Book of Common Prayer Revision Recap

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Below is the full text of the sermon I preached to my home church of St. Peter’s Episcopal in Seattle on August 12th, 2018.

This year marked my fifth time going to the General Convention of the Episcopal Church, but my first time as a visitor. After the 2015 convention in Salt Lake City I decided for a variety of reasons that I should take a step back and not put myself up for nomination as a deputy next time. Instead, I offered my service as a chaperone. Along with three other adults I took a group of four youth from our diocese to Austin, TX to see the General Convention at work. We were on pilgrimage, and I was in charge of leading everyone through the maze of legislative sessions and committee meetings that make up the governing body of the Episcopal Church. After four conventions and 12 years, I’m finally getting good at it.

We didn’t even stay for the entirety of the 11-day convention, but there are at least seven sermons worth of content that I personally witnessed. Like the day nineteen buses took over 1000 Episcopalians on a 40 minute drive to the outskirts of Austin so we could protest and pray at the local immigration detention center. There were the daily prayer services and Sunday morning public witness hosted by the Bishops Against Gun Violence. There was the passage of B012, which further expanded the availability of same-sex marriage rites in the church. And there was the equally heart-wrenching and heart-warming reintroduction of the Diocese of Cuba into the church after decades of politically-motivated and un-canonical separation. That alone was one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen at General Convention.

But I’m not going to talk about any of that right now. Because I need to talk about the most esoteric, inside-baseball, church-nerdy thing I can think of: Prayer Book Revision.

I actually told the youth before we left that if I wanted them to see what General Convention was like, I couldn’t have picked a better topic than Prayer Book Revision. It is so inward-facing and seemingly disconnected from the work we are called to do in the world, yet it is so fundamental and important to so many in the church. As one of the youth put it, “I never thought that at a church convention we’d be thinking so much about what the church is, not just what it does.”

Some history: The first Book of Common Prayer that the Episcopal Church had was the 1789 book, which went roughly unchanged for just over 100 years. The 1892 Prayer Book was a fairly conservative revision that mostly reconciled and incorporated the small changes General Convention had made in the intervening decades. It was only 36 years later that the 1928 book came out, which was a much larger revision. Fifty-one years after that we got the 1979 book, which made changes that some found too large. The size of the changes combined with the poor communication of the revision to the wider church in 1979 resulted in a denominational split, and many people left the church to form their own Anglican denomination. At my first convention in 2006 I visited a booth run by the Episcopalians for Traditional Faith, a group dedicated to convincing the church that it should go back to the 1928 prayer book. I mention all of this to give you context: in 230 years we have only changed the prayer book three times, and people are still mad about the last one. The length of a prayer book revision grudge is 39 years and counting.

So what prompted all this? There are obviously a lot of potential motivations out there, but if forced to choose just one, my answer would be same-sex marriage. It was clear to anyone at the 2012 General Convention that we were headed towards approved same-sex liturgies and changes to the marriage canons at the next convention. Which meant that heading into 2015, people were already looking towards prayer book revision, since inclusion of the gender-neutral liturgies in the Book of Common Prayer would be the ultimate culmination of marriage equality in the church.

But in the last three years, another idea has gained a lot of traction: Expansive language for God. At its core this is the idea that using exclusively male terms and pronouns for God is limiting both to our understanding of God, and the ability of individuals to connect with God. Expansive language means different things to different people. At it’s most basic level it simply means replacing masculine pronouns with neutral terms anywhere that the meaning would otherwise remain the same. We already use a number of such substitutions in our service bulletin – we’ve said them this morning. This is something afforded to us because our bishop is very open to churches adapting the standard service. It should be known that not all bishops in the Episcopal Church hold this view and they run their dioceses accordingly.

So those are the two biggest, clearest issues that people have brought up when suggesting the need for a revision of the Book of Common Prayer. However it’s important to remember that support for these issues and support for revision are not the same thing. Revision brings with it a number of other complicating factors, not the least of which is that a traditional, full prayer book revision typically takes 9-12 years and upwards of $8 million dollars.

For my part, I went into this General Convention surprisingly neutral on the subject. I saw the logic on both sides, and since I wasn’t preparing to cast a vote I was able to stay open to the arguments as they were presented. Many of the youth I was with were able to do the same. After hearing debate in both the House of Deputies and the House of Bishops, I asked everyone in our group to tell me what they thought were the best arguments for and against revision.

Arguments Against Revision:

  1. This is a huge sum of money that could be better used in other places, specifically on good works outside the church.
  2. If we’re going to do this we should do it right, and we might not be in a place financially to do so right now.
  3. This will take our energy and focus away from other issues, and do so for a long time.
  4. We’re trying to solve a problem with the wrong solution, and using revision as a way to avoid real issues within the church.
  5. Most copies of the Book of Common Prayer sit untouched in the pews, while parishioners read from bulletins. So what’s the point in a new version of a book when we don’t use most of it already?

Arguments In Favor of Revision:

  1. The current system gives bishops the authority to restrict churches from using anything outside the Book of Common Prayer, which means if we want anything new to be available to everyone, it needs to be in the prayer book, which means changing the prayer book.
  2. People who visit our churches don’t stick around because it’s clear that we what we pray isn’t consistent with what we preach. As one deputy put it: “We say one thing, but then we get up on Sunday morning and pray something else.”
  3. We hold the Book of Common Prayer up as a way to define who we are. If it never changes then we never change, and there will always be people in our pews who are forgotten and marginalized.
  4. Worship is part of how we evangelize. Nothing we do to bring people into the church will matter if the liturgy doesn’t speak to them.
  5. (And this was honestly my favorite reason for the pure simplicity of it) The 1979 revision process was started about 40 years after the 1928 book was finalized. It’s been about 40 years since 1979, so maybe it’s just time to do it again.

The resolution arguing in favor of revision passed by a clear but not overwhelming majority in the House of Deputies and went to the House of Bishops for further debate. We have a bi-cameral structure where a resolution must pass both houses with the same language for it to be adopted. By the time we were done with debate in the House of Bishops, the youth and I had heard all of these and several other arguments over and over again. And it was becoming increasingly clear that the majority of people didn’t really like either option. The revision proponents weren’t necessarily happy with the consequences and limitations of revision, they just preferred it to the status quo. The people who were against revision acknowledged something was wrong and had to be addressed, they just didn’t think revision was the way to solve the problem. It should be said that our own Bishop Greg Rickel was in this camp, feeling that innovation in our liturgy was necessary, but that full prayer book revision was the old way of doing things. We needed something new.

So that night after the debates, a group of bishops got together and they wrote something new. They drafted a new resolution that they proposed as a substitute to what the House of Deputies had passed. What’s amazing to me is that when it was presented in the House of Bishops the next day, I realized that this was exactly what both sides had been asking for. This was the elusive middle way that so many wanted but none could articulate. It was hard to articulate because it suggested we do something that we’ve never done in our 230 years: have more than one book.

You see we may have had supplemental materials like The Book of Occasional Services, Holy Women Holy Men, or any of the liturgies approved for Trial Use by General Convention, but the Book of Common Prayer has always been just that: THE Book Common Prayer. The one book. The end-all and be-all. That’s why people walked out in 1979 – because we told them they couldn’t use the 1928 anymore. It was no longer THE book.

The new resolution, put forward by the bishops and later approved by both houses, calls for the creation of a Task Force on Liturgical and Prayer Book Revision (this by the way is abbreviated as TFLPBR and I am currently taking suggestions on how to pronounce that). The task force will be made up of 10 lay, 10 clergy, and 10 bishops, to “represent the expertise, gender, age, theology, regional, and ethnic diversity of the church.” Further on in the resolution it specifies that revision should consider things like expansive language and care of God’s creation. They talk about the importance of professional, dynamic translations of the prayer book that Spanish, French, and Haitian Creole-speaking Episcopalians have been without for so many years. And there’s a paragraph about emerging technologies to address the concerns some people had over whether or not the next prayer book would really be a physical book at all.

In addition to the task force, the resolution suggests a much more collaborative revision process. It directs bishops to engage worshipping communities in the experimentation and creation of alternative texts to offer the wider church. This is meant to be a church-wide process. Instead of funneling money into a single small group and asking them to revise for everyone, we are all being called to participate. But not just in the creation of something new. We are also called to preserve what we have.

I told you that this resolution is suggesting something we’ve never done before. After the creation of the Task Force the resolution says this (and I’m going to abridge it a little bit for clarity): “Resolved, That this Convention memorialize the 1979 Book of Common Prayer as A Prayer Book of the church…ensuring its continued use; and be it further resolved, that this church continue to engage the deep Baptismal and Eucharistic theology and practice of the 1979 Prayer Book.”

You see the 1979 prayer book is not going away. We will still have it and it will be available, unchanged, to everyone. Those who love it are asked to spend this revision process exploring it further – not just going through the same eucharistic prayer every Sunday morning but really diving deep into what’s there and what it means. At the same time, we will be looking at new liturgies and alternatives. It’s not set in stone what will come of these new ideas. Another part of the resolution directs the task force to work with the Constitution and Canons Committee to look at how the constitution could be more adaptive in engaging future generations. Will there be a 2030 Prayer Book that we use in addition to the 1979? Will we create a new classification for liturgies that puts them on par with the Prayer Book, without needing to add them to a single, comprehensive volume? I don’t know. None of us do. Because this is new territory. This is, quite literally, not your grandma’s prayer book revision. In fact one of the most intriguing ideas I heard come out of this is that it opens the door for the 1928 prayer book devotees to rejoin the Episcopal Church. Because if the 1979 prayer book is merely A book of the church rather than THE book, it’s possible that the 1928 prayer book could be brought back into use along with the newer liturgies. And I can’t think of anything more Episcopal than an exciting and new revision process that is used to open the door for a hundred-year-old book.

The old joke in the Episcopal Church is that the Bible is full of great quotes from the Book of Common Prayer. Regardless of where revision takes us, we will still have scripture as our guide. And we will still have, as Bishop Greg said to me, “the bones, the skeleton” of our worship intact. The structure of our service, the way we pray and sing together, these things are unlikely to change.

Two weeks ago I was waiting for church to start and thinking about what I’d say today, and I picked up the Book of Common Prayer in the pew. And I noticed that my copy, in fact many of the copies that sit in the pews of St. Peter’s aren’t the 1979 Prayer Book. They are the 1976. Most of them have a dedication pasted on the inside of the front cover, but even without it you can see that on the page opposite the Table of Contents, the Certificate for the edition makes reference to the revision process and General Convention. A modern copy simply says that it conforms to the Standard Book, with no reference to Convention or any revision process. St. Peter’s was praying with the new book before it was even finished. I wasn’t around in 1976 so I don’t know if the parishioners at St. Peter’s had these new editions forced upon them early, or if they excitedly welcomed them with open arms. But what I do know is that every week we sit before a reminder that everything that is new will eventually become old. That we are not the same church that was formed in 1789, and that no one wishes we still were. That so long as God is our constant, everything else is, and will always be, mere trappings of the faith. That regardless of any book or bulletin or lack thereof, we will still be called to love and serve God, “with gladness and singleness of heart, through Christ of Lord.” Amen.

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General Convention Report, Day Five – The Diocese of Cuba

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by Katrina Hamilton

At the height of the Cold War in 1966, the House of Bishops removed the Diocese of Cuba from the Episcopal Church. From what I can tell, this move was entirely political and in defiance of the church’s constitution. The hope was that the church in Cuba would be picked up by a neighboring Anglican denomination, but that never came to pass. For the last 52 years, the Episcopal Church in Cuba has been what’s known as an “extraprovincial diocese.”

Today the House of Bishops addressed resolution A238. The resolution and the topic had its own devoted committee, and was a result of the church in Cuba’s direct request to be readmitted into The Episcopal Church. There was a small constitutional question, as there is no provision in the church’s constitution for the re-admittance of a diocese that has been removed. The church’s various lawyer members had argued over whether the General Convention can only take actions specifically granted to it by the constitution or whether it can take any action that’s not specifically forbidden. However it did seem to be the majority opinion that this action was constitutional, and at very least more constitutional than the act to remove them.

Many bishops spoke on the motion, every one of them with passionate support. They said how devoted the Cubans were to their faith, how welcoming they’d always been when various church partners came to visit. They spoke of the incredible devoted leadership of the bishop of Cuba, the Right Reverend Maria Griselda Delgado del Carpio. One bishop mentioned how some had suggested this might be too soon after U.S. relations with Cuba had improved, but pointed out that we don’t know what the current administration might do in the next three years, and we are right to send a statement of unity and support with people in Cuba while we have the chance.* Former Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori told us that if the whole church pitched in, the dollar amount needed to add the Cuban clergy into the Church Pension Fund was only $0.50 per person, and challenged each diocese to raise that amount so that we might provide pensions for the clergy that have been working tirelessly for years with no promise of retirement. Another bishop stood to say his diocese would commit to a dollar per member, and a third offered the same.

Bishops kept coming to the mic, one after the other, some in English and some in Spanish. The visitor’s gallery where I sat with the youth kept growing as word got out about the historic thing happening upstairs. The final bishop was a Cuban who’d been 23 at the time of the split, and he broke down in tears during his speech: “It was an unconstitutional action by a House of Bishops that had no authority to kick us out.” While the men (and they were all men at the time) who made this decision were all long gone, it was clear that the current members of the House felt the weight and guilt of the church’s past mistakes.

When the microphones were empty Presiding Bishop Michael Curry called for the vote. One of the youth I was with is Puerto Rican, and was becoming more and more invested in the issue as time went by. She turned around with her hand outstretched in nervous excitement and whispered “Someone hold my hand!” I grabbed her hand and held it tight as Bishop Curry began the vote.

“All those in favor say aye.”
“Aye.”
“All opposed?”
Silence.
“Let the minutes reflect that the motion has passed the House of Bishops unanimously.”

Cheers rang out through the whole room as we all leapt to our feet. I saw some people rush to a spot in the front of the visitor’s area and I realized that Bishop Delgado herself had been there with us the whole time. I was flooded with emotion as I realized what was going to happen next: they were going to invite her on to the floor.

In both the House of Bishops as well as the House of Deputies, no one but House members and approved admin staff are allowed on the floor. Small curtain barriers separate the area. Volunteers stand guard, checking badges and turning people away if they don’t belong. This exclusivity is especially strong with the Bishops because fewer admins are needed, and they occasionally meet in closed session where visitors are not even allowed to watch from the back. Not to mention that while any lay person can be elected as a deputy for their diocese, becoming a bishop is no small feat and a huge responsibility. It’s a very small club and one you belong to for life. The House of Bishops includes all living bishops, even if they are retired and no longer in charge of a specific diocese.

Bishop Curry told the Sergeant at Arms to escort Bishop Delgado onto the floor. It took a good minute or two for her to reach the front, where Curry gave her a huge and extended hug and she was greeted by every person on the platform. But the applause and the standing ovation never wavered. We clapped loudly, enthusiastically, the whole time. Near the end as she approached the microphone, the applause started to quiet and Bishop Curry began to sing the doxology, one of the church’s favorite ways to pray, celebrate, and unite under any circumstance. We all joined in:

Praise God from whom all blessing flow
Praise Him all creatures here below
Praise Him above ye heavenly host
Praise Father, Son and Holy Ghost.

Bishop Delgado gave a short and beautiful speech thanking everyone, especially those in her diocese who had worked so hard to make this happen. We cheered again, and a handful of bishops began to sing another hymn, this time in Spanish. I didn’t know the song, but I clapped the rhythm along with the rest of the room. I was standing next to the section for ecumenical guests where there were two bishops visiting from other denominations, and I could hear them proudly singing along.

When the song was over and as Bishop Delgado was leaving the platform, Bishop Curry went back to his microphone to make one final statement. “Bishop of Cuba, you may take your seat at table seven.” More cheers and applause rang out. She was a member, instantly, with seat, voice, and vote. She belonged. After more than 50 years, the people of Cuba were with us again.

 

*Once Bishop Delgado was seated Bishop Curry shared his gratitude with the Anglican Church of Canada for the amazing work they have done supporting the Diocese of Cuba for all these years. This includes one of my favorites church facts, which is that the Canadians have been helping the Episcopal Church in the United States give money to the Cuban church despite the financial embargo by funneling it through the Canadian church. Bishop Curry delicately referred to this as “God’s laundry.”

General Convention Report, Day 4 – Committees & the Capitol

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by Christian Knafla

Let’s start from the beginning. Today, we had two options on when to wake up. One was at 8:00AM and we were meant to leave at 7:30AM but ended up leaving at 7:45AM because we just didn’t get ready in the amount of time that we thought we could. On top of that it was raining like it does in Washington.

We eventually made it to the hearing. During the hearing, we had many people talk about what they thought should be added, taken away, or changed in the resolution. We had a few resolutions such as D093 and D097, which talked about representative planning teams and establishing an advisory council on disability & deaf access. After listening to that we got about 15 minutes to do what we wanted. When we came back together, we went to the House of Deputies and listened to B012 (Marriage Rites for the Whole Church). There was a lot of arguing that happened during both that and A193. When we finished listening to it, we went to the House of Bishops where we listened to the Prayer Book revision, which was amazing I might add, I felt like the bishops knew more about what the resolution was talking about than the deputies because there weren’t as many questions and they were more voicing their opinions. After they got done talking about which side they took, the meeting was adjourned.

We decided to go to the capitol building where we had fun standing in the center of the rotunda star and listening to ourselves echo. The only problem I had was the fact that traffic was as bad as Seattle, which says a lot. Finally we went to meet up with the youth group from Connecticut. We went out for pizza and talked for a long time. Finally we came back to the church for closing. Overall today was a good day.

General Convention Report, Day 3 – Gun Violence & the Detention Center

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by Catie Rosario-Kilmer

This morning instead of Sunday morning mass, we went to the Bishops Against Gun Violence public witness. This event called to witness the parents of one of the Parkland shooting victims. They spoke of their loss. They spoke how the loss of their daughter was the thing that finally shocked them and their community into action. The eloquence of their words moved some in the audience to tears others to anger at the situation that they were speaking about. We then had Abigail of Waco, Texas, an upcoming high school freshmen and the coordinator of the Parkland walkout at her middle school. In giving her testimony of her experience she brought with her the tradition of our youth speaking out for the advancement of the movement on gun control.

When the prayers had all been said and all testimonies witnessed we continued our service of social justice at the T. Don Hutto Detention Center. We drove up to the front of the detention center where a splinter of the entire rally – approximately 250 people – were singing and chanting in both English and Spanish. While being ushered back towards the main rally we saw pieces of paper being waved in the windows. After the event GrassrootsLeadership tweeted “A woman called from Hutto after today’s prayer and told us they were glued to the windows until the last bus left the detention center. Women inside were crying, saying they knew they weren’t alone after seeing so many people there…”.  We arrived back at the main rally in time for Bishop Curry’s sermon and the prayers of the people.

General Convention Report, Day 2 – Evangelism

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by Elijah Adrian

What is evangelism to you? Take a moment to create an image in your head. For me, I envision a passionate preacher on the street telling passersby the good news, how they live in sin and how they’re going to hell.

Before today, my only concept of evangelism was spreading one’s religion, converting people, letting them know why they’re wrong. That doesn’t work for me for several reasons, and chief among them is this: I don’t think other people are wrong for having a different religion from me. Further, I don’t want to tell people they’re wrong for leading their lives and that they should be more like me. After all, what’s so great about my life? I’m no better than any other person. I’ve spoken with several ministers who felt so strongly that people in conflicting faiths needed to be saved, and shown the “true” way. I’ve always wondered of these ministers why they feel so entitled as to believe that they know what the true way is; though I’ve never gotten a satisfactory answer.

Our joint session today featured several presenters, all sharing the ways that they have practiced evangelism in their lives. What completely changed my view of the word “evangelism” was what one presenter said. To paraphrase, ‘I guarantee that all of you have been evangelists. Every time you interact with someone, they come away changed, and you have evangelized them.’ No mention of sin, hell, forgiveness, religion, or even God. Evangelism, at its core, is nothing more than influencing another person in a positive way. Evangelism is spreading joy and love to people in our lives, and building positive experiences with anyone we meet. Evangelism is something we can all get behind, no matter what religious sect we belong to or whether we’re religious at all.

After the presentations the deputation from our diocese met with us (the youth visitors), as well as anyone else from our diocese who was visiting, to discuss how to bring what we had learned back home. The group decided that we should be more outgoing and welcoming to others who haven’t experienced church, but to allow them space to discover for themselves if they wish to stay. We also mentioned “extracurricular” activities that we might try, remembering that church isn’t just Sunday morning, but 24 / 7 / 365.

Oh, and one more thing, resolution A068, regarding major revision of the Book of Common Prayer, passed in the House of Deputies. Soon the resolution will be presented the House of Bishops, and they will debate and vote on it.

General Convention Report, Day 1 – Racial Reconciliation

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by Rachel Dennis

After arriving late last night, we attended our first sessions of General Convention today. We got to see committee meetings about several fascinating resolutions, a debate in the House of Deputies over revising the BCP (Book of Common Prayer), and a Eucharist. One of the highlights of our day was the joint session on racial reconciliation.

To begin the session, we heard from four speakers about their thoughts on how the church and we as Episcopalians should address racial differences in our lives. We then had time as a group to discuss what form the presentations stood out to us and what actions we feel called to take. Much of our conversation centered around the problem that emerges when we say that we support causes or groups but then fail to take actions that match our words. We wondered how we can help all of the huge variety of causes and groups that all need our attention and support. Members of our group pointed out that we can devote the majority of our time and energy to one cause without becoming apathetic to others. Additionally, as the body of Christ, we each have a specific role to fulfill and can trust that there will be other members to focus on what we cannot.

Central to our discussion was also the idea of loving people who disagree with us. One speaker, Dr. Meeks, declared that we ought to care the about wellness of any given person, not the color of their skin, their sexuality, or the other differences between us. Another, Arno Michaelis, discussed the idea of “practicing” love, which shapes the way we see the world and the actions we consider taking. One of the ways he suggested we do this was by forming connections with people who disagree with or are different from us. We brainstormed ways to start discussions that could help us find commonalities rather than differences with each other.

Between this conversation and the discussions we listened in on, today was a very interesting and informational day. We heard from people we both agreed and disagreed with, and became more familiar with our own opinions in the process. We’re looking forward to more opportunities to learn and get to know our fellow Episcopalians this week!

And Now for Something Completely Different

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After the 2015 General Convention in Salt Lake City I decided I needed to take a break from church governance and let other people have a turn. At the same time, I realized that some of my favorite moments from Salt Lake City were when the youth from our diocese came to visit on their pilgrimage and I got the chance to act as teacher. So I will still be attending GC this year, but this time as a chaperone. I’m traveling with four youth and three other adults, and we’ll be in Austin from July 5th through the 10th. The youth expressed interest in blogging about their experiences, so I offered this platform for that purpose (I’ll probably still write an entry or two myself).

So check back here next week for some guest writers sharing their unique experiences at one of the largest legislative bodies in the world. And if you know of a good place to get breakfast tacos in Austin, make sure to tell me in the comments!