The real question with prayer book revision is “how much will the latte’s in the narthex cost when the evangelical hipsters salivating over your nifty old building move in?” The Living Church has been writing a very nice series of well-reasoned articles on the Episcopal Church’s move to revise the 1979 Book of Common Prayer. This is my snarky contribution to the cause. There are many reasons to stop prayer book revision. Here is one I haven’t seen: It would be nice to keep some of our beautiful buildings for our own use.
If there is one thing we Episcopalians are good at it is building beautiful churches…tasteful churches…lovely churches. Some of them even still have enough people in them to stay open. Prayer book revision will end that for several thousand of our 6500 remaining parishes and missions.
Consider the following data: the median average Sunday attendance in the Episcopal Church is now 58 people per church per Sunday. To most Christians, Fifty-eight people doesn’t sound as much like a church as the neighborhood small group they are a part of. Half of our Churches no longer have full-time clergy. In 2015, the most recent year data is available for, we were down yet another 20,000 to 579,000 in average Sunday attendance. An old priest once told me, “Prayer book revision is great. But no matter how good a new prayer book is, 100,000 Episcopalians leave every time Anglicans revise a prayer book.” Does anyone really think we have another 100,000 of us to peel off?
Non-Anglican readers may wonder what the fuss is about. This is a big deal because for Anglican/Episcopalians, our prayers express our theology. We are together, not on a doctrinal statements (like evangelicals) or behind a teaching magisterium (like Catholics), but on praying the same words. This makes prayer book revision Anglicanism’s third rail.
Grabbing a third rail might seem to you to be an ill-advised thing to do. But for some reason Episcopalians seem not be able to avoid the feeling of power it brings. Why is prayer book revision such a bad idea? First, it is insider baseball. It takes even its staunchest advocates off of mission and distracts us with futzing over words. Second, Rewriting prayers always has the effect of rewriting our theology. That always leaves a significant group disgruntled and disenfranchised. That is why revision has historically resulted in schism and defections. If there has ever been a time in our collective life that we have needed to let things breathe after the sea changes in our church over the last decade, now is that time. I am not trying to throw gasoline, but here is the painful truth: prayer book revision is how old men (and women) institutionalize their schisms…why do you think the ACNA’s Bob Duncan was so hot that the departing churches have their own prayer book before he retired!
If you think the last decade in which we lost 24% of our attendance was bad, we have not yet begun to see the emptying of our parishes that will happen if a version of the prayerbook our standing committee on liturgy and music is telegraphing they want for our future. It takes three General Conventions to pass a new prayer book. That means we have a decade for them to warm us up to the idea. But the clock is ticking…
When this decade runs out and the new prayerbooks are delivered will the result be what the revisionists hope, a heady new era of growth? Or was my old priest friend right, prayer book revision will be the mine that finishes sinking our Episcopal Church, a boat that has been taking on the waters of numerical decline for more than a decade? We shall see.
If there is a silver lining it is that perhaps other churches will be blessed by our self-destructive inability to keep our hands off of the high voltage. That is where our hipster evangelical friends come in. While the suburban megachurch struggles along side of us, there are hipster churches melding our sense of place with a robust proclamation of the Gospel, social action, and even a desire to meld historic liturgy with culturally relevant forms. Ancient words and symbols and cultural accessibility. It sounds like what our best churches in the last generation were doing.
One hundred thousand people equals only about 15 people per church. Unfortunately, the ones who leave our churches in our slide from orthodoxy tend to also be the ones who tithe, so the 17% probably represents twice that percentage of your budget.
Which is another way of saying, “Would you like that in tall, grande or venti?”