When covering the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer, theology and church history matter


I used to cover the Episcopal Church’s triennial meetings with some trepidation, as they were lengthy affairs with zillions of pieces of legislation floating between House of Deputies and the House of Bishops. One wore out at least one set of shoes racing back and forth to cover them.

I earned a master’s degree from an Episcopal seminary, so going to the General Convention was old home week, as I had lots of friends at these gatherings. There always seemed to be a huge Sexual Revolution issue at stake: Like whether whether women should be bishops or non-celibate gay men ordained as priests. The Episcopalians were usually years ahead of other denominations in the radicality of what they were willing to vote in.

Thus, the Episcopal Church’s current convention in Austin has also attracted some news coverage. The big issue: Whether to declare God a He, She or It. The question has been under discussion for awhile, a press release says, but now the matter is up to vote.

I have no doubt the denomination will vote to create a new prayer book and de-gender God as much as possible. Some clergy have been doing this for years, such as a clergywoman at St. Mark’s Cathedral in Seattle who was replacing the “He” pronouns for the Holy Spirit in the fourth-century Nicene Creed to a “She” years ago. The fact that one just doesn’t change the Christian church’s most recognized creed didn’t occur to her.

For those of you used to praying to “Our Father who art in heaven,” it seems curious the matter is being debated, but apparently Jesus’ references to God, as reported in Scripture, no longer settle this issue.

What will be voted on is whether to revamp the denomination’s seminal piece of literature that guides every liturgy. Says the Washington Post: 

The terms for God, in the poetic language of the prayers written for centuries, have almost always been male: Father. King. Lord. And in the Episcopal Church, the language of prayer matters. The Book of Common Prayer, the text used in every Episcopal congregation, is cherished as a core element of Episcopal identity.
This week, the church is debating whether to overhaul that prayer book -- in large part  to make clear that God doesn’t have a gender.

The way to change all this is to change the God references in the Book of Common Prayer (BCP).

One resolution calls for a major overhaul of the BCP, which was last revised in 1979. A wholesale revision would take years, the church says, meaning a new prayer book wouldn’t be in use until 2030.
Switching to gender-neutral language is the most commonly mentioned reason to make the change, but many stakeholders in the church want other revisions. There are advocates for adding language about  a Christian’s duty to conserve the Earth; for adding a liturgical ceremony to celebrate a transgender person’s adoption of a new name; for adding same-sex marriage ceremonies to the liturgy, since the church has been performing such weddings for years; for updating the calendar of saints to include important figures named as saints since 1979.

The article goes on to explain that the BCP embodies how Episcopalians think and pray; thus to change it according to the mood of the moment is deeply significant.

But here is the journalism issue: All the sources the reporter quotes favor overhauling it over a 17-year period. There are no voices cited against changing the BCP, yet those opponents are very much out there.

Plus, the reporter doesn’t contest some of the very controversial theological questions put out there, such as this priest:

Kelly Brown Douglas, the canon theologian at  Washington National Cathedral in the District and dean of Episcopal Divinity School at Union Theological Seminary, served on the committee recommending a change to gender-neutral language. She said that a revised Book of Common Prayer wouldn’t just replace all the “Lord” with “Sovereign.”
“God as Creator, Liberator, Sustainer. God as the one who loves. We use descriptive words for God, so that we can begin to imagine who God is in our world. That, to me, is the theological challenge, to get away from the static nouns that don’t tell us anything anyway,” she said. “The God that I can see in the least of these. The God that I can see in the face of a Renisha McBride or a Trayvon Martin -- that tells me something about God.”

Any beginning theology student can find holes in that logic. “Creator,” “Sustainer,” etc., are functions where as “Father,” “Son,” etc., implies personality. In traditional Christian faith, God is not a function but a Trinity of persons. (See this essay in The Living Church for more on this).

Also, the reporter has tipped her hand in what she thinks of the question by saying in an earlier essay for the Post’s “Acts of Faith” column that the debate is akin to how Reform Jews felt when they got a non-gendered prayer book in 2007.  The transition was a bit rough, she said, but eventually they all got used to it. The implication is that Episcopalians will get used to this needed change, too.

But what impact will these changes have? Reform Jews have been declining in numbers and Episcopalians have been in a downward spiral for decades.

The Episcopal Diocese of Washington opted earlier this year for non-gendered God references; a headshaker in that its numbers are falling through the floor, according to Aleteia. Is any reporter understanding the fact that messing around with liturgy does not seem to be a way to retain the faithful or to attract a large number of converts?

The BCP has been revised many times since its 16th century inception and I well remember the debates over the 1928 BCP and how whole parishes were built around the idea of not abandoning it for the 1979 version. Its cadences, the work of the legendary Archbishop Thomas Cranmer, have informed the English language worldwide, with phrases such as “til death do us part” and “earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust.” Who can forget Prince Harry saying to his bride, Meghan Markle, on May 19, “with this ring, I thee wed; with my body, I thee worship?” That language came from the 1552 version.  

So please, folks, incorporate some history and theology into your BCP reporting as the Episcopalians prepare to debate the matter. And talk to people on both sides of this debate.

At least the Post did a walk-up to the convention for the church’s 1.7 million members. I’ve not heard a peep from any of the Texas papers, which is where the convention is being held. The ranks of religion reporters in that huge state are severely depleted, so it’s not clear who’s left on the playing field to cover these folk.

FIRST IMAGE is by Ruth Schreiber. It is called "The Female Side of God." 


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