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?”