Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Stability and the Liturgy

General Convention is coming up in July, and we now have a resolution to amend Article X of the church constitution to specifically authorize forms outside the BCP (the bolded material represents the addition):
But notwithstanding anything herein above contained, the General Convention may at any one meeting, by a majority of the whole number of the Bishops entitled to vote in the House of Bishops, and by a majority of the Clerical and Lay Deputies of all the Dioceses entitled to representation in the House of Deputies, voting by orders as previously set forth in this Article:

a) Amend the Table of Lessons and all Tables and Rubrics relating to the Psalms.

b) Authorize for trial use throughout this Church, as an alternative at any time or times to the established Book of Common Prayer or to any section or Office thereof, a proposed revision of the whole Book or of any portion thereof, duly undertaken by the General Convention.

c) Provide for use of other forms for the renewal and enrichment of the common worship of this church for such periods of time and upon such terms and conditions as the General Convention may provide.

This addition has become the focus of some small controversy. I think Tobias Haller is correct in pointing out that this regularizes the anomalous position of the Book of Occasional Services (and to a lesser extent, Lesser Feasts and Fasts: most of the latter is covered under clause (a) above) in the collection of our liturgical texts. But these are not the only books we have, and Enriching Our Worship is really the focus of most people's concern, together with the writing of same-sex blessing rites.

Historically, western liturgy was divided into several volumes, e.g., missals, ordinals, psalters, each of which fit into a different context of worship. In the reformation these were all wrapped up together in the Book of Common Prayer, which due to a certain paralysis has never been updated itself. The US BCP has always followed the pattern of its ancestor in terms of what it covers, but the need for a supplement was felt over a century ago, leading first to the Book of Offices and thence to the current BOS.

There's a substantial shift in content along the way, however. The vast majority of the 1914 book is devoted to dealing with consecrated things; the order for compline (which made its way into the BCP in 1979) is an exception. The 1940 offices show the same pattern, but the BOS adds a whole new category of services, listed there under the heading "The Church Year". This section contains, in large part, services people were already doing, mostly keyed to the church year. One can argue the need for some of this, as anyone who wanted to do Lessons and Carols at Christmas already had copies of Carols from Kings 1 (in order to do the Willcocks descants if nothing else) and therefore had the order laid out for them, but the section as a whole reflects the high-and-wide interest in recovering all these seasonal liturgies as part of the official cycle of things (which, by the way, the Anglo-Catholics were already doing without benefit of GC authorization).

Some of the material promulgated of late by the SCLM fits into these two patterns, whatever the merits of the texts in question. By and large I don't think much of it, but that's not the main issue here. A lot of the most egregious stuff from the last round is material that nobody is every going to be subjected to unless the rector gets bored with the prayers in the BCP and goes on a hunt for novelty. Thus we got a devotional cycle of prayer which I found it hard to tell whether the theology or the writing was worse, but I would venture to guess that it would never appear on a Sunday morning, so no doubt the average parishioner will never be exposed to it.

But that leads to Enriching Our Worship, which is not a prayer book supplement. Indeed, when it was first promulgated, it was set forth as material for the future revision of the BCP. These days, it's an alternative service book, except that it has never gone through the trial process because it is permanently stuck in it. And it has a lot of problems, bad enough to where I won't take communion if it is used. It enjoys no permanent approval, and yet it appears to be the basis and standard for all of SCLM's other output— not the BCP, the supposed standard for our worship.

That's the problem in this resolution: in authorizing whoever writes liturgies for the church to produce whatever anyone feels they need, it follows the spirit of exactly what's being done wrong now. I suppose we ought to amend things to allow for extra-BCP work, but that material also needs to go through the same kind of review as the BCP itself, including sunsetting of trial liturgies.


The Archer of the Forest said...

EOW was one of the reasons I left the Episcopal Church. I couldn't stand the way it was a "get around the law" supplement at the same time as being a heretical morass that was always trumped as being the segway (or blueprint) for the next BCP, whenever that should happen. If how we pray shapes how we believe, then breaking the law with heresy was something I wanted no part of.

Tobias Haller said...

Thanks for this, Charles. One small observation is that the Ordinal was not originally part of the BCP in England or the US. The first Book of Offices from the late 18th century stood alongside the BCP of the day to provide for that. Of course in later editions it ended up being "bound in."

I've written more extensively on the matter at my blog, contra Seitz and McCall's claim of "unconstitutionality."

I think one of the big issues is the process by which people forget that EOW does require "renewal" of it license, and that its use is subject to the approval of the diocesan bishop. I think many are unaware of both facts, and it has become, sadly, a normative liturgy in some places. (I actually like much of the material in the volume addressing ministry to the sick, which was sadly in need of review; but I agree that much of the rest is either poor in quality or so rarely needed that any good priest should be able to extemporize in such a situation. It reminds me of the old comment,

There is much in this work that is original and good. Unfortunately, the parts that are good are not original, and the parts that are original are not good... :-)