The Once and Future Prayer Book Consultation – Part 1

On June 1-2, 2017, the Center for Liturgy and Music hosted a conference at The Virginia Theological Seminary entitled “The Once and Future Prayer Book.” This conference was co-hosted with Sewanee Theological Seminary, host of the Part II which was held on October 9-10, 2017. The Rt. Rev. J. Neil Alexander, Dean of the School of Theology at Sewanee, and Ellen Johnston, Director of the Center for Liturgy and Music, co-organized this conference. In his opening remarks, Dean Alexander described the genesis for the conference.  He, Ellen Johnston, and Dr. James Farwell, Professor of Theology and Liturgy at VTS, recognized a need for a gathering of liturgical scholars to discuss issues surrounding the possibility of prayer book revision. Resolution A169 of the 2015 General Convention directed the 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.” While prayer book revision is an important endeavor which must engage the entire church, it will also benefit from the gifts that liturgical scholars bring to it. Thus, the idea for the conference was born.

The first plenary address was given by the Most Reverend Frank Griswold.  He opened his address by stating his belief that through his experience as a baptized member, a priest, a bishop and eventually a former presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church has led him to believe that the Church is not yet ready for prayer book revision.  He does not believe that the ethos, particularly the strong emphasis on baptismal ecclesiology, of the 1979 Book of Common Prayer has yet permeated the Church. After discussing the history of prayer book revision in the Episcopal Church, he concluded with his concern that the practice of communion without baptism has overshadowed the baptismal ecclesiology of the 1979 BCP.

The Rev. Dr. Lizette Larson-Miller gave the second plenary address in which she discussed the general differences ecclesially and culturally between the contexts of the 1979 BCP revision process and now.  First, she recognized a significant drop in church attendance, the schisms between the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Church of North America, and the drop of ordinands attending seminary as having an important impact on the Episcopal Church. In addition, many new voices including women, Latino/a, and LGBT folk are a much more vital part of the conversation in the Church today than in 1979. Dr. Larson-Miller has also observed a change in ritual practice as liturgy has become more about entertainment than giving glory to God, giving rise to an almost obsession with new liturgical expressions. She also noted the increase in violence in society, as well as the growth of religious pluralism.  Then, she gave three specific examples of issues she feels have had a direct impact on the ecclesial and cultural contexts of the Church today:  First, the decline in energy for ecumenical relationships in preference for an increase in interreligious dialogue. Second, the tendency among Anglicans and other post-Reformation Christian groups to see the liturgy as pedagogical rather than doxological. Finally, the habitus of human ritual and divine initiative.

The second half of the day one of the conference offered a panel discussion with ecumenical partners discussing recent liturgical revisions to the Roman Missal, Evangelical Lutheran Worship, and Common Worship for the Church of England. The Rev. John Baldovin, S.J. began with a short presentation on the Roman Catholic Church’s own issues with liturgical reform vis a vis translation.  He outlined the challenges that the International Commission on English in the Liturgy faced as it sought to provide a translation based on the principles of dynamic equivalence as outlined in the Vatican document Comme le prévoit. Those principles were suddenly changed with the promulgation of Liturgiam authenticam, which emphasized a more literal translation.

Then, the Rev. Martin Seltz discussed liturgical revision in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.  In their process of liturgical renewal, he recognized four important components: consultations, editorial teams, review, and proposal. These components led to seven features highlighted in their latest liturgical revision of Evangelical Lutheran Worship.  First, the worship patterns are transparent, often being printed as bold headings in ELW.  The rubrics were softened from more directive rubrics to more descriptive rubrics, e.g. from “stand” to “The assembly stands.” Liturgical choices expanded significantly as the Eucharistic Prayers increased from four to eleven with five thanksgivings at the font and ten service music settings. Their revisions continued their focus on the importance of baptism. Greater efforts were made to accommodate the theological and liturgical diversity of ELCA. Language revisions attempted to balance ecumenical convergence with expansive language. Finally, there was an emphasis on the missional character of the liturgy.

Finally, the Rev. Dr. Bryan Spinks discussed his work on the Liturgical Commission of the Church of England from 1988 to 2000 during the formation of Common Worship. This liturgical revision was quite extensive as it sought to update the Alternative Service Book, which had been primarily in use. (The 1662 BCP remains the only authorized prayer book of the Church of England.  These alternatives are additional liturgical resources.) The scope of Common Worship’s revision was extensive including the liturgical calendar, baptism, the Eucharistic Prayers, marriage, etc. The final product of Common Worship was not a single book but rather a library of books providing multiple options for use.

The second day of the conference involved three panel discussions.  The first panel discussion focused on the contextual conditions of language and culture needed for revision.  The Rev. Dr. Juan Oliver began by discussing the importance of recognizing “the other” in liturgical revision.  He suggested that much previous liturgical revision has been dominated by an Anglo cultural bias. He advocated for utilizing true principles of liturgical inculturation rather than simply “dressing up” the liturgy with cultural accouterment.  However, a real commitment to liturgical inculturation requires time and resources as it must come from the ground up.

The Rev. Anthony Guillen, Missioner for Hispanic Ministries and Director of Ethnic Ministries for the Episcopal Church, spoke particularly of the challenges involved in translation work.  He suggested that the current translation of the prayer book into Spanish is problematic. He suggested that the differing cultures among Latinos/as must be taken into consideration when translating the prayer book.  He also advocated for native speakers with knowledge of both cultures to be involved in the process.

The second panel discussion involved the contextual conditions of aesthetics, music, and language needed for revision. Mr. Terry Eason, a leading church architect, who has worked with numerous churches along the east coast and Texas, gave the first presentation.  He discussed several topics as related to architecture.  First, he recognized that Episcopalians have been very slow to alter their spaces to accommodate a more robust baptismal theology. In addition, he recognized the need for a prominent place for the proclamation of the Word, which may not necessarily be two separate spaces. He also discussed the interchangeability of Holy Altar and Holy Table and the need for appropriate space to preside. Musical leadership and acoustics play an important role in how the architecture impacts the liturgy. He encouraged having a special place for the Daily Office beside the Nave and the use of side chapels for more intimate gatherings. Finally, the arrangement of the room can have a profound impact on the liturgy.

Ms. Marilyn Haskel, a lifelong church musician and presently on staff at Trinity Wall Street, discussed prayer book revision and music.  She recognized that the prayer book has very few directives for music, leaving church musicians with little guidance.  Even though the House of Bishops has called for greater discussion on theological principles for music, these discussions have not yet taken place. Ms. Haskel reminded the conference that the Psalter is meant to be chanted and that any revision of it should take that into account.  She also hoped that greater attention would be given to the next phase of American idiom rather than English style so predominant in Anglican hymnody. Finally, she called for greater resources to help train liturgical musicians for the ministry in the Church.

Finally, the Rev. Martin Seltz spoke again, focusing this time on three areas of consultation in the ELCA revision process. The first area involved language. The Lutheran World Federation’s Nairobi Statement recognized that worship is transcultural, crosscultural, contextual, and at times countercultural. The music consultation recognized that music is important for liturgy because it involves the whole person and the whole community.  Finally, the worship space consultation referenced the need for aesthetics in liturgical space.

The final panel for the conference gathered together four ecumenical partners. The Rev. David Gambrell spoke about the process of liturgical revision in the Presbyterian Church, USA. The Rev. Dr. Karen Westerfield Tucker informed the conference that the United Methodist Church is on the cusp of forming a committee to revise its Book of Worship and Hymnal. The Rev. Martin Seltz reiterated his gratitude for being a part of the conference and his inspiration for the strong ecumenical ties that continued to be forged.  Finally, the Rev. John Baldovin emphasized that liturgical revision must not forget the utter centrality of the paschal mystery of Christ in the liturgy.

This summary of the plenary speakers and panels that comprised this conference does not do justice to the energy, enthusiasm, and effort put into making this conference a success.  All attendees recognized the hard work that Ellen Johnston, Neil Alexander, and Jim Farwell accomplished in orchestrating this conference.  Dean Alexander reminded the attendees that the second part of the conference would occur at Sewanee on October 9-10, 2017.  This next portion of the conference would emphasize individual rites and discuss both the gifts and challenges with them.

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.