This is part 3.5, a slight summary/continuation of our third part.
Part ONE of the series, which will served as an overview and introduction to the ideological issues at hand, can be found HERE.
Part TWO, where we talk about the concept of liturgy itself, can be found HERE.
This is part THREE of our series, which will trace the development of our Prayer Book, can be found HERE.
What I wanted to talk about here, very quickly, is a reflection on two things about our liturgical ethos as Episcopalians.
The first thing is our latitudinarian-ism. Our entire history as Anglicans in the New World has been shaped by a spirit of flexibility. Of being together despite difference. The Episcopal Church is, collectively, a low-church/high-church/conservative/traditional/progressive/liberal/evangelical/Catholic group of Christians. We are all of those things together. This was made very clear to me when I went to Austin for the 79th General Convention. And I am convinced that we get ourselves in trouble when we try to be something other than what we are.
Secondly, Prayer Book revision has always been a thing. In fact, thanks to the 1928 General Convention, it’s a sort of feature (as opposed to a bug) of being Episcopalian.
See, I used to spend a lot of time worrying about liturgical revision and arguing against it. I was part of groups who actively resisted changing the BCP, feeling that it was perfect. (I mean, I still do, but that is beside the point.) The point is that I came to those worries and fights based on the assumption that The Book of Common Prayer was a sort of finalized document and that revision only occurred when something drastic warranted it—something like new ecumenical relationships or the rediscovery of ancient resources, etc. Otherwise, we left the BCP alone and considered those who wanted to change it to be dissatisfied people on the fringe.
In other words, revising the BCP was something exceptional.
Now, it’s important to note that such a point of view is not unwarranted. The Book of Common Prayer is a thing that constitutes our collective identity as Episcopalians and it stands to reason that it play a kind of fixed role, rather than being a completely fluid thing. After all, the earliest revisions of the Prayer Book were rooted in clarity of language and various pastoral needs in terms of prayers. Those revisions were less statements of theology.
Of course, that changed with both the 1928 and 1979 Prayer Books. They became something more than a collection of what we said in church on Sundays—they became statements about the sort of Christians that we were. The 79 BCP in particular situated us within the wider current of Ancient Christian life, us claiming our place among the churches originating from the Apostolic Age (and not only, as it was, in spirit). We had come to see ourselves as “catholic” Christians.
So, there’s a certain logic at work here when one resists revising the BCP. We finally figured out who we were, our place in the Universal Church, and we had a book that reflected that reality. Why change that? Wouldn’t doing so risk changing who we are (or so the thinking might go)?
But the reality is that we are the sort of “catholic” Church that is constantly under revision.
We are not The Church of England, who maintains the same BCP from 1662 (and only recently received a new liturgy: Common Worship).
We are not the Roman Catholic Church, where our liturgies are only revised by a papal committee and handed down to us from time to time.
We are not the Orthodox churches, observing liturgies unchanged for around 1700 years.
We are also not an Evangelical Protestant church, where ritual is just an option among many. Nor are we a Congregationalist or Presbyterian church, where our liturgies are subject to either majority rule or the impulse of each individual pastor.
No, we are The Episcopal Church. And we, The Episcopal Church, have long understood that we are a national church, constituted in a liberal democracy while also holding onto established Apostolic traditions, a church that has direct connections to the church of the Apostles (thanks to our Anglican heritage) and placing us on equal footing with the Catholic and Orthodox traditions, and that we do all of this in the midst of a constant and Spirit-led push to grow and change, which reflects our own Protestant heritage.
So, our revising habits and our latitudinarian impulse go hand-in-hand. It is exactly who we are as Episcopalians. Again, this is a feature, not a bug. And once we embrace that fact, it’s a much better place for us to have discussions about our liturgies.
As I’ve said elsewhere, it’s a matter of trust. It’s also a matter of holding many things in tension, all while resisting the temptation to move toward something that we are not.
(For part FOUR, click HERE)