Wednesday, December 12, 2018

Prayer Book revision and General Convention


Shortly after the Episcopal Church’s triennial General Convention (GC) adjourned this past summer, an Ethical Musings’ reader sent me this opinion on the move by GC to initiate a process to revise the Book of Common Prayer:

The TFLPBR (Task Force for Liturgy and Prayer Book Revision) reminds me of the Task Force to Reimagine the Episcopal Church (TREC), which laid an egg and deservedly faded from sight. TFLPBR will take forever to get organized and the debate over its work will be endless. Even if you and I live long lives, there’s a significantly probability that 1979 will remain the official book when we will have passed on. Meanwhile, public worship in TEC is being balkanized across diocesan boundaries (and perhaps within individual dioceses) by experimentation, supplemental liturgies, etc. One has to ask whether GC and the other decision-making apparatus of TEC are utterly dysfunctional.

So far, the reader’s predictions seem on target.

Furthermore, congregations increasingly rely on having their full liturgy, sometimes with hymns, in a leaflet given to each attendee. Some congregations use the same leaflet for a season (e.g., Advent or Lent) while others print a new leaflet for each service. In a small but growing minority of places, the leaflet is available electronically on worshippers’ smartphones or tablets.

More importantly, the Episcopal Church continues to shrink. Membership and average Sunday attendance (ASA) are both declining. The percentage of Episcopal Congregations with an ASA of 100 or less has increased from 71% to 72%. Prayer Book revision will not reverse those trends.

We are a Church that prays together rather than believes together. The move away from a common liturgy, however, seems impossible to stop in an era of electronic resources and congregations increasingly utilizing a leaflet with the worship liturgy in lieu of direct dependence on the Book of Common Prayer. Ostrich like behavior that attempts to ignore the reality of widespread practices and growing reliance on electronic rather than printed resources is not helpful.

Eliminating printed leaflets and electronically available liturgies, forcing people to return to juggling the Prayer Book, hymnal(s), Scripture insert (or Bible), and a leaflet is at best ill-advised if not impossible. Over half of today’s Episcopalians are not cradle Episcopalians. Expecting worshippers to engage in a juggling act is off-putting for visitors and counterproductive in reversing years of declining attendance and membership. For better or worse, locally printed leaflets electronically available liturgies inherently invite local adaptations, authorized or otherwise.

The problem of proliferating liturgies and locally adapted or developed resources is observable in many Anglican Communion provinces including both Canterbury and York.

Instead of engaging in a futile rearguard action to recapture what once was, the TFLPBR should begin a conversation about to preserve our tradition of common prayer in the twenty-first century. I’ve yet to see any constructive suggestions to move the Episcopal Church or Anglican Communion in that direction. The longer we collectively postpone that conversation, the greater the chance that whatever solutions are identified will be too little, too late, and our valued tradition of common prayer will be lost.

Wednesday, December 5, 2018

Advent Preparations that Can Transform Your Life


In 1942, a group of football fans who were U.S. military personnel stationed in Newfoundland took a day of liberty and went fishing off the coast. As they fished, they listened to a radio broadcast of the annual Army/Navy game. Suddenly, they heard a cannon shot and turned to see a German submarine only a few hundred yards away. A German officer and several armed sailors boarded the fishing boat. The officer accused them of searching for subs and angrily declared that the Germans were going to sink the boat. Things had reached a pretty tight impasse when unexpectedly, from the radio, came the excited voice of a sports announcer: "The moment has come! The Navy is taking to the air. The Navy receivers are coming out." That was all the Germans heard. Mistaking a sports broadcast for a Navy transmission, they scurried off the fishing boat, quickly returned to their sub, and submerged.

That delightful story is almost certainly apocryphal. A submarine’s best protection is remaining undetected. If the Germans had really thought that the fishing boat was an anti-submarine picket boat, they probably would have sunk it without boarding. My brief internet search uncovered no source, credible or otherwise, for this unattributed story that I first saw in a print publication some years ago.

Today is the first day of Advent, one of the four Sundays in Advent, and the first day of the new church year. For centuries, Advent was a penitential season of preparation. People confessed their sins to prepare for the annual celebration of Jesus’ birth and to make themselves ready for his glorious and imminent return. Confession, accompanied by genuine remorse for one’s offenses and the repentance of turning away from sin is one path to spiritual transformation. In this parish and in many places, penitential preparation makes little sense because few if any of us commit terrible, life-defining sins.

Instead of perpetuating the charade of a penitential Advent or proclaiming “fake news” about when or how the end of the world might occur – hopes now most often linked to wildfires, earthquakes, and flooding, Advent’s emphasis is shifting to preparation in a more general sense. Hence, we use the color blue, the color associated with the House of David, instead of purple.

Today’s gospel identifies three problems – worries about this life, drunkenness, and dissipation – that may inhibit our ability to discern God’s activity in the world and God’s presence in our lives. Addressing each problem constitutes a practical step for both clearing your spiritual vision and transforming your life. The gospel, like the rest of the Bible, is not merely a collection of charming, apocryphal stories but a compilation of insightful life changing wisdom, variously offered in story, direct teachings, or other literary forms.

“Worries about life” connotes stress. For too many of us, the holidays bring excess stress. The best way to manage stress is to avoid it. Develop the power to say “no” and to maintain good boundaries. Illustratively, set firm dollar limits on gift giving. Limit your commitment of time and money to work, church, and non-profits. Jesus instructed his disciples to love their neighbors AS they love themselves. Jesus knew that love for others begins with self-love and self-care. A physically exhausted, emotionally depleted, spiritually empty person cannot give the most precious gift of all – the gift of love incarnated in self – to spouse or partner, children, parents, or anyone else.

If drunkenness – a word connoting self-medication, addiction, or any other form of escapism – is a problem, reach out to a member of the clergy, attend a twelve-step group that meets here or somewhere else, or contact your physician or another health care provider. Nobody has to be alone. You can defeat your demon or demons. Trustworthy, competent help is available. Part of God’s message to us in our annual celebration of Jesus’ nativity is that God loves each and every person, regardless of identity, thoughts, feelings or past actions. Nothing, absolutely nothing, can distance you from God’s loving presence.

If dissipation – an overwhelming preoccupation with material pleasures and possessions – is a problem, seize the opportunity to take a step or two away from it this Advent. For example, prioritize caring for creation over more traditional forms of celebrating Christmas. You probably saw news reports about a dead whale in Indonesia where an autopsy discovered over one thousand pieces of plastic in the whale’s stomach. Images of the pile of plastic in the whale’s stomach are indelibly etched in my mind. Use less plastic by reusing plastic containers, refusing plastic straws and plastic bags in restaurants and stores, and recycling whenever possible. Send ecards instead of paper cards. Replace wrapping papers with reusable gift bags. Turn off lights in empty rooms.

A grass roots Christian organization, Advent Conspiracy, promotes Advent as a time to worship fully, spend less, give more, and love all.[1] Those goals, incidentally, closely align with the marks of growing congregations: attention to call, spirituality, community, and openness to change. This Advent, having put aside worries about this life, drunkenness and dissipation, may our waiting and watching be blessed with seeing and hearing the signs of God at work in our midst. Amen.

Sermon preached First Sunday of Advent, December 2, 2018,
at the Parish of St. Clement, Honolulu, HI



[1] Advent Conspiracy website, https://adventconspiracy.org/, accessed November 29, 2018.