Picture in your mind’s eye the following scene:
You’re on vacation, and it’s Sunday morning. You’re a faithful churchgoer and, with a quick Google search, you locate the nearest Episcopal Church in the city you’re visiting. You find parking, and make the walk to what looks like one of the countless Gothic church buildings you’ve visited while travelling. You go inside, knowing approximately what to expect.
At least… you thought you knew what to expect. Upon entering the church, expecting to see pews and a pulpit, brightly colored stained glass and the usual pipe organ, you find a shockingly austere room. The architecture inside is unfamiliar – there’s a table in the center of the room, a few chairs surrounding it on all sides. No pulpit is visible; neither is a lectern or ambo; just chairs and a table. Instead of the usual pre-service scurry of acolytes and clergy, there’s nobody vested and identifiable as clergy. You take your seat, not sure what to expect. You look over the very short leaflet, which looks at once familiar and foreign. You see words and phrases from the Book of Common Prayer, but this definitely doesn’t feel like it will be a typical Sunday morning routine.
At 11:00 am, the service starts. Someone speaks some familiar sounding opening words, but again, something feels different. There’s singing, but it’s all paperless, led by a member seated within the congregation. You pick up the songs quickly and easily, and are surprised by the depth of congregational song. More prayers are offered, and everyone is seated as scripture is read. Readers each read from their seats – you think one may have been behind you, and one was across the room. After the gospel lesson, you feel pretty sure you’ll figure out what’s going on – or at least, who’s in charge here – but the sermon is a relatively free-form discussion. There’s clearly someone leading the discussion of the gospel passage – yet another person seated in the midst of the congregation (although at a bit more of a central vantage point), and points are made – but some members of the congregation ask questions. Others raise their own observations. There’s a very, very long silence after the sermon. Maybe even five minutes. When the person who spoke the opening words of the service starts the words of the Nicene Creed, you think maybe things are getting back to the realm of the familiar.
But the congregation, after the creed, promptly moves all of the chairs from where they sat after the creed. Everyone seems to offer prayers in the next phase of the service, each time, coming forward to light one of a series of candles that’s been placed on the table in the middle of the room. A member of the congregation reads some of the concerns of the congregation, and then asks, “for what else should we pray?” In the silence that follows, some say their prayers aloud while lighting candles; others simply light them, and return to their places. Others pace the room, expectantly. There are prayers for the church; prayers for the nation and the world; prayers for the community; prayers for those who have died; prayers acknowledging the ways the congregation has fallen short; prayers that they may do better and serve the world. They span the gamut from one girl praying out loud for her pet guinea pig who is ill, to a woman who has just suffered from the death of her wife. After a long silence, there is more paperless singing, and the community gathers around the table.
Suddenly, the community gathers around the table. In the midst of the candles that have been lit, you see something familiar – bread and wine. Certainly, you recognize the celebration of the Eucharist. The member of the congregation who had first spoken in the service stands and prays over the gifts, touching the bread and cup, while the rest of the congregations stands with arms raised during the entirety prayer. Bread is broken, silence is kept, and the Peace is exchanged, the congregation greeting one another heartily. You’ve never felt more welcomed in your life. The gifts are shared, and afterwards, the people join in prayer once again. There’s no blessing at the end of the service, just a dismissal – and the community gathers for what seems to be the familiar routine of coffee hour pleasantries.
At coffee hour, you walk up to the person who had led the Eucharistic Prayer – and she confirms that she’s the Rector of the church. You’re curious about where the liturgy came from – was it a “Rite III” service she constructed? Did it come from some Anglican province overseas? Where did she find these ideas?
She laughs heartily, before telling you, “Oh, not at all. Everything came right from the Book of Common Prayer and Enriching Our Worship. All within the rubrics as written. We just practice it differently.”
Wait… what? Yep. Totally within the rubrics of the 1979 Prayer Book.
Recently, there’s been renewed interest in offering new and diverse liturgical offerings in our church. General Convention passed resolutions with the Standing Committee on Liturgy and Music (SCLM) to lay out the process by which we’ll next revise The Book of Common Prayer and The Hymnal 1982. One resolution that passed which I have some problems with, though, is D050, which authorizes the use of “An Order for Celebrating Holy Eucharist,” often referred to as “Rite III” for use as a principle Sunday Service with the permission of the Bishop, in essence, overriding the Book of Common Prayer’s rubric that it is “not intended for use at the principal weekly service.”
At Convention, many Deputies stood up with their concern about the resolution – to a person, they tended to be younger people – indeed, members of an age group that, in many eyes, the resolution’s passage was needed to attract. The resolution passed – and the church spoke. In a recent post at the Episcopal Church Foundation’s Vital Practices, Greg Syler wrote in pretty harsh terms of those that spoke in opposition to the resolution, writing:
Sadly, those who spoke against D050 gave voice to the common misconception that people come to our churches for the words we use and the texts we follow, and that which holds The Episcopal Church together is the uniformity of the words we use in worship. That ship sailed away long ago, way back in the mid-20th century, that is, when we started to experiment with different words and texts. Uniformity is no longer a goal in worship, just as it’s hardly a goal in the life of Christian discipleship.
Perhaps most unfortunately, those who were opposed to the resolution are later labeled as bearing the sin of traditionalism, and, quoting Yarsolav Pelikan, ascribes to the opponents of the resolution the “dead faith of the living.”
I think for many of us – or, at least for me – who have some discomfort with the idea of using Rite III as a main Sunday service, such a critique misses the point. And it ascribes motives to those, like me, who bear some discomfort with this development, that actually, really aren’t there to begin with.
Ultimately, the Book of Common Prayer does bind us together – not simply in its words, but it its norms. We don’t have any confessional documents or magisterium; we don’t have a 300 page catechism. We do have our worship.
But narrow, strident uniformity of liturgical practice is most decidedly not in the ethos of the 1979 Prayer Book. The book says nothing of architecture or furnishings, nothing of vestments or pipe organs. It allows for a vast amount of creativity in constructing our Sunday worship – and no two services need be exactly the same. (I’d love to see a calculation of how many different rubrical Sunday options there are!). Enriching Our Worship expanded the options even more, with expansive language, a greater articulation of the rubrics around the Prayers of the People, and three more options for Eucharistic Prayers.
The ship of liturgical uniformity most definitely sailed in the transition from the 1928 to 1979 Book of Common Prayer – with no single right way to celebrate the liturgy prescribed, and, with the authorization of Enriching Our Worship, nine total authorized Eucharistic Prayers, countless permutations of acclamations, prayers, collects, and blessings. And that is a good thing. A VERY good thing. It allows for innovation, creativity, and new articulations of ancient worship – in the midst of a agreed, and very generous, theological common ground.
The service I described above can be done completely within the realm of Prayer Book worship as it exists today – and indeed, as it existed in 1979 (ok, save for EOW). It requires inventiveness and creativity – a willingness to read the book closely, to play with the furniture, and most of all, a grounding in the ethos of Common Prayer such that we look at the Prayer Book not as a confining fence to that keeps us from our liturgical dreams, but rather, the generous border to a large field of possibilities.
Is that service to my taste? Honestly, not really. I’m definitely more traditionally minded. But am I glad it can exist in my church? Absolutely. Do I want it to exist in my church? Oh, yes. Because there are audiences – that don’t look and think like me – that need it. And I’d love to see even more possibilities opened up in our next round of liturgical revisions. As long as we agree to those texts, those theologies, those pieces of liturgial expression together.
We can be creative in the structures we already have – do some really innovative things – without having to authorize Rite III on a Sunday. Broad latitude is already there – if we choose to pay attention. Will there be a few outlying parishes that are true liturgical innovators, who always push the line? Yes. And we need them – after all, they helped drive us to our current BCP, and their experiences will be one piece of the shape that drives us to the next one.
That said, my concern about using Rite III on Sundays comes not from a desire to impose a strident uniformity on the liturgy – but rather – a concern over the loss of what the regula of the BCP represents – an agreed context for the living of theology in the larger community of the Episcopal Church. Ultimately, I’d be fine with the Episcopal Church authorizing ten more Eucharistic Prayers, fifty Post-Communions, countless introductions to the Peace, and lots of other liturgical resources. It’s worked well for the Church of England – their Common Worship series is, to my mind, a masterpiece, with infinite possibilities for fresh expressions (seriously, check it out – it’s all online, including New Patterns for Worship, an entire guide on using Common Worship in innovative liturgies), and I wish it were fully authorized for use here. But that act of agreeing to dwell in a large, open space of agreed possibility together – even though the execution may drastically and dramatically differ from Manhasset to Maui, Portland to Pawtucket – is at the core of our tradition of Common Prayer.
So rather than trying to paint those of us with concerns about Rite III with too broad a brush – as narrow minded liturgical traditionalists, hamstrung by pipe organs, pews, and the church of the 1890s – hear us out a bit. For many of us, strident uniformity to the way “we want it” isn’t now, and never has been, our goal or our argument. But rather, we have a continued commitment to what it means to do the work of theology together. Indeed, you might find in us not the dead faith of the living, but a different articulation of the vibrant faith of the present.
(P.S. My present parish uses Rite III for our Summer Home Communions, which are small group communions that provide fellowship opportunities when so many people leave town on Summer Sundays. It includes composed Eucharistic Prayers. And we’ll continue to do so. I think that’s a good thing, too.)