A Bit on Liturgical Creativity, Rite III, and Common Prayer

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. 


Grace Church, Allentown, PA, has been innovative in its use of liturgical space for worship.

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.)

26 thoughts on “A Bit on Liturgical Creativity, Rite III, and Common Prayer

  1. While I agree with you, the problem I see is that people pushing for the new BCP don’t want anything resembling a traditional BCP Rite I or II service. Everything has to be “with it,” and in language that won’t offend (Lord…my, so awful) The few Catholic “add ons” we do at my parish would probably send them into a twirl. The service you describe is fine – for those who want it. It’s certainly not my cup of tea, but I’m glad it’s offered. I wish I could believe that those calling for change thought the same way about what I like.

    • I would be lying if I said I didn’t share some of those concerns. Another concern – as someone who was baptized, raised, and ordained under the 1979 Prayer Book – is that we’re just now getting to a generation of lay and ordained leadership in the church who were baptized, formed, and raised under the ethos of the current prayer book – and so, in some ways, we’re still in the process of BCP adoption, given the major change in theological perspective evident in the 1928 to 1979 transition.

      But that said, there are so many dynamics at play – generational shifts in the church, developments in the academic study of the liturgy, quality new publications elsewhere in the Anglican Communion (again, Common Worship comes to mind for me), that I’m willing to see the game plan for revision happen. And I’d certainly rather see that process planned out, articulated, and benchmarks laid, than have it be entered into haphazardly.

      Will have to see what happens. While I have some reservations, I’ll withhold them until I see what unfolds.

    • Hi Ron: this person, at least, is in favor of a new BCP but does not want something “with it” or vastly different from a traditional BCP service. I do, however, want options that are not so tied to substitutionary atonement theology and I want language that is expansive and inclusive of all people. This, I believe, is a justice issue, not a matter of being “politically correct.” I’m glad you have the Catholic “add ons,” but I would also like to feel that those of us who believe there was–and is–some value in the Reformation could feel affirmed as well. What I love about the Episcopal Church is its sacramental center and its potential for deep, compelling liturgy that can take many forms and still retain a solid core. (BTW, my own heart is with pipe organs and vested choirs, processions and incense. I also could love what is shown in this article–it looks reverent and communal. The extremes of evangelical or highest Anglo Catholic, not so much.)

  2. I love the way you’ve described the issue, and I tend toward the other conclusion. If you’ll hear my 2 cents, I am one who does voice the restrictiveness of our BCP (again, in light of what Common Worship), but not because I worry for the 95% of churches who meet on Sunday morning, but for the many faith communities on the margins or the ones whose very nature challenges rubrics with principal services on Sunday mornings. I worry that we too easily draw the box of what a church is to be so small and restrictive that we will once again lose our new Methodists, or worse, that we force them away before the creatives are fully formed.

    I certainly concur that the issue is coming together to best determine our future together. My fear is that, given my entire adult life in the church, we’ve missed countless opportunities to show both generosity and bravery as a church, to build our own Common Worship, and build a whole culture of creative and deeply resonate faithfulness. Are we truly more tradition-bound and fearful of innovation than the Church of England?

    • Sorry to take so long to approve the comment, and I hear you. Once I get off this airplane, I’ll add a couple thoughts….

    • Aight, waiting in a long car rental line is as good as place as any. I’m at once in agreement and disagreement. I do wish we were as far along in the spectrum as the CofE is, and I definitely want us to get there.

      For me, one of the problems with the current resolution, though, is that it isn’t in dialogue with the wider church. There’s no reporting mechanism from developed services by which to inform SCLM, General Convention, and the larger Episcopal Church of what’s out there – and so this work happens in a void from the process from BCP development. And that’s where I get a bit nervous – individual communities separated from the larger whole. If that mechanism were in place, I’d be grumpy, but a little bit less so.

      As I mentioned, there are always needs for a few mavericks. I don’t doubt that. I’m just not fully convinced that many of the places that absolutely think they need something “new” wouldn’t find that the existing rubrics actually allow for it.

      Thanks for your feedback!

  3. I’m very grateful for this article. Every time Pew issues a poll, I hear the sturm und drang about how “with it” language will save the church or how millennials really go for the Elizabethan language. As a rising middler seminarian, I can start to get anxious about how to navigate this discussion and discern for myself how to be creative with liturgy. (Because the worst thing that could possibly happen is that I would be mediocre when it comes to liturgy.)

    Your post gives me reassurance that it will be ok. Our liturgy, like Dr. Who’s Tardis, is bigger on the inside. Sure, it will take creativity to understand how the practice of the liturgy fits with the place in which I might land. But I don’t have to construct this thing from whole cloth. The pattern is already there.

  4. The other problem, not with BCP revision but with “Rite III” as the primary service is the clergy’s desire to “tinker” with the service–without much in the way of training or liturgical background. This is especially true as we ordain people raised in other faith traditions. Do you really want to leave the primary worship service completely up to the creativity of the Rector or Priest-in-Charge of your congregation? I don’t, and I’m a Rector!

  5. Interesting article. The author’s point about liturgical flexibility in music, architecture, and spatial arrangements is worth remembering by those who plan liturgies.

    One point of confusion for me is this: How one can justify by the rubrics of the BCP 1979 using Enriching Our Worship or any other text not featured in the Prayer Book without appealing to “Rite III”? Technically, the General Convention 1997 (and subsequent GCs) approved rites for “supplemental use”, which fell under no rubrical or canonical category. So I interpreted D050 as simply normalizing what is already the common practice of using other approved liturgies (e.g. EOW) at the principal Sunday Eucharist. What are others’ thoughts?

    • EOW is authorized under the last clause of Article X of the constitution: “And Provided, that nothing in this Article shall be construed as restricting the authority of the Bishops of this Church to take such order as may be permitted by the Rubrics of the Book of Common Prayer or by the Canons of the General Convention for the use of special forms of worship.”

      This, of course, is also the basis for General Convention to issue and update The Book of Occasional Services.

  6. I remember a “liturgy” that was “vibrant” and not on that ship you referred to and it was just plain silly. A “minister” in a tie dyed chasuble with bottle of wine and loaves of bread and Beatles music as “hymns” with the most dull and inclusive language you could imagine that concluded with said clergy person throwing the bread to his congregation and passing around the bottles so everyone could take a swig out them. When theology becomes a designer user friendly consumer driven three ring circus with a feel good “brand”, a trend driven conscious raising “liturgy”, and a metaphysical MacDS happy meal, little wonder so many consider it irrelevant!

  7. My last Easter Eve service before my retirement was held with chairs encircling the altar…thank heavens for a large sanctuary and a fairly small turnout of about forty to forty-five. We conducted the service just as described above and at its end there were many requests to continue the custom. But alas, the whole inside of the church would have to be redone to accomplish a regular liturgy of this type, we were stuck with pews instead of chairs, and a lack of money to bring it all about. When I did retire, however, that service was described by many who attended as a major spiritual experience.

  8. I’m a born and bred Anglican, and a firm traditionalist. Rite I, cathedral tradition music – the whole gorgeous package. So that’s my lens. What I hear you saying is that we don’t need a Rite III, because we already have all the tools we need for screwing up Sunday morning liturgy. What concerns me about pushing Sunday mornings even further from being uniform is that it can get awfully cliquey awfully quickly. I’ve been a visitor in some Episcopal churches where I never felt able to focus on worship and the sacrifice of praise – let alone communion with God and the congregation – because all my mental energy was taken up with figuring out just what the hell I was supposed to be saying/singing/doing. Sure for the little committee that designed the service, it must have felt great, but it excluded those of us who rely on our BCP to give us the liturgy that best affirms and expresses our baptismal covenant and our creed-based faith, in community, in the Anglican Communion.

    I also deplore the loss of elevating language and art in our worship. As a homeschooling mother (and onetime seminarian), I find I have to turn again and again to the Catholic church, and mostly Catholic women of faith, to bring liturgy home in meaningful ways. Liturgy around the table, liturgy celebrating the great, lost, festivals and feasts of the seasons, liturgy of waking and sleeping, liturgy of forgiveness and atonement in everyday little-person encounters. Liturgy of joyful thanks for butterflies. When we ‘dumb down’ liturgical language, we lose the instinctive reverence and ‘holy space’ impulse that we should be fostering in our young people. Good liturgy with language that challenges the intellect, in a space surrounded by the best art a community can muster not only gives us the freedom to set our minds and hearts to a sacrifice of worship, praise and thanks, but it also sets our souls alight for an aesthetic that can pervade our lives. Good enough – just isn’t. Striving for a lyrical cadence in speaking ‘thees and thous’, choirs struggling to stay together and in tune, picking out a red tie or scarf for a white outfit on Whitsunday – these things are important. These things set the tone for the week, and can make the difference between choosing to sit around the table in reverence with cloth napkins, however humble and hurried the dinner – or just letting the ball drop and eating in shifts on the way to various activities. I want ‘tresspasses’ in the mouths and minds of my children – ‘sins’ is a common word, an every day word which challenges neither vocabulary and spelling, nor faith. Sure, we talk a lot about sins. But when we go to pray in the words of our Saviour, saying ‘ tresspasses’ gives us some meat to chew on. I’d rather some meat to chew on than a bland, easy to digest, thin meal.

    • No. I’m not anti Rite III at all. It is in our prayer book, and offers unique opportunities for worship outside of Sundays. We use some of those options in my own parish.

      I am, however, concerned about allowing Rite III to take the place for principal Sunday worship, which is what the general convention resolution allowed.

      While I tend toward the traditional myself, the liturgy that serves the needs of my community isn’t the one that serves the needs of every community. I do not want to prescribe uniformity in the least – but rather – see some more expansive use – even on Sundays – of the generous options that are out there.

    • Your comment about Catholic women of faith bringing the liturgy home caught my eye. I was never a homeschooling mom but I have lurked on more Catholic mom blogs about liturgy and life than I ever expected I might. I have found some Episcopalian moms who are also interested in such things and would love to connect with you.

      • Do you know the website Full Homely Divinity dot org? Lots of good stuff there. And The Parenting Passageway is a blog primarily about homeschooling using Waldorf methodology, but the author is also Episcopalian, and the intersection of Waldorf and the church is celebrating festivals. She has some really good resources.

        I’d love to connect – how do we do that without making our email addresses public? David, may I presume on you to send Nurya my email address?

        • I am a huge fan of Full Homely Divinity – I actually adapted their Advent liturgies for home use in my church a while back and made the booklet available on my website. Actually, hey, that would be a way to contact me that did not depend on the goodwill of our host here – if you message me with your email at http://www.churchwork.com/contact/ I will be happy to write you back.

      • Hi Nurya,
        I here you on this. We are in Michigan, and are discerning leaving the Roman Catholic Church, but the treasury of celebrating faith us one I am so thankful to have learned in the RC church. It has been tough for me to define an Episcopalian identity and ethos. I’ve wondered if the church as a whole feels this way!

  9. The beginning of this article is about Grace Episcopal in Allentown PA, a great little inner city church in downtown Allentown, PA. Well worth a visit. All members are accepting of who you are and welcome all with open arms. Expect a hug at the door from the ushers and at the sign of peace.

  10. Very glad of this article–thank you David. What was left out (for brevity’s sake, I’m sure) is the degree to which liturgical reform and ministry in and with the neighboring community have gone hand in hand at Grace Church. What happens in that room on Sundays is intimately, concretely tied to what happens in that congregation (and among its neighbors) the other 6.5 days of the week. Speaking for myself, I want to see *that* sort of sensibility inform our liturgies, and the current Prayer Book, its rubrics and norms, does indeed make generous space for such.

    • This is a wonderful conversation. As a non-Christian very involved in both the Jewish Reconstructionist and Renewal movements, I connected completely with the service narrative in the article. It sounds like this is a very new conversation in the Episcopal narrative that has been going on in progressive Judaism since the 1960s. Jason – you hit it on the head – “What happens in that room on Sundays is intimately, concretely tied to what happens in that congregation (and among its neighbors) the other 6.5 days of the week.” We are all informed in our daily lives by the interactive worship in which we participate on the Sabbath, the energy that we take from that worship, and community, into the rest of our week – only to really look forward to coming back to that Sabbath experience, and repeating it every week of every year.

  11. My current parish has been doing these variations for 10 years now including circle prayer, different prayers of the people every Sunday led by lay people from within the assembly, and jazz and spirituals from LEVAS. My only question is what took so many so long? We have and embrace traditionalists and modernists. Good liturgy can keep the dignity and formality of what was “new:” in 1928, yet include variations meaningful to their unique history, in this case African American and Caribbean African homelands. It is unique and universal at the same time. Perhaps it’s because we live near the Dali museum!

  12. What did they do with their 1982 hymnals? How did the music magically appear? What was it?

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