Please revise your prayerbook. Sincerely, the hipster church that wants your building

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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 is producing an excellent series of well-reasoned articles on the move to revise the Episcopal Church’s 1979 Book of Common Prayer. While there are many solid reasons to put the kibosh on prayer book revision, here is one I have not 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 tasteful, lovely churches. Some of them even still have enough people in them to stay open. I fear prayer book revision will end that for several thousand of our 6500 remaining parishes and missions.

Consider the following: The median average Sunday attendance in an Episcopal Church is now 58 people 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. In 2015, the most recent year data is available for, we were down yet another 20,000 in total Sunday attendance to 579,000 per week.  An old priest once told me, “No matter how good a new prayer book is 100,000 Episcopalians leave every time we revise it.” Does anyone think we have another 100,000 of us to peel off?

For the benefit of non-Anglican readers, prayer book revision is the biggest of issues because our prayers express and shape 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 seems to most folk an ill-advised behavior. Anglicans, however, seem to love 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 has the effect of rewriting our theology. That always leaves a significant group disgruntled and disenfranchised. This 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 shade, 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!

And 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 revision advocates (including some members of the Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music) are telegraphing they want for our future. What sorts of changes are being discussed? Do you like the creed? (Get over it.) Confessing your sins? (Get over that too – sin is now institutional rather than personal.) God? (You get a new one of those as well: Parent, Child, and Spirit. The only member of the Holy Trinity with a gender is the Holy Spirit who goes from neuter to feminine.) All of these will redefine the faith of episcopalians in a way that departs from Scripture, Nicaea, and all other orthodox Christian bodies on the planet. The whole point of a prayer book is that it is the Bible reorganized for public worship. That will no longer be true if the reasons bandied about and the conclusions hinted at come to pass. If we make this collective slide from orthodoxy, many will simply and quietly back down the ladder and go play in another playground.

It takes three triennial General Conventions to pass a new prayer book. The clock is now ticking…

When the nine years of sand in the hour glass runs out and the new prayerbooks are delivered will the result be what the revisionists hope, a heady new era of growth? Or is 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.

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 alongside 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 only represents about 15 people per church. Unfortunately, the ones who disappear when orthodoxy becomes unfashionable tend to also be the ones who tithe, so the 17% estimated decline probably represents double that as a percentage of your budget.

Which is another way of saying, “Would you like that in tall, grande or venti?”

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19 thoughts on “Please revise your prayerbook. Sincerely, the hipster church that wants your building

  1. Thank you for acknowledging the slide from orthodoxy. I am one of the cradle Episcopalians who left years ago after hearing one too many sermons preaching a different gospel and theology than that of Scripture / The Book of Common Prayer. I fear the ones doing the revising are the same ones that got me pondering and then asking – by staying am I in essence denying the full divinity of Christ? I know there are some orthodox folks remaining in the Episcopal church but, like you, think that if this revision goes through it will be the final nail in the coffin – Lord have mercy on all those who have erred and strayed…myself included, with the constant battle not to become like the Pharisees – help us take the logs out of our own eyes to see and hear YOUR true and lively word!

    BTW – recently found your site and haven’t had time to explore but after reading this article will definitely dig in more!

    Thank you,
    Susan

    • Hi Susan. Thank you for reading. I have been in the Episcopal church for a decade. When I came in there were a bunch of bishop’s that seemed very flakey on their Christology. The House of Bishops began self-policing and nominating a new group that tend to be theologically orthodox/social progressives. It is much easier to be hopeful today than when I joined.

  2. I thought that the whole point of prayer book revision was precisely “a desire to meld historic liturgy with culturally relevant forms. Ancient words and symbols and cultural accessibility.” Or did i miss something? i personally don’t think that revising our prayer book every 40 or 50 years is a bad time frame.

    • Hi Tom. I hope you are well.

      Good questions! Two thoughts as I sit in an airport on the way home from Gathering of Leaders: First, “relevant forms” don’t need new words. The words are our substance. The actions, instruments, and ambiance are the forms. We are talking about altering substance.

      Second, fifty years seems pretty short to those of us who self-identify as catholic in terms of both an ancient and world-wide faith. We are too close on the heels of enormous cultural and theological change to create more stress in the system. We need to let those changes breath a bit. Give folk a little room. Let the dust settle.

  3. Hi, Matt.

    As you know I’m in the free church tradition, but have observed yours as one concerned for many friends. I like to make things simple to understand them. One of my mantras is “Follow the money.” There are always those who constantly tinker and “Fix what ain’t broke” to justify their power, job security, and self-pride. They are insufferable.

    There has been so much value in your tradition. One example is J. I. Packer’s “Knowing God.” A significant door opener into another world for me. . Even as Henry VIII did his deed he still faced his own mortality and the consequences of his actions. Putting personal desires above the good of the Kingdom has frightening consequences.

    Don’t give up. I wonder about those who produce only confuse by constant tinkering. Do they “Know the Lord?” Have they simply risen above their level of competence? What good comes from suffering others gripped in Personality Disorders? In my case I learned new ways of setting limits for my self-protection. I sought out others who were spiritually healthier as my closer companions.

      • Love your way of phrasing life. You are too generous in your feedback. At the age of 86-going on-87 I find my involvement in large groups so less gratifying. I prefer being with individuals or two or three. I love sharing life stories with groups of only 10-12.

        Big box church holds no appeal to me, although I love singing with a large group. I’ve been in huge cathedrals here and in Europe and marveled at their beauty and witness to the grandeur. Yet my 66 year old Harmony of the Gospels seems to hint Jesus discovered enormous audiences highly fickle. He chose to pour himself into a small group of twelve guys for three years. Even after he was gone, they did not “lead” the church, they shared their story. It was the “laity” who made the difference. The new kid on the block, Saul of Tarsus, with his disciples passed on the faith. We all have a part in the continuing narrative, learning as we go.

        I’m not a fan of Barth of Basel, but he was closer to what we need today. Small congregations of 150-200, Simplicity, using “worship and sermon” for building foundational truth via teaching sermons. I attended a Billy Graham Crusade for a week to study and reflect on the process with others. That was then. Now is now and we need a different spirituality. Our current generation flounders, has no fixed foundation, and wants church to be like everyday life. The far away transcendent God is worthy to worship in awe, Now we are all so confused we need the ever-present imminent Father to know us, to see our tears we hide from one another, and hear us when we call.

        Thanks for opening your group to me.

  4. FWIW, the median ASA of the Episcopal Church you mentioned, 56, is only 19 people smaller than the median ASA of all churches in the United States, which is 75 (http://www.internetmonk.com/archive/michael-bell-what-is-an-average-church). That’s not great news for Christianity in the United States, but we’re not doing much worse than most other Christian denominations. And by “most other Christian denominations” I mean every denomination except the Assemblies of God and nondenominational evangelicals. Actually a 19 member deficit from the national median sounds about right considering that our core demographic of old middle class+ white people was in decline before secularism really set in. I agree with your main point wholeheartedly, but the average American church is not a megachurch. We are a nation of small churches.

    • Hi Whit. You win the award for opening an even bigger can of worms that I did! Megachurches are interesting. I was once one of those guys. Even after a decade as an Episcopalian I still get more (and better) job offers from the evangelical megachurches I criticize on my blog than the Episcopal Church I love. The number of churches over 2k on a Sunday grows every year, while the number of small churches continues to decline.

      I think we are seeing the emergence of a trend in which people, in urban areas at least, flock to the larger churches and their ability to offer more programs. The day of the little church on the corner appears to be numbered.

      We really cannot fail to count the Assemblies, evangelicals (and Seventh Day Adventists either). Even though we regularly pick up folk from them (like me), they are still growing and attracting away many of our young adults and young families with relevant programing.

  5. I was so impressed with this post that a friend had shared on a page regarding BCP revision and I was wondering who wrote it, and then I realized it was someone I knew!! Thanks, Matt– this is an excellent reason to leave the BCP alone!

  6. Yes, Matt, I too have wondered what motivates those who propose the revisions referred to in your message. Have they considered the ramifications? Do they care? What’s the agenda, rationale or the vision as some like to say. Thank you for presenting this to us, provoking us to ponder and question. I appreciate your message and enjoyed reading the interesting comments from others as well.

    • Hi Elizabeth. Those wanting to revise believe they are being missional and think it is in the best interest of the church. They have said to me things like: “it is important to be relevant to the world around us, the 1979 book was an incomplete revision that did not take us far enough in issues of being a baptismal vs eucharistic people, or in terms of gender neutral language for God, or being more universalist in God’s hospitality to all humans.” Things of that nature. They think 40 yrs is a long time between books. I think that 3 books in a century when England is still working on 1662 sounds pretty quick. Although we revised our 1789 American prayer book in 1892 and 1928, one is hard pressed to see the differences between them. One could argue that we really had one prayer book from 1789-1979, making another revision seem quite premature to my eyes.

      • Oh, thank you, Matt. Your explanation puts things into context and perspective for me. Keep on keeping on, my friend!

  7. As a millennial minister, I’d love to see us “go back” from our respective revisions. I don’t care if it’s 79, 28, 62, 49, or heck, I’d even take the Sarum rite – let’s just go back to one and let our bishops do what they do from there. But I also can’t wait to take over one of those pretty buildings when neither/none of our factions can re-anchor. All this millennial angst! Prayerful unity or architectural worship!? Who can decide! But I’m sure to be discontent either way (I’m a millennial after all). Except for Starbucks sizes – no angst over that. We don’t drink starbucks.

    • Hi Andrew. Indeed on the Starbucks! Yet another thing to appreciate Millennials for: raising the bar on drinking good coffee, ethically delivered. I did realize that Starbucks is a Gen X suburban phenomenon, but using them made for snappier text. 🙂

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