A better way to authorize liturgical texts

For the next several weeks, the SCLM will present essays describing portions of our Blue Book report and explaining the thinking that shaped our conclusions. We invite your comments and hope that our conversation here will be beneficial to the legislative committees of General Convention.

This essay explains the SCLM’s response to constitutional and canonical issue that complicate the consideration of many liturgical issues, including some that will come before this convention. As Paul Fromberg writes: “Texts that churches use every Sunday, across the breadth of the Episcopal Church, have very tenuous constitutional and canonical authorization.” The SCLM believes it is time to create a more rational process for authorizing such texts. For that reason it recommends passage of Resolutions A062 and A063.

On the surface, the work of creating beautiful, meaningful liturgy may seem to be all about the poetic. Liturgists are like poets to the degree that we attempt to give a shape, in language, to all of our inchoate experiences of God. But there are also a lot of nuts and bolts to the work of crafting liturgy, and not just rules around grammar or rhetorical structure. The SCLM has found that, at the bottom of our toolbox, one of the most powerful tools we must pay attention to are the Constitution and Canons of the Church – vessels that hold the order of the church for the sake of our shared life.

In the current triennium, we discovered that the church has been working without a canonical net. Article X of the Constitution is clear about the authorized source of our common prayer – the Prayer Book. Canon II.3 is clear about the way to authorize new texts for our use. And neither one allows the kind of latitude the church has taken for granted for generations when it comes to liturgical materials. Texts that churches use every Sunday, across the breadth of the Episcopal Church, have very tenuous constitutional and canonical authorization.

Here’s the bottom line: The Constitution and Canons are silent on whether General Convention can authorize liturgies not included in the Book of Common Prayer, short of amending Article X. Further, it doesn’t authorize a process for authorizing liturgies. However, for at least the past 40 years General Convention has authorized The Book of Occasional Services, Lesser Feasts and Fasts, Holy Women, Holy Men and Enriching Our Worship and voted to “make available” A Great Cloud of Witnesses. The General Convention also has approved liturgies that were not intended for inclusion in one of these compilations.

There are two ways of amending or making additions to the BCP. General Convention may vote to

  1. Amend the Table of Lessons and all Tables and Rubrics relating to the Psalms….
  2. Authorize for trial use…an alternative…to the established Book of Common Prayer or to any section or Officer thereof…

Beyond these two cases, there is no other constitutional or canonical provision explicitly authorizing General Convention to approve alternate forms for any of the liturgies or rites in the BCP.

There is language on page 13 of the BCP, in the section entitled “Concerning the Services of the Church,” which states, “… In addition to these services and the other rites contained in this Book, other forms set forth by authority within this Church may be used.” This may provide authorization, although that is not explicitly the intended meaning.

With all of this in mind, the SCLM decided that one of the most important things we could do for the church during the triennium would be to propose legislation that clarifies – and legalizes – the many liturgies that we already use. We also considered that the way we all make common worship, Sunday by Sunday across the church, would be strengthened by providing a path to authorize the use of additional liturgies to supplement those in the BCP. This practice is already happening in many worshipping communities.

When we recognized that most congregations of the church were operating outside of the Constitution and Canons, the only logical step we could take was to propose amendment. We did debate the precise means for making changes. Among those we considered:

  1. Add a Canon to Title II stating that all liturgies and rites authorized by General Convention are available thereafter for use throughout the Church until the authorization is revoked or modified.
  2. Amend Article X to explicitly allow General Convention to authorize other forms for the liturgies and rites contained in the BCP—in other words, such forms don’t have to be for “trial use.”
  3. If desired, retain “trial use” under Article X as an alternative in addition to (2).
  4. Add a canon to Title II explicitly allowing General Convention to authorize liturgies and rites in addition to those in the BCP (such as Book of Occasional Services, Holy Women, Holy Men, and Enriching Our Worship).
  5. Add a canon to Title II explicitly allowing General Convention to authorize use of Prayer Books of other Provinces of the Anglican Communion and those of denominations with whom we are in full communion. General Convention would specify which ones.
  6. Amend the language in Rite III to allow for use of any Eucharistic Prayers authorized by General Convention.
  7. Clarify the extent of a bishop diocesan’s authority to approve other forms for BCP liturgies, or liturgies not in the BCP somewhere other than or in addition to the language on page 13 of the BCP.
  8. Add a canon to Title II setting out the process, conditions, guidelines, etc. for local experimentation with liturgy—those included in and not included in the BCP.

We believe that it is vital, for the sake of the church’s order, to amend Article X to add the following:

Authorize for use throughout this Church, as provided by Canon, alternative and additional liturgies to supplement those provided in the Book of Common Prayer.

And likewise, to amend Canon II.3 to add Section 7:

Whenever the General Convention, pursuant to Article X(c) of the Constitution, shall authorize alternative liturgies to one or more liturgies in the Book of Common Prayer or additional liturgies to those in the Book of Common Prayer, the enabling Resolution shall specify the precise texts thereof, and the terms and conditions under which such liturgies may be used.

We consider that we’ve landed on language that is straightforward, honest, and the least likely to perpetuate disorder in the Church.

As with all things liturgical, the development of texts has to be relational; the wisdom of many is always stronger than the opinion of the few. We believe that these amendments honor this principle of shared wisdom in the ordering of our common life.

One task that is left is figuring out terms of use for these liturgies: do they go on forever or have an expiration date? And, as with so much of our life in liturgy, we will need to figure out how bishops will authorize the use of liturgies.

We welcome your comments!

10 thoughts on “A better way to authorize liturgical texts

  1. I think it important to recall the proviso in Article X, which gives the Bishops (in concert with the BCP rubric on page 13) ability to authorize special rites. This language was set in the Constitution in 1904, and allowed the House of Bishops, in the next decade, to authorize The Book of Offices, a predecessor to The Book of Occasional Services. I believe that no further authorization is needed for these volumes, from a Constitutional perspective; unlike, for example, the Enriching our Worship series and other rites presented for “supplemental” or “provisional” use.

  2. In this discussion of authorization of forms of worship there seems to be no recognition of the fundamental changes that must be made in the Book of Common Prayer, going far beyond permission for use of trial forms. For example, some of us began writing our own liturgies incorporating non-sexist language in the 1980’s. Yet many parishes still use the sexist language of the 1979 Book of Common Prayer. This causes increasing numbers of parishioners to depart the Church and visitors sensitive to sexist language to not return. Then there is the even more serious and fundamental matter of the basic theology of the Eucharist. Thinking adults, especially those who have not been brought up in the Church, find blood sacrifice a repugnant idea to which they cannot subscribe. I believe there is much discussion and reconsideration of theology formed before the Enlightenment that must take place before there can be revision of the Book of Common Prayer that appeals to thoughtful moderns. The Episcopal Church is in decline. There is a pressing need for fundamental reform of its theology and liturgical forms.

  3. Bringing the Constitution and Canons into agreement with liturgical usage may be important, but I agree with the Rev. Fred Fenton that the Church urgently needs to reform its theology. Movements toward a modern day Reformation are already evident at the grass roots level in many quarters. I believe that what we need is a Church-wide process for examining and proclaiming new understandings of our faith; what better way to do this than through a process for liturgical reform. After all, lex orandi, lex credendi. Given the full agenda and limited time available to Convention to debate issues around liturgy, I would rather see a discussion that centers around liturgical renewal rather than canonical amending.

  4. #5 gives me heartburn. Several other Provinces have liturgical traditions v. different from our’s. I recall wild enthusiasm for New Zealand – based on a structure v. different from our own. Also, I hope that you can land on a formula that means what GC approves a particular bishop cannot forbid.

    • #5 is indeed problematic, as Canon Howe wisely notes, not least because the American church from 1789 (at least) has had a eucharistic theology _very_ different from much of the Anglican Communion, except the Scots and some Canadians (with thanks to Samuel Seabury and the Nonjurors). Consequently, though we considered #5, the final recommendations at which we arrived did not include such a canon– though General Convention could always write one if it chose.

  5. I fully understand and encourage flexibility. I support clarity around specifically Episcopal liturgical resources (including music, which you do not mention).

    However, my reality – and I am obviously not alone – is in recognizing and accepting that denominational identity means less and less as we move into the 21st Century. My own congregation is 66% Episcopalian, with the balance including Lutherans, Roman Catholics, Methodists, Presbyterians, Evangelical Covenant, Reformed Church of America (to name some of the identities we share here). If I were to say “you have to be an Episcopalian to worship here” or “you have to accept we will only use Episcopal liturgical texts and music” many of them would leave. They understand our core identity; they also appreciate the resource flexibility that we have introduced. They do not want to become Episcopalians; but they do very much wish to hang their worshiping community ‘hats’ on our particular liturgical ‘peg.’

    My congregation is also not alone in using materials from other Anglican provinces in our Sunday worship. Our bishop has observed that the variety he encounters is extremely broad. For example, seasonally we use one of the PB for NZ’s post-communion prayers (which originated in the C of E’s “Series III” trial use Eucharistic prayers). We only use EoW’s Eucharistic prayers. Musically, in addition to H82, WLP, LEVASII & VF, our congregation uses hymns from many other sources, especially Evangelical Lutheran Worship (which, being much more recent, has done an exceptional job with gender language in many of the same hymns we sing – so we use ELW rather than H82, even if the hymn is in H82).

    All of this is to day that permissive language around liturgical texts – perhaps with some required resource review locally (a diocesan liturgy committee?) is really essential. And as you note, it would only be bringing into order a reality that has existed for decades, and continues to diversify.

    Lastly, a theological note: the language of blood sacrifice for sin should have no place in our liturgical texts. While this is outside the scope of this particular post, I urge you to address it as we move forward.

  6. Since the EXAMINATION of our liturgical resources, ie: The Book of Common Prayer, is such a complex and lengthy process, it makes sense to also examine the legality of how it is ratified. By now it should be clear that a simple “thumbs up thumbs down” of whether we should replace the BCP is not a sufficient answer for the times. I would simply say, that in our deliberations, the internet and its ramifications must be taken into consideration.

  7. I am hoping that the members of the SCLM have already engaged SCCC in their drafting and question-asking. Writing as a former Deputy who found himself serving on the HoD Committee on Canons (rather than Liturgy and Music) for a few meetings of the General Convention, I suspect failure to do that might result in a less than favorable reception. Such would be counter-productive.

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