The Episcopal Church is beginning to think about revising its 1979 Book of Common Prayer. This will spark all kinds of feelings in people and generate, one hopes, an immense amount of reflection on our liturgy. If Episcopalians really mean lex orandi, lex credendi, then we should approach this process prayerfully and hope-fully. (Whether it is a process that should be happening at all is a question for another post.)
I hope that the new Book of Common Prayer will be—wait for it—a book.
Actually, that’s two wishes in one. Let’s take them one at a time.
First, the “a”: whatever is produced from this liturgical revision, I hope it can be contained in a single volume. Common Worship, which is the Church of England’s ongoing liturgical revision, spans multiple volumes. Someone said to me recently that Common Worship was no longer a liturgical revision but a publishing industry. There are different books to celebrate the Eucharist, conduct daily prayer, baptize, marry, and bury people, and celebrate special holy days.
This has all sorts of negative effects, not least of which is that it means that every parish has to produce its own orders of service because there is no single book it can point its congregations to. This sounds nice—let people choose their own liturgical adventures—but it’s an epic administrative burden and for small parishes, it is one more thing to do when resources and people-hours are in short supply.
It makes me think of my own experience with the 1979 BCP. When I was confirmed, my congregation gave me my own copy of the prayer book. I still have it. In that book, I could—and did—read how to pray daily, participate in the Eucharist, celebrate special days, find answers to my questions about the faith, read the historical documents that undergird the church’s teachings, pray the psalms, and read how I was baptized, would be married, and will be buried, not to mention ordained, which my teenage self didn’t foresee at the time. There is this powerful pedagogical and catechetical effect to having all of this contained in a single volume. When someone gets confirmed in the Church of England these days, there’s no single gift that is like it.
Second: a book. For all the reasons I just outlined (and many others), books still matter. By 2021 or 2024 or whenever, no doubt books will have retreated even further. But there is something about the tangibility of a book—I’ve had my BCP on so many bookshelves over the years, connecting me to that congregation and my confirmation—that will continue to endure. Of course, our liturgies should be available electronically (as they currently are), but they should also continue to be printed on actual paper with actual ink and bound between actual covers to create an actual book.
So there it is—a new Book of Common Prayer that is, in fact, a book.