81st General Convention adopts constitutional change defining Book of Common Prayer

By David Paulsen
Posted Jun 27, 2024

[Episcopal News Service] The Book of Common Prayer has a new constitutional definition: “Those liturgical forms and other texts authorized by the General Convention in accordance with this article and the Canons of this Church.”

The House of Deputies adopted that language in an evening session June 26 as part of Resolution A072, which was passed earlier this week by the House of Bishops and endorses a rewrite of the Episcopal Church’s Article X that was first approved two years ago by the 80th General Convention. Constitutional changes require affirmative votes at two successive conventions.

Although the House of Deputies already was on record supporting this constitutional change, in its 2022 vote, this second reading continued to raise concerns among some deputies in the house’s Committee on Constitution & Canons and in the full house. They warned that the resolution’s language was altering an essential understanding of the church’s prayer book. Some also argued that the new language is ambiguous to the point of confusion.

The Rev. David Romanik of the Diocese of Northwest Texas warned that A072 could undercut the long-term cycles of prayer book revision – both eliminating the need for a full-scale overhaul while also making it less likely that the church would come together every few generations to discern and agree on a new version.

“We use it together. We are inspired by it together. We are frustrated by it together. And eventually we decide together when it is time for a new one,” Romanik said. “We are bound by common prayer, and we need to do that work together.”

This constitutional change would not prevent the church from engaging in the kind of deeper and broader discernment Romanik described. Its proponents have argued it enables more incremental changes to the prayer book that some Episcopalians have demanded – such as adding same-sex marriage rites and including gender-neutral language – without spending time and resources on a developing a brand new version.

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 print version of the Book of Common Prayer, whether replacing older liturgies or standing on their own as additions. The Book of Common Prayer has not undergone a full-scale revision since 1979. (That process, to revise the 1928 version, began in 1967.)

The previous version of 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 physical 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.

“This amendment allows us to use our 21st century technologies to continue in common prayer and worship,” the Rev. Ruth Meyers, deputy from the Diocese of California, said in advocating A072’s passage in the June 26 evening session. Meyers, a professor at Church Divinity School of the Pacific in Berkeley, also served previously on the Task Force on Liturgical & Prayer Book Revision, which originally proposed this constitutional change in 2022.

She added that the new Article X doesn’t diminish the rigorous process by which the church amends its prayer book. “Only after that process, which we’ve been using for decades, will new material become part of the Book of Common Prayer.”

A072 was adopted with 84% of the vote in the clergy order and 87% in the lay order. It will take effect Jan. 1, 2025.

Other resolutions advancing at the 81st General Convention would further adjust how The Episcopal Church defines and deploys its liturgies. Resolution B008 is intended to help clarify canonically the difference between liturgies included in the prayer book and other texts, such as trial-use liturgies and supplemental liturgical resources.

And A224 would implement further changes to Article X to address potential confusion identified in the changes that were adopted on June 26. The committee on Constitution & Canons proposed A224 as a sort of compromise measure, although since it would be adopted as a first reading of a constitutional change, the new language would not take effect unless it is approved again in 2027 at the 82nd General Convention.

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