The Once and Future Prayer Book Conference – Part 2

On October 9-10, 2017, the School of Theology at The University of the South, Sewanee hosted the second portion of the Once and Future Prayer Book Conference. Dean Neil Alexander welcomed the attendees to the second portion of the conference.  He explained that the first part of the conference held at Virginia Theological Seminary on June 1-2, 2017 provided the necessary background for a scholarly discussion of the possibility of prayer book revision. This second part of the conference would delve into specific rites in the prayer book and discuss the gifts and challenges they present considering possible prayer book revision.

The first presentation was on the Eucharist and was given by The Rev. Dr. Patrick Malloy. He began by providing some historical background leading to the revisions of the Eucharist in the 1979 prayer book and discussed certain assumptions that the revisers of the 1979 prayer book held.  Then, Dr. Malloy discussed how the centrality of the Eucharist in the Episcopal Church since 1979 had altered its view of common prayer. He suggested that most Episcopalians only conceive of the church in Eucharistic terms today, which was not the case before 1979.  Dr. Malloy concluded by posing six questions to consider for revision of the 1979 prayer book.  First is the question of what to do about inclusive/expansive language. Second, he wondered about the use of Rite I. Third, he raised the question of creation motifs in the Eucharistic Prayer. The fourth question involved communion of the unbaptized. Fifth, he wondered how the Eucharistic hegemony would impact parishes unable to engage priests every Sunday.  Finally, he asked about the “so-called Rite III,” referring to An Order for Celebrating the Holy Eucharist, especially considering General Convention’s recent authorization of locally composed Eucharistic Prayers with episcopal authorization and its impact on the very notion of a book of common prayer versus a collection of digital resources.

The Rev. Dr. James Turrell provided the second presentation on initiation. He began by recognizing the revolutionary change of the 1979 prayer book in moving toward a unitive initiatory rite. However, he wondered if that ethos has been fully received by the church even today.  On the one hand, baptisms are now typically done in the principle liturgy, chrism is often used, and the Baptismal Covenant has become central to Episcopal thought. On the other hand, though, confirmation remains a rite with a confused theology, and adult baptisms are rare. Some criticisms of the initiation rite in the 1979 prayer book involve the position of the Baptismal Covenant in relation to the bath, the view that baptism should be a full initiation, and the idea that confirmation is a “mature public affirmation” of faith. Dr. Turrell provided three questions for future consideration. First, is baptism just partial initiation after all? Second, is baptism something that follows initiation in the case of communion to the unbaptized? Finally, what implications for confirmation would baptism as full initiation have?

The third presentation featured the proper liturgies of Ash Wednesday, Palm/Passion Sunday, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and the Easter Vigil by The Rev. Dr. James Farwell. He began by noting how well these liturgies have been received by the Episcopal Church. They have provided opportunities for deepening the catechumenate and for inter-parochial cooperation. Nonetheless, they do raise some important questions. For example, are they scalable such that small, medium and large parishes can use the same rites? Is more ceremonial guidance needed considering the intricacy of these liturgies? Also, how do these liturgies address issues such as anti-Semitism, inclusive/expansive language, creation, and sacral violence? After raising issues with each of the liturgies, he then concluded by recognizing that the Church no longer operates in a Christianized society and is undergoing an identity crisis as it seeks to adapt to this new environment.

For the fourth presentation, The Rev. Dr. Ruth Meyers discussed the pastoral offices. Beginning with the marriage rite, she reminded the conference that the Episcopal Church extends beyond the boundaries of the United States, and thus the recent legalization of same-sex marriage in the U.S. does not apply to every Episcopalian. She discussed the supplemental rite “The Witnessing and Blessing of a Marriage,” noting that in her experience it has been received enthusiastically by many heterosexual couples, while same-sex couples often wish to use the BCP rite. Moving to the Rite of a Thanksgiving of the Birth or Adoption of a Child, she noted that it does not appear to be used often in most parochial contexts. Regarding the Burial of the Dead, she raised questions about staged liturgies, the presence of the body, interring ashes versus scattering them, and the burial of a child. For the Rites Ministration of the Sick and at the Time of Death, she wondered if the church’s rites need to be expanded to address issues ranging from terrorist attacks to neonatal deaths. Finally, she discussed confirmation, acknowledging that it is a rite of reaffirmation and not initiation and wondering if additional rites to address different scenarios, as well as repeatable rites, would be more helpful.

The first day of the conference concluded with The Rev. Marcus Halley speaking on “Thoughts from the Parish.” He began by posing the question, “How can poetry invite us to excavate the depths of our tradition to provide more transforming and expansive scaffolding to support our journey to and with God?” He reflected on how poetry extends language beyond the flat and prosaic.  He suggested that the church’s tradition includes the prayer book but extends beyond it as well. He suggested that striving to be inclusive is not enough. The church needs to be transformative.  Finally, he recalled that the prayer book is a scaffolding for liturgy, not its entirety.  He then posed four possible answers to his initial question including the utter insufficiency of language to express the depths of God, the revelation of God in the incarnation, the impermanence of ritual words and actions, and the iconicity of liturgy as it points beyond itself.

The second day of the conference involved only a morning session and began with Dr. Gail Ramshaw’s presentation on liturgical language. She began with the suggestion that liturgical language can fill one of two needs: to comfort people in the tradition or to motivate people toward action.  She posed the question, “Is Rite I a comfort in tradition, EOW motivation to action, and Rite II a nod to both?” She suggested that consistently choosing against revision could seem to be a choice in favor of comfort in tradition. She then proposed that liturgical language should be loaded with metaphors from the Psalms because they are non-creedal, multivalent, and doxological. She continued affirming that because language changes, the language of the liturgy must also change, noting that many Christians continue to use grammatical gender as a fundamental marker of identity. She then encouraged the use of doublets in liturgical language as a means of expressing the complexities of language.  Finally, she urged the Episcopal Church to pursue prayer book revision.

The final presentation of the conference was “Future Hopes and Anticipation” by The Rev. Dr. Stephen Shaver.  He had conducted a research project in which he gathered the responses of twenty-five Millenials that form a wide range of racial, ethnic, gender, and sexual diversities who are active in the church. From these responses and his own experience, he offered several concluding thoughts from the perspective of a Millenial/GenXer.  First, he articulated that the current prayer book has never been “new” for him as he grew up with it. He believed that prayer book revision would need to happen soon but did not feel it needed to be a radical revision. He did feel that the issue of expansive language was paramount and must be addressed in the next revision. He also urged that translations of the prayer book be done by native speakers. He concluded by emphasizing the need for a process that emphasizes both technology and full participation.

The Reverend Shawn Strout is a PhD candidate at The Catholic University of America in Liturgical Studies/Sacramental Theology.  He is working on his dissertation, researching the topic of the history and theology of the offertory rite in Anglicanism.  In Spring 2017, he began as a Teaching Fellow at CUA.  He also works as the Associate Dean for Academic Affairs and adjunct faculty for The Stevenson School for Ministry.  Rev. Strout is a 2012 graduate of Virginia Theological Seminary with a Masters in Divinity.  He also holds a Master of Arts in Professional Counseling, a Master of Arts in Human Resources Development and a Bachelor of Arts in Bible.  He was ordained as a deacon in the Episcopal Church in June 2012 and as a priest in January 2013.  He currently serves as the Assistant Priest at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Washington, DC.  In his spare time, Fr. Shawn loves to read, watch sci-fi movies and television shows, travel and take his two border collies on long walks in the woods.