Bishops, deputies consider finalizing constitutional change defining Book of Common Prayer

By David Paulsen
Posted Jun 23, 2024

UPDATE: On June 24, the deputies’ committee reconsidered its “no” vote on A072 and reversed itself, voting 7-5 in favor of recommending the resolution. 

[Episcopal News Service – Louisville, Kentucky] The Book of Common Prayer is 475 years old, yet Episcopalians in 2024 remain at odds over how to properly define their prayer book or even whether it exists solely as a physical book. Such questions generated vigorous debate two years ago at the 80th General Convention, and this week, they again underlie one of the most contentious resolutions before the 81st General Convention.

Resolution A072  is known as a “second reading,” because it proposes changes to The Episcopal Church’s Constitution, which requires approval at two consecutive meetings of General Convention. One of the central changes would more clearly define the Book of Common Prayer as “those liturgical forms and other texts authorized by the General Convention in accordance with this article and the Canons of this church.”

That is the language, a rewrite of the Constitution’s Article X, that was approved in 2022 by the House of Bishops and House of Deputies after a series of revisions. This year, however, some deputies have raised concerns that the new Article X is ambiguous to the point of confusion.

“The meaning of the first sentence is open to two or three interpretations,” the Rev. Matthew Olver, a vocal critic of the resolution, told Episcopal News Service on June 23 after a meeting of General Convention’s committees on Constitution & Canons. He serves on the deputies’ committee as a deputy from the Diocese of Dallas.

Get full, updating ENS coverage of the 81st General Convention here.

Committee meetign

The bishops’ and deputies’ committees on Constitution & Canons meet June 22 at the Kentucky International Convention Center in Louisville, Kentucky. Photo: David Paulsen/Episcopal News Service

A day earlier, on June 22, those committees rendered a mixed decision on A072. Bishops and deputies are assigned to parallel committees that typically meet and deliberate together, though they vote separately on whether to recommend resolutions. The five bishops on Constitution & Canons voted unanimously in favor of A072, while that vote failed, 4-6, in the deputies’ committee.

(On June 24, the deputies committee, after discussing and recommending a related resolution, B008, chose to reconsider its earlier vote on A072. It then voted 7-5 in favor of recommending A072.)

Because the House of Bishops is the “house of initial action” on Constitution & Canons resolutions, A072 will next go to bishops with a recommendation to approve. If the bishops reject it, the resolution dies. If the bishops pass it, it will advance to the House of Deputies for a floor debate and possible final adoption.

Olver, a professor at Nashotah House Theological Seminary and publisher of The Living Church, said he understands that language in the Constitution need not be as specific as the language of The Episcopal Church Canons, which detail how the core principles established by the Constitution should be carried out. But “if we’re going to revise the Constitution, the meaning needs to be straightforward and clear.”

When bishops and deputies passed the “first reading” of this change in 2022, the intent was to establish a constitutional foundation for elevating to “prayer book status” certain liturgies that are not yet in the Book of Common Prayer, whether replacing older liturgies or standing on their own as additions. Some of the support for such of a change was rooted in a desire by some church leaders to incorporate same-sex marriage rites and gender-expansive liturgies into the Book of Common Prayer, which has not undergone a full-scale revision since 1979.

The existing Article X of the Constitution lays out how the Book of Common Prayer can be revised, but it does not address the status of other authorized liturgies that are not proposed revisions to the existing book. Over a dozen liturgical texts have been “authorized” – for trial use, experimental use, or simply “made available” – by General Convention over the years.

The debate in 2022 also centered on whether the term Book of Common Prayer still just applied to the physical book or also could refer to the text in other forms, such as on a website or a PDF document.

By making this change, the church would be “acknowledging that common prayer is evolving,” the Rt. Rev. Jeffery Lee, the former bishop of the Diocese of Chicago, said at the 80th General Convention while serving as chair of the bishops’ Committee on Prayer Book, Liturgy & Music. “And it creates a framework for that evolution to happen, including the inclusion of a number of different rites in a curated collection.”

For now, it remains unclear how much opposition the constitutional change’s second reading, A072, will face this week in the House of Bishops and House of Deputies, though Olver isn’t alone in raising concerns. The Rev. Scott Gunn, a deputy from the Diocese of Ohio and executive director of Forward Movement, wrote critically of A072 in a blog post summarizing the Constitution & Canon resolutions.

“We have too much liturgical chaos in our church. The last thing we need to do is confuse people who ask the question, ‘What is the Book of Common Prayer?'” Gunn wrote. “And then, on the face of it, there’s just the straight-up Orwellian strangeness of calling something a book when it is, in fact, not a book.”

But the Rev. Ruth Meyers, a deputy from the Diocese of California and professor at Church Divinity School of the Pacific, pushed back against criticisms of the constitutional change proposed by A072.

“I do not think the language is ambiguous. I think the language is clear,” Meyers told ENS on June 23 after attending the 81st General Convention’s opening Holy Eucharist. Article X generally defines the Book of Common Prayer, and “we interpret that by the actions we take at General Convention, the changes we make to Canons as we go forward.”

Meyer, vice-chair of the deputies’ Committee on Prayer Book, Liturgy & Music, previously served on the Task Force on Liturgical & Prayer Book Revision, which originally proposed this constitutional change in 2022. (The Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music has drafted answers to common questions about A072 here.)

“The resolution allows us to hold onto what we cherish in the 1979 Book of Common Prayer … and opens us to adding other materials that address contemporary concerns,” she said. It also adds a requirement that new liturgies be approved for trial use before being considered for inclusion in the prayer book.

“We preserve our process, our very conservative approach to prayer book revision which requires [votes at] two successive conventions,” she added. “So, I think this is a good resolution.”

– David Paulsen is a senior reporter and editor for Episcopal News Service based in Wisconsin. He can be reached at dpaulsen@episcopalchurch.org.


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