Messing with the Prayer Book

Fr Tobias has been talking about Prayer Book changes; the post has been picked up over at Creedal Christian as well.

In my own understanding of the Benedictine roots and expression of the Episcopal Church, sticking with the texts of the authorized BCP is a matter of both stability and obedience that (quite naturally in Benedict’s ascetical theology) lead into conversion of life. As a Prayer Book Catholic I am committed to using the ’79 BCP but I sometimes find my “catholic” warring with my “prayer book”. That having been said, I entirely subscribe to what Fr. Tobias and others are saying. The American ’79 BCP is the authorized book of our Province. It is the definition of Common Prayer for American Episcopalians and as such should be regarded as the foundation of our “lived experience” and the beginning of our pathway into life with the Triune God.

Is the language used by the prayer book outside of the normal vernacular? Does it need to be fiddled with again to make it more accessible? Not to my ears—for two reasons. First, it was last revised thirty years ago. The English language has not changed that much in 30 years. (No…just…no)

Second, as someone who works primarily with language, let me say that language matters and the ways that we choose to be sloppy or precise with our language says a lot about both our action and our thought. I could, for instance, use the word “book” and most of the time it’ll get the job done. words like “manuscript” and “folio” might be synonyms in some cases—in others they mean something quite specific.  It makes quite a lot of difference if I’ve found a liturgy in a “book” or a “manuscript”. Questions of provenance, accuracy, scribal tendencies, completeness suddenly jump to the fore with “manuscript” that simply don’t exist or to a much lesser degree if I say “book”.

Similarly, I see a desire to “translate” “churchy language” as, more often than not, not only as a dumbing down but a deliberate choice in favor of imprecision and loss of meaning. Yes, I can say I’ve made a “mistake”; but don’t be confused that this is the same as saying I’ve committed a “sin”. Different words mean different things. We—okay, I—don’t use “churchy language” for the sake of “being churchy”; I use it because it’s accurate. If “mistake” would work I’d use it—but it doesn’t, so I don’t… There is a distinctive Christian vocabulary that is necessary to transmit specifically Christian thoughts, attitudes, and beliefs. It shouldn’t be used to “exclude” but if we don’t use it then we’re not transmitting the faith that we have received.

Language is acquired primarily in two ways. First by definition, second by context. From Sunday School, to Youth Group, to seminary, to graduate work, many people have defined the word “sin” for me in different ways. But I’ve also heard and seen it in literally tens of thousands of contexts which teach me far more about the word’s true meaning. That’s how vocabulary gets acquired. What, therefore, does it do if we begin dropping such language from our liturgies? Unless you equally begin editing these “churchy” terms out of, oh say, the Bible and 99.9% of English language Christian literature than you are depriving the people to whom you give a dumbed-down liturgy the tools they need to understand the Scriptures and other Christian literature.

Enough… Here endeth the rant. For now.

4 thoughts on “Messing with the Prayer Book

  1. Christopher

    To pick up where you leave off, “manuscript” versus “book” implies the possibility of different levels of authority ascribed to each.

    Is our Prayer Book perfect. Likely not. None will ever be. But it is the common book for this Church, and we who are of particular tastes or higher education do well to honor our common life rather than elevate ourselves in such a way that our authority is no longer rooted in humility of practice alongside our sisters and brothers in this Church.

    Much of our language isn’t merely Churchy, but biblical. We throw it out to our peril, loosing our connection to a worldview and resonnances of many kinds. “Sovereign” does not resonnate biblically the same way as Lord, for example.

    As I noted in response to Fr Schmemann’s rant on secularism at Fr Owen’s blog, “Our Prayer Book practice, speaking as a layman, invites us to live in a world inhabited by the Word and Holy Spirit. This world, however, is not one divorced from the workaday, but is the workaday. In that sense, we’re Benedictine: Ora et labora.”

  2. John-Julian, OJN

    I know that my advanced age (76 years) has something to do with it, but I must say that given that 56 of those years were spent seriously studying liturgy/history/theology, I can only say that I think the BCP ’79 is the single finest liturgical document in the entire history of Christianity! It has a few minor flaws (absence of invocation of saints) and one or two lacunae (weak Offertory), but its theology, its approach to liturgy, and its breadth is simply awesome. And we one-time-missal-Anglo-Catholics actually won in every single matter of importance!

    And I also think that it is extremely dangerous to start talking now about Prayer Book revision, because we are right now only on merely the earliest cusp of massive, earth-shaking social/technological change, and to do a BCP for today is simply silly vanity — maybe in another 20 years when we know where these social changes are finally going we will be ready to say the “old things” in new ways.

  3. Vicki McGrath

    Father John-Julian’s point fits well with Phyllis Tickle’s new book “The Great Emergence.” Her contention (based on an idea/observation of Bishop Mark Dyer)is that every 500 years the church has an enromous attic cleaning/rummage sale that ends up re-invigorating the Church, and even where there are divisions, those divisions become more truly and strongly themselves (think the birth of protestantism at the Reformation and then the RC Counter-Reformation). But while we are living through that period of shake-out it can be very confusing and feel awful (and perhaps awe-full). So I think John-Julian’s+ observations match well with what Tickle is saying. We don’t know where the Holy Spirit is leading us yet, and what will be the best way to have Christian worship and tradition be embodied through the emerging cultural and social shifts.


  4. Ren Aguila

    I think this is a problem that doesn’t just happen in the States, I’m afraid.

    One of the parishes of an Anglican church I know has an interim who violated two rules. The first was, of course, that any new clergy coming to a parish should spend a substantial length of time NOT tinkering with the liturgy. The second was that one should not tinker with the Prayer Book except where it specifically provides.

    Less than four months after arriving at the parish, this interim announced that the Passion Gospel would not be read on Palm Sunday because it broke the “story” of Holy Week. This was an unfortunate deviation from the 1979 American Prayer Book, which the parish uses.

    Again, such “local uses” just do not happen in the US alone.

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