Prayer Book Revision: Dancing on the third rail

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Guest Blogger: Chicken Little, Doomsday Forecaster

Chicken Little

On the way into our 78th General Convention my word to my nervous brethren was, “Worry not. Outside of choosing new leaders, national meetings are irrelevant to the day to day operations of our hen houses.” General Convention is now behind us and I want to cluck a little…

First, I think we did very well in our choice of a new presiding bishop, the Right Reverend Michael Curry of North Carolina. He is a Jesus guy, will represent the Episcopal Church positively in public, and is an inspirational preacher. Unfortunately, my conjecture of Bp. Curry’s election was probably the only thing I was right about. In retrospect, this convention has the potential to leave no Episcopal church unscathed. Before General Convention (was that really only two weeks ago), I described a pothole (marriage canons) and a third rail (prayerbook revision). My belief was that we would dodge the pothole and, as long as we avoided touching that rail, all would be fine. Unfortunately, our bishops and deputies did not just run us through the pothole and touch that third rail, they danced on it…and, perhaps, set a timer ticking on a hastened demise for the Episcopal Church.

What is this hyperbolic high voltage rail and ticking time bomb to which I refer? Its official name is Plan for Revising the Book of Common Prayer. “Rest easy,” you will be told. “Prayerbook revision is a long, slow process.” In fact, it will take so long that its’ rhythmic background patter may lull you to sleep. But don’t think that tick-tock is harmless. Legislative item A 169, “Establish a Process for the Revision of the Book of common Prayer 1979,” sounds innocuous, but you should know that, “Preparing a plan for comprehensive revision” is code for “we will have a new prayer book in nine years unless we can figure out a way to do it sooner.

The insider speak promoting the revision is in code as well. Let me translate:

Bishop Thomas Breidenthal of Southern Ohio, who is on the committee responsible for the revision, told the House of Bishops, “the resolution commits us to a theological, liturgical and ecclesiological conversation. I hope we can move forward with boldness to say we are ready.” Translation: We are going to talk about a lot of stuff not heretofore considered “Christian.”

The Rev. Ruth Meyers, chair of the committee, told the House of Deputies, “It’s become increasingly apparent that the 1979 prayer book is a product of its time…it’s time for us to take stock of our church and context in this century.”

Translation: “We want a prayerbook with marriage liturgies that work with same-sex couples, a new pledge in Baptism that Christians care for creation, a wholesale change in wording to reflect the growing universalist bent in our church, and the stripping of gendered language from our liturgies.

For the uninitiated, the idea of “non-gendered language” is to purge our liturgies of “problematic” words like, “Lord,” and “Kingdom.” Also on the cutting room floor are “patriarchal” words for God, like “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.” In their place we shall have “non-discriminatory” ones like, “God, Child, and Spirit.” Wrap your mind around the implications of that for a moment – a non-gendered God…except that the Holy Spirit is nearly always referred to as “she” by this group. Apparently the alternative to the biblical mode of speaking of God will be to jettison male deity references and substitute a female one. Are we about to become goddess worshippers?

I would like to say that I trust the motives and gracious impulse of those driving this. I believe they have a genuine desire to welcome and serve other more marginalized poultry-the ones not in the hen house. I have serious theological concerns about the way they want to accomplish these goals though. It is above our pay grade to change those words in the prayerbook that are the scriptures reorganized for public worship – when it is quoting the revealed words of scripture and the doctrines of the Christian tradition we cross a line. We are not our LDS convention hosts, no matter how welcoming they were in Salt Lake City. We do not receive, as our bishops said repeatedly, “new revelation from God.” And to think that new revelation comes by means of popularity contest in the form of “yeah” or “nay” vote is the epitome of progressive-modernist arrogance. We have an impeccable understanding of parliamentary procedure but need a refresher in systematic theology.

The convention seems to have gotten caught up in a collective euphoria over the Supreme Court’s Obergefell decision – the convention broke out in dancing at the announcement, and they danced their way to prayerbook revision. I was assuming our flocks would be protected from this ecstasy by our ordinarily circumspect house of bishops. Sadly, I was wrong.

Each of these changes appears to represent a break with scripture and the tradition. What is certain is that we have, as a denomination, moved from “providing generous pastoral response”  and “accommodation” for same-sex couples, to the endorsement of same-sex marriage – a change from the stated end-game of the last two general conventions. “There is no slippery slope here, but let me distract you from looking too closely while I pull a revisionist rabbit out of my hat.” And while grousing over sexuality is the sour grapes of the group that just got played, sex is about to become the least of our worries. Our church has set the groundwork to move far past sexuality – Univeralism and the gender reassignment of God. We are now talking about wholesale theological alterations that affect the creedal foundations of our faith.

Which can only mean one thing-the sky is falling!

For non-Anglican readers, prayerbooks are important to Anglicans because our prayers express our theology. Prayerbook revision has long been Anglicanism’s third rail. It takes us off of mission and distracts us with futzing over words. In the end, prayerbook revisions always leave a disgruntled group. That is why revision has historically resulted in schism and defections.

But if we 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 like will happen IF a version of the prayerbook this group is telegraphing that they want to give us is mandated for usage. We have a decade for them to warm us up to the idea, though. The timer has begun. The clock is ticking…

When our decade runs out and the new prayerbooks are delivered will the result be what the revisionists hope, a “Times Square” moment – a giant ball dropping on a heady new era?

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Or will it be the detonation of 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?
UnknownWe shall see. But if we continue to grab this track, the smell of electrocuted flesh in our nostrils will be our own. 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.

Chicken Little really hopes he is wrong.

And Chicken Little implores orthodox Episcopalians to scratch and cluck a bit before it is too late, especially orthodox Lesbian and Gay Episcopalians. Don’t sell your soul for a bowl of same-sex marriage rite inclusion pottage in the prayerbook. Are universalism and a new deity really what you signed up for? Many of you have told me that you joined this church because it was an orthodox expression of the Great Tradition. Will that still be true when the clock strikes?

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9 thoughts on “Prayer Book Revision: Dancing on the third rail

  1. Regarding the new Presiding Bishop (2nd paragraph), you mentioned he is a “Jesus guy”. Could you explain what that means? I watched a little bit of an interview with him but I stopped watching because it was boring and sounded like “same-old, same-old” “we gotta take the church the the people” stuff. Plus, he was praising the previous presiding bishop who was known for micromanaging and attacking conservative churches and bishops. Thanks for your article.

    • Hi Heather, every time I have heard Bishop Curry preach or talked to those who know him they speak of his genuine love for the Lord. +Katherine has been quite aggressive and antagonistic to departing churches and diocese. I know nothing of his relationship with the outgoing PB, but decorum is to thank someone for their service and magnify their accomplishments at the conclusion of their service. We would hope our successors would do the same for us. 🙂

  2. I admire your courage. Truth telling and promise keeping are not in vogue at the moment but being held blameless for sinful lives and making the weak argument stronger, or sophistry, certainly are. For the latter, they put Socrates to death, that and corrupting the youth. We have much in common with that kangaroo court that wanted to silence one of the first great truth tellers in human history.
    Another name comes to mind. The greatest of Truth tellers and the fulfillment of promises made, You speak of Universalism, that non-religion, that sits well on the laps of the self satisfied. Throw in a helpful dose of syncretism and I think you have the very few paints needed to color what used to be a great American tradition, borrowed from those that gave us our political legs and founded our former sense of justice from Magna Carta through Black’s and common law, most recently degraded into a winner takes all confab of the very few (ariston for you Greek readers) driven by neither tradition nor precedent but by the wishes of the other few posing as the many (‘oi polloi, Greek again). That our Church has fallen into this pit is beyond deplorable and there is little hope that we will be sold into some foreign land and rise through prophecy back into freedom. There seem only coats of two colors these days.
    There are, by my very unreliable and unscientific count, about a fourth of us that remain traditional, or Anglo-Catholics. More’s the pity because by leaving we have no voice at the table we offer no counter balance to the weight of the many led by the elitist few, those that are and have been uncomfortable accepting that they , like us, are wicked, sinful and in need of divine redemption and have already chopped out that languge from Rite II.. No longer can I proudly say to those that do not know my church that we sit on the three leggéd stool of Scripture, Tradition and Reason. We seem to have traded all three for the pottage you speak of that feeds for a day and starves for eternity.
    There are among us, a few like N.T. Wright and others I have left behind in England those that have some notion as to why we assemble, why we call ourselves the Anglican Communion and who strive to argue ‘rationally’ for the maintenance of tradition and scripture in lieu of pot luck dinners and social services. If you are so inclined to the latter then support one of the many ‘programs’ and leave us to bend our knees to one whose Kingdom is founded on Justice and a Peace that goes beyond human understanding.
    We have made some strides over the last fifty years. Women are in full ministerial service to our Lord as it was in the earliest of church history ,and clarity of language that kept some at arms length. Cranmer’s hope, however was never for this. The babe of Bethlehem was never intended to be tossed out with the dirty water.
    I have, as a resort, the ACNA or some such twist on schism but I am loathe to go there. I can, with great effort find an Episcopal diocese. led by a hold-out Bishop that protects our heritage and I have my own copy of the BCP, all of them. The 1928 serves me well and is close to the BCP used in Anglo-Catholic parishes in England and a live-in priest with whom I can pray and receive the Sacrament. In most regard,s we have already moved much too far and you can see where that has led us. What have we to be proud of over these last nine years? What do we still hold in ‘common’ in the prayer book we call the Book of Common Prayer? And what will be left to draw those that seek living water from a well gone dry?

    Lord, have mercy.

  3. Hi,
    I supported the inclusion of lgbt and the right to marry. However, the changing of the prayerbook is going too far. I (a gay man) want to stand before the altar and hear the immortal words: “Dearly Beloved, we are gathered here is the presence of God and the sight of this company to join these two in the bonds of Holy Matrimony.”

    Anything else is not what I fought for….

      • Ok then..I will say marriage instead. I still don’t like the idea of changing the wording….I want the traditional service. I dislike the idea of having to rememorize the passages that have defined the walk of faith.

  4. Well said.
    TEC has long ago decided that, when push comes to shove, it prefers to “keep up” with the culture rather than “keep faithful” to scripture and tradition. Like it or not, same sex marriage is just one part of that decision. It can not be justified by tradition and its scriptural justification is, at best, dubious. Now, unencumbered by the two, they are well on the road to becoming more like a other progressive quasi-Christian denominations (Unitarian Universalists, et al) than they are to the tradition they have left.
    As far as schism, (Ronald) the numbers show that TEC is well in the minority with it’s theological “progress.” If schism is determined by theology and not by institutional-ism, then it is TEC, not ACNA that is schismatic.

    • Hi Father Jim,
      Christianity is a religion that has always sought to faithfully adapt to the culture of its adherents, unlike Islam, which generally tries to overwrite its’ culture on previously existing cultures. The difficulty comes when one doesn’t have a clear line of what doctrine is core and what is adiaphora. TEC has particularly struggled with this. We often appear to be the hierarchical church for those with authority problems. Last summer our House of Deputies called the Bishops the “junior house.” Our bishops have had the inability to censure one another for aberrant theology. The fact that so few of our clergy even see our current struggle with anthropology as a theological issue rather than merely a political one is an indication of how at one with our culture we are currently. It is a interesting how many of current TEC issues seem guided by the same Protestant impulse as the fundamentalists the progressives jeer – the desire to re-package the faith for public consumption. It is not a far stretch to go from “the people want praise music” to “the people want a new understanding of marriage.”

      Rather than standing on numbers or slogans “the wrong side of history” I will simply maintain that to change a catholic faith without the rest of our own communion and without the rest of the body of Christ is inherently schismatic. So is leaving. Both are problems. The question now is how are two groups of sinners to relate to one another. My prayer is “that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me.” John 17:21

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