Trying to make order of liturgical chaos

We have a liturgical mess in the Episcopal Church. Almost no one is clear on what liturgical material is authorized and what is not authorized. Finding accurate lists of resources, let along the resources themselves, is near impossible. Too many clergy seem to think the rules don’t apply to them, and almost no bishops are willing to enforce the rules. And in the process, lay people suffer as poor theology and clericalism are foisted off on them in their churches through half-baked ad hoc liturgical revision.

Book of Common Prayer 1979

At General Convention 2018, one of the big topics for discussion was whether or not it’s time to revise the Book of Common Prayer. I won’t rehash all the arguments, as I’ve written about this before. Suffice it to say, I am grateful that we decided not to embark on a full-on revision process, since I don’t think we’re ready. We also created a process to contain liturgical experimentation — and to share experimental resources with the wider church — and I think that’s exactly what we needed to do.

The General Convention created something called the Task Force for Liturgical and Prayer Book Revision (with the delightful acronym of TFLPBR, which I enjoy pronouncing as tafelpuber, like some kind of German theological concept, or maybe a salty yet sweet snack). Their mandate, given in resolution 2018-A086, complicated enough that I don’t want to use 500 words to summarize it here. For our purpose, it is enough to note that they are meant to collect and share liturgical work from across the church. Lots more too, but we can talk about that another time.

The TFLPBR has unveiled a website as part of its work. Sure, it’s a week before Christmas, so everyone wants to have a look at a new liturgical website. Fortunately for you, dear reader, I do not have a parochial ministry, so I have lots of time on my hands this week. If you have a few moments between wrapping presents and preparing Christmas liturgies, I have a few things to say about

There are lots of great things about this website. For one thing, it looks great. Love the photos throughout the site by Jim Turrell. It’s easy to navigate, and I wish other Episcopal Church governance bodies would be so transparent about their work and so effective in sharing resources. What I am especially excited about through is the list of authorized liturgical resources. The TFLPBR has done all of us a huge favor by making this available. Why this hasn’t existed until now is a great mystery and a sign of our church’s dysfunction, but no need for crying now. It is here, an early Christmas present. Liturgical leaders and planners now have ready access to all of the materials authorized for us in the Episcopal Church.

However, and this is a big however, the list of liturgical resources has significant problems. To be fair to the TFLPBR, this has less to do with them than with the sorry state of liturgical affairs in the Episcopal Church these days. But I would like to go through some of what I believe to be problems with this list in hopes that the list can be fixed, or the problems can be dealt with, or I can be corrected. I don’t want to this to sound as if I”m being unduly critical of the TFLPBR. Given the chaos we inhabit, they’ve done an admirable job sorting out much of it. And I am mindful that they are all volunteers working hard because they love their church.

Let’s go down the page starting at the top. The Book of Common Prayer PDFs you’d think would not be an issue. Alas. For whatever reason, it appears that we’ve not bothered to update the Spanish BCP with the 2015/2016 changes (RCL for Holy Week). I can’t check the three-year lectionary, because the table of lessons is entirely missing from this PDF. The French one seems fine for Holy Week, but it’s also missing the table of lessons. The English PDF has its own issues. For my day to day reference, I still use a PDF of the 2006 PDF because it’s a better PDF. The 2006 version didn’t have the trim marks, and the table of contents is all hyperlinked, making it easier to get right to the page you want. And so on. I wish we’d get a PDF designed for computer/phone use and not for printing. None of this is the fault of the TFLPBR, of course.

Next up we get some trial use materials. Here the problem comes in the FAQ for how these materials are used. The FAQ incorrectly says that these materials may be used without permission of the bishop, and to support that claim it quotes a line from the Episcopal Church’s Constitution (Article X), saying that trial use materials maybe authorized “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.” However, the canons (III.3.6a), also quoted on the FAQ page, say that when trial use materials are authorized, the “enabling Resolution shall specify the period of such trial use, the precise text thereof, and any special terms or conditions under which such trial use shall be carried out including translation.” So General Convention can require (and, indeed, has done so) the permission of the ecclesiastical authority — or other conditions — in order for the materials to be used. This is important because a bishop may want to limit the use of particular materials. If the enabling resolution gave the bishop this authority, a congregation cannot licitly use the material without the bishop’s permission.

The “expansive language” liturgies from General Convention come up next. I helped to work on these, and I’m glad to see them there. It’s been too hard to figure out what the official versions were, and now they’re available for easy download. I do hope the SCLM or the TFLPBR will continue to refine these liturgies, because we put them together quickly, and I know they can be improved. So, no problem really. Just a comment.

Next in our hit parade is the Enriching Our Worship series. Again, I’m grateful to see them here, readily available. It’s been too hard to find official copies of this stuff. I’m not sure why EOW 6 isn’t available for free download from this page, but I’m sure that will be corrected soon. I’m also not sure why the EOW materials are only in English. I have a vague recollection that General Convention has asked for at least some of this material to be translated into other languages, as we should do for all liturgies intended for churchwide use. My main beef here comes with what the TFLPBR says in the FAQ. I do commend them for noting that in the hairball of our liturgical authorization provisions, it does not appear that EOW should be eligible for authorization under our constitution and canons. However, as the TFLPBR well notes, the General Convention has repeatedly authorized EOW materials, so that should be good enough. (Note: there is a constitutional amendment working its way through our system for ratification at the 2021 General Convention, and that amendment will help us to untangle this hairball.) Anyway, the very serious problem comes here in the FAQ: “Do I need the Bishop’s Permission to use Enriching Our Worship? No. Resolution 2018-D046 authorized Enriching Our Worship for use without the permission of the Bishop.” This would seem to be dangerously misleading. That resolution indeed says, “That the 79th General Convention authorize continuing use of Enriching Our Worship….” However, it stays silent on any special conditions for use. And all of the previous enabling resolutions for EOW — of which there are many — required that the material be used under the direction of the bishop or ecclesiastical authority. So I would understand “continuing use” to be use continuing under its previous terms. Indeed, even the preface of EOW 1 reminds the user that the material must be used with permission. So, do not go out and use EOW without permission based on the claims of this website. Check in with your bishop or ecclesiastical authority.

The Book of Occasional Services is another topic (about which I have previously ranted) beyond the scope of this post. I wonder if the TFLPBR posted the correct PDF. For example, this one contains services that I do not believe were authorized for the BOS by the General Convention, such as the Feast of the Virgen de Guadalupe. (Someone help me if I’m wrong here.) And, in any case, this stuff isn’t ready for prime time. As a quick example, we couldn’t figure out how to spell Guadalupe. General Convention did authorize this liturgy, but it’s not clear from the enabling resolution if they should be in BOS or just be freestanding as a download. Basically, I think the SCLM came to General Convention with incomplete work, and the convention should have sent the whole thing back to the drawing board. Instead, a few bits have been authorized under murky conditions, but it seems to be there was no intention to create a thing called the Book of Occasional Services 2018. I don’t blame either the SCLM or the TFLPBR or even the liturgical legislative committee for this mess. We have not invested the money necessary to do this work well, and so volunteers who are spread too thin struggle with the sheer volume of what General Convention keeps asking for. I’d love to see a BOS 2021 with many of the current issues fixed and no further new material at this time.

As near as I can tell, the lectionary resources set forth on the resource page are correct. But it’s a confused mess, especially the sanctoral calendar. Someone needs to put the General Convention in timeout until we can sort out how to organize a sanctoral calendar. Until then, we can’t have nice things. At least the mess is clearly delineated by the TFLPBR.

The additional resources that have been “made available” (the scare quotes are not mine) seem fine. Nothing to do with the TFLPBR, but I hope at some point our church’s liturgical thinkers figure out that not all liturgical material needs to go through General Convention. Until then, there will be cases that General Convention essentially says, “fine, you can use this stuff, but we’re not blessing it.” If material is not designed for public worship, there’s no need for formal authorization. If material is designed for public worship, but it’s just not ready for use, then General Convention needs to be willing to say NO.

I don’t really understand why the section, “Additional Resources that may not be authorized but appear to be official” is in here. None of this stuff is authorized or “made available” or anything. Much of it comes from other denominations or bodies. If some of this material were used for public worship, it would constitute a violation of Title IV clergy discipline measures, which require us clergy to use only material that is authorized for the Episcopal Church. Oh, and I don’t know if the Asian language material is from the 1979 Book of Common Prayer or from some other resources. If it’s from our BCP, it should not be listed on an official Episcopal Church website without a certificate from the Custodian of the Book of Common Prayer. If it’s from someone else’s prayer book, it also has no business here.

Lastly, there’s the question of missing material. Off the top of my head, they neglected to include the text of the 1928 Book of Common Prayer. It is most certainly authorized for use in our church by General Convention resolutions in 1979 and 2000. I wonder if there are other resources which should be here but are not.

Again, despite the issues I’ve mentioned here, I want to thank the TFLPBR for the immensely helpful list of resources. That there is confusion is because General Convention seems unable to legislate clearly, on liturgy and too often on other matters. It would be a good exercise for someone or some group to take the time to sort out what’s authorized and what’s not, and offer enabling resolutions to clarify all this. Until then, this page is best thing going in Episcopal liturgical resource collection.

Finally, I have focused on the resource list of the TFLPBR website. What really excites me about this website is the potential to collect and share experimental liturgies (which need not be “modern”; someone could dust off a Gregorian canon or whatever). It’s also worth noting that despite what some people claimed was a groundswell demanding immediate liturgical revision, we can see that most dioceses have not bothered to answer the call for liturgical commissions for the purpose of…practicing liturgical revision. In any case, I will be keeping an eye on the website. And if I see members of the TFLPBR, I will thank them for work which sometimes might seem thankless.

4 Responses

  1. Jack Zamboni says:

    Scott — re EOW and the authorization for its use without Episcopal permission. I served on the legislative committee that handled this at GC 2018 and the omission of the requirement for Episcopal permission *in distinction from* the previous GC resolutions was intentional. Neil Alexander who I believe is Chair of TFLPBR was the bishop chair of that legislative committee at GC and knows this. TFLPBR is correct in stating that EOW no longer requires Episcopal permission for use. I hope you will amend your blog post accordingly. Check with Neil first if you like, but I feel like I’m on solid ground here.

    • Scott Gunn says:

      Thanks for your comment, Jack. I have every confidence that the legislative committee *intended* this based on your account. However, what matters is the wording in the resolution, and I’m not sure the resolution accomplishes what the committee apparently intended. If the word “continue” were omitted, so that the resolution simply authorized EOW, I think that would a clear way to signal a new approach. If the resolution had said, “continued to be authorized, without the need to request the bishop’s permission…” it would be clear. As written, it appears to me that the plain meaning would tell us that EOW is authorized as it has been, “continues”. I wish this had been clearer in the resolution. But what we have now seems to be yet another instance of needless ambiguity.

  2. Heath says:

    Is “denotations” correct in para 14 or did you intend “denominations”?