Tag Archives: Prayer Book Revision

The Work of Prayer Book Liturgies

Sometime around the end of this year or the beginning of next year, Forward Movement will be publishing my next book, this one a work on the spirituality of the Book of Common Prayer. Regular readers already know about it—and have read most of it—because when I was writing it back in 2013 or so I posted much of it here for thoughts and critiques.

One of the key decisions I made in writing that book was that it wasn’t enough to just talk about the Book of Common Prayer. These days, you can’t start there. I decided, instead, to back up a bit: conceptually, not even historically as some people might expect me to do (and as many other prayer book intros tend to do). Rather, I begin by talking about what constitutes a liturguical spirituality.

Why have a liturgy?

What does it matter that we have a liturgy?

What are the principles that govern or at least direct liturgy and churches that follow them?

What is the spiritual work that a liturgy is trying to accomplish?

If we’re going to be thinking about prayer book revision, then I think we need to engage some of these questions head-on to make sure that what we are doing is in conformity with our basic principles. This is too important of a piece of the puzzle to just assume.

When I sat down and hashed this out for the book, I chose to focus on six basic principles for liturgical worship:

  •  Adoration
  • Formation
  • Repetition
  • Variation
  • Continuity
  • Stability

The rough draft of that section section appears here.

I want to pick out a few things in particular here.

First is the transition from “Adoration” into “Formation”:

Having said that the primary point of worship is the praise and adoration of God, I’m going to turn that around on us. The praise and adoration of God is and must be our primary purpose in worship—but God doesn’t need it. God is not made greater for our praise of him; God is God perfectly well without us. We are the ones who need to be reminded—we’re the ones who have to have the Gospel held before our eyes lest we forget and forsake it. So, despite God being the fundamental aim of our worship, if we are to speak of “benefit” at all, we do it for our benefit.

As a result, the way that we do worship has to accomplish its aim, but also be formational to those of us who participate in it. It needs to draw our minds and hearts to God. It needs to facilitate a lively encounter with the Holy One whom we praise. It needs to give us the tools for understanding what it means to be in the midst of holy things, holy people, and the holy presences within holy places. It needs to feed our sense of the sacred so that, once we have returned to more ostensibly secular living, we may spy out the presence of the Holy woven in the warp and weft of the world around us and within us. In worship we are given the signatures, the characteristics, the tastes of God in a deliberate sense so that we are more able to recognize them when and where we least expect them.

The danger of realizing that worship is for us is if—when—formation usurps the purpose and becomes the primary focus. The point when the nave is turned into a lecture hall or when worship becomes an exercise in consciousness-raising is the point where we have lost sight of God. Edification, formation, is an important secondary purpose of worship but, whenever it moves into primacy we move into an idolatrous self-worship where we take the center rather than the Living God.

No less idolatrous, of course, is when the formation is of an aesthetic sort and worship becomes its own end where its aesthetic qualities and effortless performance edge out adoration. Worship too consumed by its own beauty and elegance is no less a worship of ourselves and the works of our own hands than more overt celebrations of the self and our own enlightened opinions. I say this not because I don’t like beautiful and elegant worship—indeed, I say it precisely because I do! Beauty and holiness are essential aspects of worship done well; care, precision, and planning make it what it can be. And yet whenever our focus is turned from God, we have substantially missed the mark because the purpose of the formation has gone awry.

The true formation found in worship consists of orienting the soul towards God and aligning us within God’s vision of reality. In worship, we are turned to God in praise and adoration, and are given to see the rest of creation as fellow worshippers hymning God with their very being. This is the edification that we need. Whenever worship moves towards ostensible edification, it loses its primary focus—God—and, in doing so, loses its power to orient us beyond ourselves in him! Thus, edification is an important secondary aspect of worship, but if ever it threatens to take primary place then its very value is undermined.

In my last post, a number of folks started jumping to conclusions about what I was trying to say and where I was going based on what they found there. Don’t do that yet… Trust me—I’ll get there!  That having been said, I think that this principle here, edification, is going to be one of the places where the success of the revision process stands or falls. We must have fundamental agreement that our worship is first and foremost speech to God and judge anything proposed on that level first before considering how a proposed item shapes, stretches, or molds the mind of the gathered assembly.  If we produce liturgies where the elements of consciousness-raising and self-congratulations at our own enlightment overtake the worship of God, our efforts will (and should) fail.

Another piece that I want to draw attention to among these principles is the necessary balance between repetition and variation. We repeat stuff in our liturgies. There are some things that stay the same all the time. This isn’t because it hasn’t occured to us that we could use something else instead—we decided to do it that way.

Recall, the Anglican churches survived just fine for hundreds of years with only one Eucharistic prayer text per book. With the 1979 BCP, the Episcopal Church got a whole bunch of options: Rite I with two different prayers, Rite II with four different prayers, the Communion under Special Circumstances, and the Order for Celebrating the Holy Eucharist for irregular situations (informally referred to by some as “Rite III”) with two different forms to be included in improvisational prayers. Enriching Our Worship introduced another three prayers.

If both repetition and variation are important—and I do believe they both are—I think we want to be attentive to the amount of variation provided or recommended lest we lose sight of the purposes of having a set and established liturgy.

I am thinking through a third post where I intend to ask some pointed questions and make some recommendations about how I would like to see the revision planning process move in. The point here was, again, to draw attention to context. If we intend to do a “comprehensive” revision, then we need to recall our first principles and make sure that the work of revision operates in continuity with those principles.

Theological Context of a Revised Prayer Book

It’s in my nature, I suppose, that when I address a topic, I want to back up and see the context. In order to address the issues that I see coming and to respond properly to the issues raised by Ruth Meyers in her presentation at CDSP, we have to have a sense of the culture in which, for which, and to which a revised prayer book and a church shaped by it will serve.

This is the first American prayer book that will be revised for a self-conciously post-Constantinian Church. That is, I think most Episcopalians are clear on the fact that we cannot and should not rely on general “cultural forces” to compell people into our churches and to align themselves with our vision of the faith. American society doesn’t work that way any more.

What I don’t think many Episcopalians are clear on is the spiritual shape of the culture that we are working with.  It is my belief that orthdox/Nicene Christianity is in the minority even among those Americans who identify as Christians. Of course, this is not the first time this has been the case, and likely not the last. Let’s recall—in the early days there were multiple versions of Christianity being proclaimed, only some of which had the intention of being apostolic Christianity. That is, teaching the faith as it was taught by the apostles and as presented in the writings that would become the books of the New Testament. Looking back, we can see Irenaeus and others like him as key figures who helped define the contours of apostolic Christianity over and against other forms that held Jesus as important but were not in organic continuity with his teaching and that of his apostles.

With the rise of Marcion, I have read that at various places and times in the 2nd/3rd century there were more Marcionites than orthodox Christians.

Certainly in the fourth and fifth centuries orthodox Christians were a global minority versus Arian Christians. Not only did the empire go back and forth between orthodoxy and Arianism, but many of the European tribal groups were Arian. (And, recall, this was an important political choice as much as it was a theological one. Claiming Arianism enabled the tribal groups to remain outside the control of the orthodox bishops who were aligned with the empire’s ideology and interests.)

There are some these days (I think of Elaine Pagels and others) who underscore the diversity of early Christianity to remind us that the stream of apostolic Christianity that became orthodox Christianity and that grounded the Undivided Church was one among many in order to suggest that some of the others are perfectly valid ways of being Christian and that orthodoxy became orthodox because the mean patriarchal Fathers constructed it that way so they could oppress everybody else.  I don’t agree with that perspective, and that’s not why I’m bringing up the diversities of Christianities in the past. My point is simply that claiming Christianity does not automatically ensure orthodoxy.

In fact, I’d argue that orthodox Christianity is once again a minority among Americans generally and even among Americans who claim Christianity. The majority faith is Moral Therapeutic Deism (MTD).  Again, the major tenets of MTD are:

  1. A god exists who created and ordered the world and watches over human life on earth.
  2. God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most world religions.
  3. The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself.
  4. God does not need to be particularly involved in one’s life except when God is needed to resolve a problem.
  5. Good people go to heaven when they die.

Furthermore, I think that some of the classic Christian heresies are currently functioning in such a way to blur the edges from Christian orthodoxy into MTD.

Again, we need to recall why heresy is an issue. I think sometimes there’s a sense that there’s a “patriarchal dogmtic thought police” who wants to make sure that you’re under their thumb and you’re only thinking what they want you to think. Throw that notion out—it’s ridiculous. Heresy is a problem not because you’re thinking illict thoughts, but because of its impact on how the faith is actively lived out. When we misconstrue the nature of the Godhead and how that Godhead relates to creation (and, obviously, us as beings within the creation), that misconstrual leads us to live out how we love God and love our neighbors in ways that do not match the intentions revealed by Jesus to his Church and therefore the apostolic faith. As a quick for-instance, if you don’t believe that God-the-Father-of-Jesus was the creator of the material world, then you will act and react to the material world as if you either 1) need to shun it as a spiritual contaminant or else 2) you can do anything you please with it or to it with no spiritual consequnces. In point of fact, this is what gnostics believed, and how they acted. Both paths are distortions of the Gospel. This is why heresy is bad: it leads us into lived distortions of our call to love God and love our neighbors.

The resurgent heresies that I’ve seen in and around our churches are these:

  • Neo-Arianism: Recently popularized by some factions within the “Historical Jesus” movement, neo-Ariansim revives the notion that Jesus was a truly awesome human and a wise spiritual teacher and someone who participated in “God-consciousness” but wasn’t actually God. There’s also an anti-ecclesial/anti-Pauline form of this belief that suggests that Jesus wasn’t God and never thought that he was, and either the apostles or Paul got him wrong (intentionally or not) and claimed divinity for him that he would not have claimed for himself. (or, naturally, that no one thought he was divine until Constantine told them to think that…) This heresy helps bring Christianity into conformity with MTD in a couple of way. First, it helps recover Jesus as a nice guy and a teacher of niceness (pt 2); anything mean or that challenges the way we live that he said can therefore be ascribed to the Paul/the Early Church and their attempts at thought-control (pt 3). Second, it helps keep God out of contact with our everyday world and keeps him sealed off in his heavenly sphere so that we don’t have to worry about God interacting in and with us (pt 4). Third, it reduces the uniqueness of Jesus; he was a wise prophet and an enlightened guy. We don’t need faith in Jesus, just the faith of Jesus. He simply teaches us how to be good so we can go to heaven too (pt 5).
  • Neo-Pelagianism: These days this is usually connected with an elevated view of creation. Basically, the modern presentation is that God created humanity good, and generally we are pretty good, and we certainly seem to ourselves to be just fine, therefore a lot of the Church’s historic language about sin can be classified as a major over-reaction which is unnecessary. The notion of Original Sin is frequently dispensed with and the concept of personal sin is downplayed; if sin appears it is usually identified as social sin. A common example is the way that corporations destroy the environment.  Note that this presentation soft-pedals the really hard edge of classical Pelagianism that remains its natural consequence if you play the logic out. Remember—the Augustinian doctrine of Original Sin is the much more pastoral of the two! Since Pelagianism insists that human will is not fallen, then we can and must make our own moral choices and correctly follow through on them. If we do evil, it is because we had the capacity to both choose and enact the good but deliberately failed to do so. Under the concept of Origianl Sin, if we screw up it’s because that’s normal, not because (as in the Pelagian scheme) we could have done otherwise but didn’t. This heresy helps bring Christianity into conformity with MTD by obscuring the nature and prevelance of sin (pt 3). Furthermore, if the role and influence of sin is diminished, the need for a Redeemer is concomitantly diminished; we need a Creator, yes, but a Redeemer—not so much (pt 1)…
  • Neo-Marcionism: Marcion was a gnostic who taught that the Creator spoken of in the Old Testament as the God of Israel was a lesser being who imprisoned souls and soul-stuff within material reality. Jesus came to save us from creation and material reality, and taught us of his Father who was all love who was different from the lesser, evil, Creator active in the OT. The modern form is the general rather nebulous notion that the God of the Old Testament is the mean god who does mean things; the God of Jesus is the good god who loves you and thinks you’re great. Whereas the first two heresies are presently taught by thinkers who write books that are discussed in Adult Forums and such, this one tends to be more cultural than presented as an actual argument. This heresy helps bring Christianity into conformity with MTD by denying the continuity between God the Creator and the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob who was intimately related with human life in its particularity (pt 1, 4), and downplaying the notion that God has some very clear and specific commandments on the ordering of human life an relationships (pt 2).
  • Quasi-Modalistic Tritheism: Modalism is the error where there is one God who operates in three different more-or-less distinct modes; tritheism gives us three different gods. Tritheism has always been an issue with Christians; while there have been a few outbreaks of full-on Modalism in Christian history (I’m thinking of the Fransican Spiritualists here), our greater tendency is to lapse into a functional belief in three different Gods who hang out together a lot. Trinitarianism lapses into the currently fashionable form of tritheism when three specific spheres of the Godhead’s activity become rigidly circumscribed. That is, when we take three legitimate functions performed by the Godhead as a whole and by all three Persons of the Trinity in various ways, and we make them absolute roles, implying an exclusivity: Creator, Redeemer, and Sanctifier (or Sustainer if there’s no sin to be sanctified from…). I don’t think that this heresy ties in as neatly with MTD as the others; this tends to be an issue of linguistics. People who are uncomfortable with the traditional language or who find the classic Trinitarian formula too patriarchal/male-dominated make this move as an acceptable substitute. But—unless very careful catechism is employed to reinforce that all three Persons have, do, and will continue to employ all three functions and that these functions are only part of the Godhead’s full portfolio—tritheism is almost inevitable. I do think this makes us conceive of God and the Godhead only within the context of these three specific activities which does result in making God and the action of God more removed from daily life (pt 4).

So—this is my perception of the early 21st century context of American Christianity. This is the context in which a revised prayer book will be received. The next step, then, is to consider how this context will affect how revisions are carried out.


Prayer Book Revision Discussion

For those Episcopalians who don’t pay close attention to General Convention and its doings, I’ll repeat again two key items that were passed there and that the church will be wrestling with in the coming years.

  • 2015-A169: “Requires the Standing Commission on Liturgy and 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.”
  • 2015-D060: “Establish a Process for the Revision of the Hymnal 1982”

Both prayer book and hymnal revision are in the cards and, given the reception of A Great Cloud of Witnesses (“made available” rather than being authorized), I think it’s safe to say that further Calendar revision will also be part of the package.

Prayer book revision was not one of the resolutions that the SCLM sent to Convention. That resolution (as you can see from its high number) was drafted there in committee. The past chair of the SCLM, Dr. Ruth Meyers, dean at CDSP and professor of liturgy before that, is very much in favor of prayer book revision and, I believe, was one of those who spoke in favor of it in committee at General Convention. I think it is fair to say that hers has been one of the stronger voices in favor of revision sooner rather than later. Therefore, it is very significant that she is hosting a forum today at CDSP entitled “Imagining a New Prayer Book: A Forum with the Rev. Dr. Ruth Meyers.” For those who can’t make it to California today, the event will be streamed on the web.

I don’t know what Ruth will talk about today, but my expectation is that she, as one of the key players who will be influencing the formation of the new prayer book, will lay out a vision for what items need to be changed and what items she believes must be addressed. I imagine that she will be offering an agenda for what we on the newly reformed SCLM will be considering this triennium as we seek to put together the plan to present to General Convention.

I have worked with Dr. Meyers on the SCLM for the past three years; I have a great deal of respect for her. There are many areas in which we agree, but there are also a significant number of areas in the fields of liturgy and theology where we disagree.

As a result, this forum is very much worth paying attention to.

I won’t be able to tune in; I’ll be driving the girls to ballet and back during the appointed time. If it is archived, I certainly hope to provide some commentary on it at a later point.