayer,” some of them might be called). But they are almost invariably at a time of day for which there is an appropriate Prayer Book office. So, one wonders, why not simply use what we have? From whence comes the need to tinker?

Two factors immediately suggest themselves. One is a fairly widespread aversion in some quarters to traditional liturgical language that is considered sexist and/or patriarchal and/or insensitive to non-western cultures and thought patterns. The other is a practical concern to integrate worship with the particular objectives or ethos of a conference or retreat.

I wonder, however, whether a major contributing factor, and perhaps the major contributing factor, is simply … boredom. Itching ears. We are an over-stimulated society. We are addicted to constant change. Popular culture (music, fashion, entertainment media) is in a state of continual flux. Technology evolves so rapidly that the cycle of obsolescence keeps getting shorter and shorter. “Yesterday’s news” is no longer a euphemism but a literal descriptor. Should it be a surprise that people who exist in, and are formed by, secular culture would carry their conditioning with them into the councils of the church?

Even if it doesn't account for all of the liturgical deviations and unauthorized revisions out there, I think that Bishop Martins' reflections are on to something important. We do, in fact, live in a culture characterized by over-stimulation and constant change. How many times have you - or I - checked Facebook or e-mail, surfed the Internet, or sent text messages in the last hour? Should we really be surprised that as this cultural shift become increasingly a taken-for-granted reality that it affects how we approach what it means to worship, do liturgy, and be the Church?

As a result, it may seem more difficult to justify the ritual of Prayer Book liturgy: gathering week in and week out to do the same things and to say the same words over and over again. And so the very idea of common prayer as a defining feature of Anglican practice and identity may seem not only oddly out of step with the realities of the world we live in, but boring as well.

Are changed cultural realities a sufficient reason to justify tinkering with or revising authorized Prayer Book's liturgies? Do we lose something precious and central to our identity in efforts to be relevant and appealing by deviating from or rejecting the ritual of liturgical repetition?


Ann McCarthy said...

I think this is an interesting discussion question.

The quiet "sameness" is what I like about the liturgy we do at the church I attend in Wheaton, Illinois. We use Common Worship, and it is a quiet, holy and focused worship.

The rest of my life (and probably everyone elses') is filled with constant interruptions and new and different things to look at or deal with. Then I enter into the liturgy - same as last week and the weeks before. I can absorb and mull over the words, and appreciate them. And worship. I'm not looking for entertainment, because it's not about me.

Anonymous said...

Bryan thanks for the post and the link, I now have another blog to follow. I especially like your comment at the end regarding identity, because given the doubts and questions that torment me it is precisly the opportunitu to lose my identity in Christ that drags me onwards sometimes, and that is much easier to do in a liturgy that transcends culture and time than one that continually seeks relevance to meet acceptance in the culture of the day.

Bryan Owen said...

Thanks for commenting, Ann. I, too, find the "quiet 'sameness'" of the liturgy to be one of the most beautiful and powerful parts of my week. It's a spiritual anchor in the midst of the changes and chances of life.

And the fact that I now know the words of the Eucharistic Prayers in The Book of Common Prayer almost by heart only endears them to me that much more. Precisely because they are so familiar due to countless repetition, I can simply let go and be present in the moment.

And yes, worship is not about entertainment precisely because it's not about me!

Bryan Owen said...

George, I appreciate your comments. When I first returned to the church after many years away, I had many questions and doubts. And it was precisely the repetition of the Eucharistic liturgy that gently but persistently helped me find my place within the fold again.

BC said...


Many thanks for this and the link to Bishop Dan's posting. Your reference to the significance of Common Prayer does, I think, emphasize something quite vital for Anglicanism - and something that liturgical revision has not always appreciated.

The comments made by yourself, Ann and George remind us all of the 'giveness' of the liturgy. Such 'giveness' is truly counter-cultural and reflects the fact that the Faith itself is something that we 'receive' rather than create for ourselves. Perhaps this also indicates why liturgical changes demand the greatest care and caution.


Kelso North Carolina said...

An interesting post.

I left the Episcopal Church when the 1928 BCP was forbidden in my diocese (NC).

I tried to stomach the 79 book, I really tried, but the banality of the writing and the consistent shallowness drove me away.

The rot in the Episcopal Church came about because of the Vietnam War. The seminaries filled with men who only felt the "call" when their number was drawing nigh...they didn't really have a "calling" - but many of those men became bishops...and now look at what remains of what used to be America's proudest and most respected denomination. The church is a laughing stock, a source of scandal to the faithful, and one of the last remaining strongholds of aging hippies dancing round and waving streamers as they "worship".

As for Bishop Martin, he must remind himself he was given that Shepherd's Staff for two reasons: to guide the faithful....and to smite the wolves!

Show some backbone and "drive away all strange and erroneous doctrine" like a bishop is charged to do! Had we a House of Bishops faithful to that charge, we wouldn't be having clown masses today.

Bryan Owen said...

Thanks, Brian, for the important reminder of the "giveness" of the liturgy and the fact that the Faith is something we receive rather than create. That is, indeed, a critical reason why for care and caution regarding liturgical change and revision.

Bryan Owen said...

Kelso, I am truly sorry that you feel driven away from the Episcopal Church. I am certainly aware of some of the crazy things that have happened in our beloved Church, and I have taken the liberty of critically assessing some of them on this blog.

However, I do not share your negative assessment of the Episcopal Church as a whole. While we certainly need to take deviations from and denials of the Faith we have received in Christ very seriously, and while there certainly are practices and teachings that we cannot and should not tolerate as normative expressions of the Christian faith, we also do well to avoid falling into the fallacy of converse accident.

liturgy said...

Thanks for this post and link, Bryan, which stands in good dialogue with my:

Christ is risen!


Bryan Owen said...

Christ is risen, indeed!

Thanks for sharing the links to your postings, Bosco. I appreciate your concerns for the integrity of liturgy and common prayer.

C. Wingate said...

Kelso, it depends a lot on where you come from. I came into the church in the mid 1970s (my personal BCP says "Proposed" on the title page) and for me the 1928 is odd; my experience of Rite I is pretty much limited to Lent.

Anyway, I've grumped about people who can't bring themselves to do the BCP rites at length. Right now I'm stuck with having some I-can't-figure-out-where-it-comes-from oddball prayer of the people which are EDS-ready in their hammering on liberal social action. Last we I finally gave up and read the Rite I prayers by myself. When I spoke to the interim and raised my concerns he made the lame appeal to 1979's omnipresent "may" and while he was not entirely satisfying in his reply at least he indicated we were going back to normal eventually. I refrained from informing him that I was going to try out the Lutherans if he didn't cease.

What I gather is that there is some sort of lex orendi leftist mind control going on: if we say "non-sexist" or "inclusive" words, then we will become right-thinking and acting persons. Beside that is this pedagogical and often controlling urge to which church leaders are prone. But beyond that, I also feel this sense of desperation. The Anglicans sense that we are The Best of All Possible Churches rubs up against the reality that we are losing membership to some greater or lesser degree, so we get subjected to these impulses that we have to Do Something to change things to attract people, or not offend someone else who isn't coming to our church, or whatever. And as with the Catholics the message is that we've lost our nerve, that we no longer have confidence in our own liturgy. Meanwhile people like me who have been around for decades feel jerked around and taken for granted.

Anonymous said...


Good post and good point about the fallacy of converse accident (never heard of that fallacy before).

Although it's been several years since I've been an Anglican, the one thing I don't remember was a huge amount of variation or word replacement in the use of the BCP '79, outside of replacing 'His' with 'God'. In one parish I attended, there was a horrible alternative Rite (I remember the Lords prayer as something like "Earth maker pain bearer ...") but this was never used in the primary Sunday services. I don't remember any fiddling with the baptismal convenant either. And this in two liberal dioceses. So if faithfulness to the BCP is the most important issue for a moderately conservative Episcopalian, there should still be many places where one could worship in the TEC without having to grimace too much.

That wasn't enough for me though - I found the disconnect between the liturgy, the sermons, and religious education programs too jarring and impossible to reconcile. Towards the end of my tenure in the TEC I had often wished there were services where nothing but the Rite II service was to be read, no sermon, and except for when required to speak as part of the liturgy, the priest would be as silent as a Zen monk. IMO that's about the only way conservatives and liberals can really worship together without one or the other group being in profound disagreement with the theology being put forth. Since enough people do it, I guess there is way to parse the BCP and then go off and read Borg afterwards.

- Steve