Prayer Book Revision Plan: The Three Essentials

The now infamous prayer book revision resolution from General Convention directs the Standing Commission on Liturgy & Music (SCLM) to : “prepare a plan for the comprehensive revision of the current Book of Common Prayer and present that plan to the 79th General Convention.”

Note that. We’re not directed to do any prayer book revision; we’re simply asked to prepare a plan that will be (no doubt) debated and acted upon at the next General Convention.

The second resolve is particularly interesting to me. It asks us to be informed by seven different forms of diversity found within the church: “That such a plan for revision utilize the riches of our Church’s liturgical, cultural, racial, generational, linguistic, gender and ethnic diversity in order to share common worship.”

This language neither prejudices us nor gives us a whole lot of direction. When I took up the “Holy Women, Holy Men” (HWHM) material, diversity was mandated but was not being tracked or quantified in any way leading to a more lopsided collection than had been intended. If diversity is a major component here, identifying and quantifying it is a central task in order to be thoroughly and properly inclusive.

The third resolve touches on the field I know from my day job as an IT professional (no, I’m not a priest, professor, full-time blogger or any number of other things that people often assume; I have a regular 9-5 corporate job…): “that the plan for revision take into consideration the use of current technologies which provide access to a broad range of liturgical resources.”

At the same time there is also a hymnal revision resolution that essentially asks a similar thing with fewer words: “That the 78th General Convention direct the Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music (SCLM) to prepare a plan for the comprehensive revision of the Hymnal 1982.”

There are a whole bunch of things that need to be done. But as I read, review, and pray about these resolutions, there are three things that keep returning to my mind. These are what I consider the three essential tasks that we have to get right before we can do either plan right. These aren’t particuularly sexy, interesting, or fun. But they are necessary.

I’d go so far as to say that they are critical: If we fail on these, we will fail on the process as a whole.


We Must Have a Baseline

This section could equally be entitled “The Plural of Anecdote is not ‘Data.'”

Most people who care enough to even think about prayer book revision are likely to have strong opinions on the matter. Most of us—myself included—have an idea of What The Church Wants or, perhaps more important, What The Church Needs. No surprise, then, that What The Church Needs dovetails nicely with what we think and we even have some examples of parishes to back it up: “X parish did Y and their numbers and vitality went up Z% over a period from A to B! We all need to do that!” Or, barring useful examples, we like to appeal broadly to what is going on in the church based on our idea of what is going on: “Everybody is experimenting with liturgy these days—those old forms just don’t work/Nobody I know likes any of that experimental crap, we all just want the prayer book.”

If we intend to engage in something as important as this process, then guesses aren’t good enough. It’s not even good enough for people on the SCLM to have a general level of agreement about how things should go.

We don’t need anecdotes or general feelings: we need data. We need to know what is being done now.

Are we currently seeing a mass explosion of experimental liturgies as is claimed by some? Are we seeing churches forced to draw on resources outside of our tradition because our current resources are clearly inadequate? Do we see most churches quite happily using the authorized texts with a small body of experimental outliers? What consistent alterations are we seeing across the church? (I’m looking at you, list of patriarchs in Prayer C…) What languages are we seeing used in worship? Are we seeing a use of monolingual worship, bilingual worship, multilingual worship? How is culture showing up in how people are worshipping now?

My proposal would be to literally see what the church is doing now. The way we would do that is by requesting that every Episcopal parish across every one of our dioceses email (or snail mail in locations where email is not possible) the SCLM with seven actual bulletins. The SCLM will select a particular Sunday from every season of the church year and ask that the bulletins for all services for the selected Sundays be sent in as well as a bulletin from a Principal Feast. The results would then be tabulated in a publicly viewable database: type of service, source for readings, hymns, additional ceremonies, anthems, Eucharistic Prayers, any significant additions or omissions, how many people were in each service on those given days, etc. This would give us a place to start and a sense of what the church is actually up to.

This is the data we need to begin understanding the true shape of our diversity and to know what proper kinds of questions we need to be asking. If we actually take the time to do this right, we won’t have to guess or extrapolate wildly from anecdotes: we’ll have something hard to go back to.


We Must Give The People Their Voices

Now—a baseline is not enough.

We need to hear from everyone who cares enough to have an opinion on the matter. What works? What doesn’t work? What needs to be changed? What doesn’t need to change?

We need to crowd-source this thing.

Surveys may be helpful here—but surveys are not enough. Furthermore, surveys are rarely truly neutral instruments. If a given person or group of people are crafting questions and limiting possible answers, then they have a certain amount of control over the responses they receive. People passionate on issues may, knowingly or not, craft the questions to elicit the answer that they want to see. (And that goes for complaints I’ve heard about the hymnal survey…)

We need free-form opportunities for input. Let me give you a for-instance… The parish the girls and I have been attending uses Prayer C a fair amount. I now have some extended experience of praying with it. Based on that experience, I have a few constructive comments on how it could be made better. (I’ll leave aside the whole “dialogue” thing for the moment which I think is theologically problematic–that would take this post in a whole other direction I don’t want to go in now, so don’t start…)

  • The beginning part “fragile earth, island home…” does sound dated. I’d like to see the concept retained but perhaps with language having a more timeless feel.
  • The Patriarch Problem needs to be handled better. Inserting names of spouses/concubines/sex partners of the various patriarchs is not the best way to do this. I’d much rather see a parallel list of OT Matriarchs: “God of Deborah, Ruth, and Judith” perhaps.
  • I’ve come to really dislike “We celebrate his death and resurrection as we await the day of his coming.” Part of my Eucharistic theology is the idea that the reference to “…until he comes again” is fulfilled almost immediately when we experience and receive the sacrament. Jesus literally comes again to us in that moment in and through the bread and wine. The idea of “coming again” does relate to the great consummation at the end of the age when Jesus returns in power and great glory, but is not and should not be limited to that moment! The use of the temporal marker “day” here bothers me because it unnecessarily restricts and limits the kind of “coming” that we are referring to.

These are the kinds of thoughts that we need to capture. You can’t do this on a survey. These kinds of comments need to be publicly made and read and evaluated.

Furthermore, we need some crowd-based methods of indicating opinion on said opinions. I’m thinking of something like and up-vote/down-vote system that will allow responses that receive the most reactions to flow towards the top so they can be read and responded to by more people.

There are plenty of good web technologies out there designed to enable this kind of feedback. We need to pick one and then use it to actually listen to what the church is saying—not just the little circle of people who happen to be on the SCLM for a given triennium. No, everybody is not going to agree. But having watched the performance of Episcopal social media during General Convention and the web-casted TREC meeting leads me to believe that there is a synergy that erupts when we all start talking together. As far as I’m concerned, one of the great structure discoveries for me of last GC was the rise of the House of Twitter. We need to leverage that kind of excitement and energy.


We Must Show The People Accountability Through Transparency

One of the biggest complaints about recent SCLM work, and I’m thinking specifically about Enriching Our Worship (EOW) and HWHM here, is that something goes missing between the stated principles and the final products. As Matthew Olver has noted in his on-going pieces on EOW (part 1 and part 2 with a forthcoming part 3), the original documents leading up to EOW contained this passage:

In Christian liturgy, the truth of the Gospel which proclaims Jesus as the Son of God the Father and as Lord is essential. The terms “Father,” “Son,” and “Lord” are retained as expressive of that truth.

But, as we know, those terms were conspicuously absent from the final product.

Too, throughout the HWHM experiment there were issues regarding how completely the people included within the resource met the published criteria, particularly in terms of time limits, recognition across the church, and evidence of faith commitment (including baptismal status). Over time the criteria came to include escape clauses so that several of these could be dispensed with as desired.

I think that we as a commission have earned ourselves a credibility problem.

If we solicit feedback—particularly the two forms I’ve indicated above—then we need to bear fruit that demonstrates that we have taken it seriously and acted upon it.

When it came to to make revisions to the narratives going into Great Cloud of Witnesses, my committee and I read through the detailed comments left on the blog posts. I weighed them carefully as I made my own edits. I didn’t include all of them, but I certainly used the majority of them.

We need to demonstrate that this kind of engagement is happening and has happened.

Liturgies developed should be developed publicly. We, the church, need to be able to see them, reflect about them, use them (under proper parameters, of course), and comment about our experiences with them. We need to see that our thoughts and suggestions have at least been considered even if they are not accepted. (And if they are not, some clear appeal to the established principles and criteria would be meet and right!) We need to see that the liturgies being developed do, in fact, reflect any criteria and principles adopted to guide the process.

Something like Mediawiki, the engine that drives Wikipedia (free and open-source), is ideal for this. The liturgies can be seen, we can see the edits and version history, and the talk pages could provide space for reflection linked to but separate from the trial content.

Adam Wood has proposed something similar driven by similar concerns. (Here’s a Wired write-upon another of his projects if you don’t know him.) [I personally think that the ultimate end of our liturgical endeavors should be encoded in TEI XML for easy conversion into human-readable documents and web pages or machine-readable JSON for web and mobile apps, but that’s another debate.]

Using such a system offers transparent accountability. We know who did what when with what theology under which principles, and we will have an opportunity to make public comment about it.

So—those are the three essential things I think we need to incorporate into whatever plans for the prayer book and hymnal get offered to the next General Convention:

  • We need actual data on how the prayer book and hymnal are (or aren’t) being used right now
  • We need an effective vehicle for the church to communicate and deliberate on what we use now
  • We need an effective vehicle for the clear and accountable construction and dissemination of new liturgical experiments

These may not be the sexy topics like inclusive language or what to do with Confirmation, but they represent essential first steps to do the discussions right.

18 thoughts on “Prayer Book Revision Plan: The Three Essentials

  1. Greg Tallant

    As always, a clear-headed and helpful column. I wonder, would we do the same kind of thing with the Daily Office? Would we ask for real data on who is praying the offices, and how they are doing them? Is there any energy for revising them, or is this only about Sunday morning?

  2. Derek Olsen Post author

    We would, but I think the Offices would be more complicated to get data on. A comprehensive revision would conceivably include the Office, and the existence of “Daily Prayer for All Seasons” indicates that the prevailing players have an interest in something. Of course, I think DPFAS indicates that they’re heading in the wrong direction entirely…

    The reality of the situation is that, as reported by Kirk Hadaway’s data, 99% of churches responded that their worship services always or often have the Eucharist. That doesn’t necessarily mean that Morning Prayer isn’t done, but it certainly isn’t the Sunday Morning staple it used to be.

  3. Vik Slen

    Yes, we should ask for information on how churches celebrate (“officiate”??) the Daily Office, but I suspect Greg is talking about people reading it at home (or on the train or whatever). Guess what? That’s not what the Daily Office is for. Go ahead and read it privately if you find that helpful, but that’s not how “The Church” or tradition intend for the Daily Office to be used, and the Office should not be revised to make it more suitable for reading at home! As Derek points out, very few churches have the Office except maybe on a rare occasion, but as far as I can see that should make it actually easier to collect the data!

  4. Linda Decker

    This is exciting. Gotta learn how to twitter now.

    The GC liturgies were amazing. I found it stretched me just to have the liturgy in Spanish on my iPhone, and to be part of the worship no matter what language, and to have no big deal made about that.

  5. Sue Daniels

    I have to agree with your comments about the last hymnal revision’s methodology. Congregations were asked to list their favorite 10 hymns. That’s all the instruction we got! Surprise, surprise, the top five hymns were Christmas carols! I don’t believe for a second that our top favorite hymns are Christmas carols. I just think people listed them because they didn’t want them taken out of the hymnal. I like the idea of sending in a collection of actual bulletins. That would be very representative of what the church is actually singing.

  6. Kit Carlson

    This is BRILLIANT. Yes! to the baseline! Yes! to soliciting the wide range of voices! Yes! to accountability through transparency! YES TO TECHNOLOGY that can make this truly a churchwide project!

  7. Sophia Twaddell

    Just out of curiosity, were you appointed to SCLM this time around? I’m writing a thesis on BCP revisions so am keeping tracking of all the opinions about how it should be done that are flying around the internet.

  8. Melody

    Derek- brilliant and insightful, as is always the case. Thanks be to God that you will be continuing your awesome work on the SCLM.

    I sincerely hope that your method, or some similar method, of establishing a baseline will be used. Especially if you select, say, the First Sunday in Lent (when a lot of different resources within the BCP :may: be used), a Sunday in the midst of the Season after Pentecost, and a major feast. You’d get a fairly good sense of what worship looks like in most congregations across TEC.

    It often seems that in matters of liturgy the loudest voices win the day, even if and when those voices are in the minority. “The plural of anecdote is not data” is my new favorite phrase.

    I enjoyed your thoughtful, specific comments about Eucharistic Prayer C; I would love to see a format that might be able to elicit similar thoughtful, substantive feedback. Specific to that prayer, I share your concern over the “edits” I often see to the list of the Patriarchs. The way that it is often done, which adds some wives and not others and skips concubines, etc. seems problematic. It also ignores the fact that the phrase “the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob” is a deeply biblical phrase, with a specific meaning. It is how God identified Godself to the people of Israel for centuries. To change it is to ignore that it has a specific, important biblical function. Changing it (even with additions), is akin to changing references to Jesus as “the Good Shepherd”, simply because we no longer live in a society where most people interact with sheep.

    If you’re going to add to the prayer C patriarchs list, I think the best formula would be something along the lines of : “God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; God of Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, (Bathsheba), and Mary; God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ…”

    That list of names is not a random assortment of female biblical exemplars, but is, instead, the biblical list of the women who are included by Matthew in the genealogy of Jesus. I list Bathsheba in parenthesis because she is not named, as such (she’s called “the wife of Uriah”).

    Thanks, again, for all that you do. I, personally, am deeply grateful for your work.

  9. BM

    I originally thought that your Three Essentials would be theological – but instead you are thinking very practically. I really enjoyed the spirit behind this post. I think many Episcopalians are worried about elitism motivating Prayer Book reform – i.e. a faction of scholars and liturgical enthusiasts telling the Episcopal Church what it needs and then plopping new stuff onto their laps – and it seems like you want to prevent this from happening.

    I posted a thread about this on Reddit:

  10. Brian J Henry

    yes to all of this, so much. especially the upvote/downvote and the media wiki ideas (and hooray for open-source!). There’s so much we could do with technology.

  11. Mockingbird

    I want to see a Prayer Book Studies 31 that re-examines its rites in light of recent developments in our historical understanding.

  12. Paul Goings

    What would the “recent developments in our historical understanding” consist of? Has there been a new discovery in liturgical studies that would dramatically alter the way that we think about the current rites?

  13. Derek Olsen Post author

    I would guess that it would be the unraveling of the historicity of Dix and the whole line of thought that the LIturgical Renewal Movement was based on. The appeal “ad fontes” was an appeal to a fictive, though inspirational, 4th century synthesis. 4th century realities aren’t nearly as neat and tidy.

    And, yes, I think (and have said as much elsewhere) that we need to undertake a critical assessment of the Liturgical Renewal Movement, what it tried to do, what it actually did, and what we learn from that–what things ought to be kept and what need to be rethought. That is, much of our Anglican and catholic practice was swept away in favor of the 4th century syenthesis. Perhaps a rethinking of some of those choices would be wise. That would be a dramatic alteration in the way we think about the current rites.

  14. Mockingbird

    One development is a loss of confidence that Hippolytus’s 3rd century “Apostolic Tradition” could be recovered from the Egyptian Church Order and related works. But nothing in our Prayer Book depended on our ability to make such a recovery, anyhow.

    I think our Prayer Book would stand up pretty well to a critical review of the Liturgical Movement.

  15. Fr. Bill Loring

    If it would not seem to be treading n your toes, I should like to do an editorial/article in an upcoming Anglican on the specific subject of a baseline for the Calendar of Saints/sort-ot-holy people. (If you would be kind enough to reply with your direct email — I thought I had it but cannot find it — we could look into this one-on-one.)

Comments are closed.