The Rev. Ruth Meyers predicted this week that a revised Book of Common Prayer will most likely reflect changes in creation, baptism, and trinitarian theology. ...
Drawing heavily on the work of Mary E. McGann, RSCJ, of Franciscan School of Theology and the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, Meyers advocated for more robust attention to ecological issues in the church’s worship. The church must move beyond the “tepid prayers” of the current book, which focus mainly on conservation of natural resources, to more “robust forms of confession and lament … giving voice to the cries of our wounded planet and its creatures.”
She urged more extensive use of language identifying God as Creator, and for prayers that acknowledge new scientific insights, the beauty and goodness of creation, and our fellowship with all created things. A more effusive use of symbols, she noted, may also be an opportunity to restore reciprocity between the theologies of creation and redemption in the prayer book’s account of Christian belief.
Meyers said a “baptismal consciousness” has clearly developed across the Episcopal Church since the introduction of the 1979 Prayer Book. But the baptism liturgy might be deepened to bear witness to the insights of its creators. Influenced by baptismal revisions in other Anglican churches over the last few decades, Episcopalians might consider using water and oil more extravagantly, reciting the Creed during a baptism, and developing new Baptismal Covenant petitions about environmental stewardship.
Meyers urged continuing use of “expansive language” for God, including a return to “more concrete images of the Bible and the liturgy” in place of the arcane philosophical language of the fourth-century creeds. The texts of the 1979 book, while using a more inclusive language for humanity, are “overwhelmingly masculine in language and imagery.”
She described the Nicene Creed as “a stumbling block for many,” and wondered if a creed is necessary during the Eucharist, given the Great Thanksgiving’s robust affirmation of God’s work in Christ. The use of modern creedal texts alongside the Nicene Creed might be a creative opportunity for engaging worshipers.
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As an advocate of Christian orthodoxy and liturgy rooted in the catholic faith, I find this deeply troubling. It's a reminder that with so few orthodox Episcopalians remaining in The Episcopal Church (particularly among the House of Bishops and the House of Deputies at General Convention), progressive revisionists are now free to change the content of the Christian faith in whatever ways fit their ideological agendas. Citing new revelation, it starts with redefining the theological understanding of marriage as outlined in the Prayer Book's marriage rite and the catechism (last summer's General Convention made a decisive start on achieving that goal). Next will be a severing of the relationship between Baptism and Eucharist. I recently read somewhere that there are those who wish to regularly omit the confession of sin from the Eucharist, while others wish to eliminate the language of "Lordship" for Jesus as too patriarchal and oppressive.
God only knows what other changes folks like Meyers have in mind when it comes to "creation, baptism, and trinitarian theology."
Orthodoxy and catholicity are on the chopping block. And the smell of heresy is in the air.
In a posting on the Prayer Book at The Living Church, Fr. Jordan Hylden and Fr. Keith Voets hit the nail on the head:
We fear that a revised prayer book would not be written for the church committed to the Bible and the faith of the apostles, but for the church of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism, with all particularistic and judgmental edges shorn off. It is less and less culturally necessary for young people to attend church now, and this trend will likely continue. If one can worship the god of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism from the comfort of one’s own home, and perhaps also from the shopping aisles at Whole Foods and the local yoga studio, then why bother with church? A prayer book written to suit such a god will be an exercise in futility, not to mention idolatry.
Futility and idolatry, indeed.
But back to the "Imagining a New Prayer Book" symposium. Of particular interest to this creedal Christian is Meyers' quip that the Nicene Creed is "a stumbling block for many." I've written before about instances of banning the creed to be "inclusive," letting go of the creed in the liturgy, dumping the creed for Easter, and dishing the creeds because they are "defective." I won't rehash all of that here.
But I would like to point out that this business of eliminating alleged "stumbling blocks" to be more "inclusive" could put us on a dangerous slippery slope. I recall that no less an authority than St. Paul notes that Jesus is both "a stumbling block" and "foolishness" (1 Corinthians 1:23). So if The Episcopal Church is now in the business of removing stumbling blocks, what are we do to with this Jesus and the scandal of particularity he forces us to face? Perhaps this is why some are calling for abolishing the language of "Lord" to talk about Jesus. Shall we now avoid the name of Jesus altogether lest we offend secularists, atheists, and adherents of other religions who may find Christian claims about Jesus problematic?
If the Nicene Creed is eliminated in a new Prayer Book, it becomes much easier to water Jesus down to be more palatable for an increasingly post-Christian society. Since the Nicene Creed defines a robust orthodox Christology over against Arianism (no "tepid prayers" going on here!), omitting this creed makes it easier to downplay or deny that Jesus was both fully human and fully divine. If he's not fully divine, Jesus was just another human being like you and me. And as merely human, he can be invoked as the champion of our politically correct causes, conforming to our expectations and agendas. He can be commissioned as just another liberal social justice prophet who says what our itching ears want to hear. And we can dream up all kinds of liturgies that use this Jesus to advance the cause of our politically-correct righteousness.
Part of that cause may be to purge the last remaining orthodox Christians from The Episcopal Church. It's a brilliant strategy. Instead of launching a frontal assault that from a PR angle would look really bad for those who purportedly champion "inclusion," just change the Prayer Book to eliminate orthodoxy. That puts orthodox laity and clergy in the predicament of having to decide to either participate in liturgies that affirm heresy or leave The Episcopal Church.
But considering the fact that The Episcopal Church continues in free fall decline, such a strategy strikes me as almost comically misguided. Consider the following statistics as reported by Jeffrey Walton in an article entitled "Episcopalians Continue Bleeding Numbers at Alarming Rate":
The church’s domestic U.S. membership dropped 2.7 percent from a reported 1,866,758 members in 2013 to 1,817,004 in 2014, a loss of 49,794 persons. Attendance took an even steeper hit, with the average number of Sunday worshipers dropping from 623,691 in 2013 to 600,411 in 2014, a decline of 23,280 persons in the pews, down 3.7 percent.
The numbers are significantly worse than 2013, when the church reported a 1.4 percent decline in membership and 2.6 percent decline in average Sunday attendance.
Other measures of Episcopal Church vitality also saw decline: the denomination reported the shuttering of 69 parishes and missions, down from 6,622 in 2013 to 6,553 in 2014. Children’s baptisms declined 4.8 percent from 25,822 to 24,594 and adult baptisms declined during the same time-frame from 3,675 to 3,530, a decline of nearly 4 percent.
Overall, the church has declined from a high of 3.6 million members in the mid-1960s to 1.8 million today, even as the U.S. population has more than doubled. The church has lost more than a quarter of its attendance since 2003.
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At a time when attendance in The Episcopal Church has declined by over 25% in just 12 years, it's foolish to seriously think about changing the liturgies that shape the most basic ways in which we relate to God and to each other. Our efforts would be better spent on evangelism and revitalization.
Prayer Book revision a la Ruth Meyers may be a perfect way to encourage remaining orthodox Episcopalians to leave. But there are many moderate and moderately progressive Episcopalians who may also take offense and decide to go elsewhere if things like the Nicene Creed, the necessity of Baptism for receiving the Eucharist, a theology of sin and redemption, and the language of "Lord" for Jesus are dumped. Liturgies grounded in utilitarian religion and self-fulfillment will run out of gas. Pursuing this agenda, the progressive revisionists may be sawing off the limb on which they sit.
Whether we look at it from the angle of including the witness of a Christian orthodoxy that connects us to Anglicans worldwide and to the Church throughout the ages, or from the angle of addressing the serious institutional decline afflicting The Episcopal Church at a time when many younger persons crave traditional liturgy, Prayer Book revision at this time and in this manner would be a mistake. Put both of those concerns together and Prayer Book revision would be a disaster.