Thinking outside the book: Re-imagining Common Prayer in the 21st Century

There’s a great deal of discussion among Episcopalians about the possibility of prayer book revision. I’ve been thinking about the English Reformation, Anglicanism, and contemporary Christianity in light of the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, and it occurred to me that the Book of Common Prayer is very much a product of the print culture that emerged in the 16th century and to talk about “prayer book revision” is rather odd in a context dominated by the internet, smart phones, and digital media. So here are some reflections about thinking “outside the book.”

A few weeks ago, I noticed that a visitor was holding her personal Book of Common Prayer as she greeted me after the Sunday service. I tried to think back to the last time I had seen someone with their own BCP. There’s a man his mid sixties who comes occasionally who brings with him a leather-bound 1928 BCP. I remember a few people at my former parishes in the South who did. There, I assumed it was partly an identity marker—Baptists always carried their bibles with them to church; so it would be natural for Episcopalians to distinguish themselves from other Christians by carrying their BCPs.

That got me thinking about the Book of Common Prayer as a book, and about the already much debated idea of “prayer book revision.” My primary experience of the Book of Common Prayer is no longer as a “book,” and I assume the same holds true for most Episcopalians. I use an app for the Daily Office; when I preside at worship, I either use the printed or electronic service bulletin, or an electronic book of common prayer on my ipad. My prayer book hymnal combination is used primarily as a hymnal, although I do take it with me on pastoral visits, I suspect largely because of its symbolic power both for myself and for the one I am visiting.

My copy was given me by the parish in which I became a Postulant for Holy Orders. It is well-worn, the binding is now ripped. I have worshiped with it nearly every Sunday for almost twenty years. I have prayed from it at bedsides and at gravesides. Its feel in my hands is etched in my memory. It is an old friend but also a frustrating annoyance. Liturgical forms that I use regularly but not included in the Book of Common Prayer are taped in the endpapers and constantly fall out. The post-its and tabs I’ve added to help me find my place go missing and I end up leafing through to find what I’m looking for. It is impossible for me to read the text or hymns in less than ideal lighting. For all of those reasons I have come to rely on digital versions for private devotion and presiding.

The Book of Common Prayer is a product of print culture. From the beginning, it was a particularly adaptation of the liturgy to print culture. Both in its use of the vernacular and in its emphasis on “common” prayer, i.e. that the same text was used by clergy and laity, and it was used throughout England, it helped to unify the English Church and shape Anglican piety.

The unifying power of the Book of Common Prayer both in fact and symbolically, may partially explain why prayer book revision has always been a challenging project. I wonder now whether, in the twenty-first century the call for prayer book revision holds symbolic power precisely because of the lingering appeal of the symbolic power of a Book of Common Prayer. Advocates for revision point to its lack of inclusive language, the dominance of the theology of substitutionary atonement, the need for a new marriage rite, among its many other shortcomings. I agree with all of this.

But to conceive of liturgical reform and renewal as “prayer book revision” seems to me to be remarkably shortsighted when we are in the midst of a technological revolution that seems to be transforming the way human beings interact with each other, with authorities of all sorts (including textual authority) and with meaning-making.

Print culture establishes an authoritative text and tends toward uniformity and conformity. The Book of Common Prayer is appealing in part because of the appeal of a shared liturgy across space and time. In the Roman Catholic Church, the Tridentine Mass suppressed local traditions just as the Elizabethan Book of Common Prayer shaped the Church of England.

By their very nature, books, being bound, create distinctions between what is included and what is excluded. If a text exists primarily in electronic form, there is a sense in which it is ephemeral, it cannot be fixed or authoritative and it invites a more organic relationship between reader and text. It also creates a different kind of community—one that is not limited geographically.

In some ways, the internet makes possible a relationship between text and reader (or in the case of liturgy, text and participant) that is rather more like the relationship of text and reader in the age of manuscripts—when a copyist could include his own notes in the margin, or change the text entirely, and a later copyist might not know that those changes had occurred, and make changes of her own.

We make such liturgical changes already. We introduce inclusive language in responses or use forms from Enriching Our Worship that are less troublesome theologically. But what might it look like to invite creative engagement with liturgical forms in an age of smartphones and interconnectivity?

Envisioning liturgical reform in a digital age seems to me to invite innovation and engagement. It encourages us to rethink our relationship to liturgical texts, and to rethink the human relationships that are created and nurtured in worshiping communities.

My fear is that “prayer book revision” will focus entirely on getting the text right and not reimagining the ways communities and human beings are created and sustained through the liturgies enacted by the texts.

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