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.