So What is Our "Book" After All?
Linked here is a resolution to change the Constitution of the Episcopal Church at the General Convention in Louisville in July of 2024. In keeping with the Canons, we have placed the proposed resolution in our Diocesan Convention materials, but I also wanted to inform you of the proposal, since it has important implications for our common life in the coming years.
Usually when we think of a ‘book’ we think of a bound collection of words of paper, cover, and binding. To be sure, our notion has been unsettled by the ubiquity of the Kindle option in our time. For us Episcopalians the idea of a book and our shared life of prayer are conjoined in the Book of Common Prayer, which, with all its variants and translations, has come to us from Cranmer and the 16th Century. To be sure, unity in one book has been more complicated at times than it seemed: Anglo-Catholics in the 19th Century used the Missal, and our older BCP 1928 is still available under certain limitations. But in general we as Anglicans have understood ourselves as ‘Prayer Book Christians.’
Now the General Convention seeks to redefine the book as any and all rites approved by the Convention for general use. (The proposed change would actually go into effect in 2027). The ‘book’ is now actually a file in the cloud gathering all these up. This aims to cut the Gordian knot of rites in the book, and those that are for trial use, and those that are more occasional. While the proposal is certainly simple, it has the disadvantage of lumping together rites of very different importance, a blessing of pets next to Holy Baptism. It also means that not all rites in the ‘Book’ have undergone the longer and more scrutinized vetting.
I should hasten to add that, thanks to the Communion across Difference taskforce, on which our diocese has been well represented, there is a resolution to embed in the canons themselves the option, now expressed in its own resolution of GC 2018, to use the 1979 Prayer Book on an on-going basis. This is a generous-spirited proposal which I as a more traditional Episcopalian would find reassuring. It expresses the ‘big-tent’ approach to our Church which I hope we pursue. The 1979 BCP would be a book in the ‘Book’ of the cloud.
The question that is left open is whether, in addition to both of these, there might still be a process of revision so as to produce a new BCP at some future date in the new decade. This would be ‘book’ in a third sense. As a child I recall the Green and Zebra books of drafts headed toward the 1979 BCP. I have my doubts that we have the resources, patience, or institutional stamina for such an effort. I wonder if we oughtn’t to use the energy we do have on catechism, evangelism, and finding new forms of cooperation in the demanding years to come.
The great liturgical scholars remind us that change should be slow, and measured in multiple generations. We are only beginning to inhabit the new prayer book we have. Patience in liturgy, and urgency in evangelism and rebuilding would behoove us more.