June 6, 2009

Tinkers’ Curse

It is not within the authority (nor in many cases the competence) of individual bishops and parish clergy to tinker with (or radically revise) the texts of the Book of Common Prayer on their own initiative. I have no difficulty with bishops exercising their constitutional authority to allow for the development of liturgies for which no common text exists — though even in this case a bit of research may turn up work already accomplished elsewhere with greater grace and wisdom.

But when it comes to the texts of the Book of Common Prayer, it is important to recall the penultimate word: Common. These are not my prayers, they are our prayers. They are not mine to tinker with, to alter as the whim (or the Spirit, or the Ego, or both) strike me. There is plenty of scope for creativity in the liturgy without the need to refashion the Eucharistic Prayer or the Baptismal Covenant to suit my own peculiar views. This isn’t about peculiarity, but commonality.

These common prayers are there precisely to be central and uniform (though in the Eucharistic Prayer with considerable variety from which to choose.) They are the center stabilizing point of the compass whose inclusive reach can best be extended and expanded with a rich selection of hymnody (though there are limits there as well! — read the rules), vibrant preaching, and intercessory prayer adapted to the hearts&rsquo content of the people for whom and by whom it is offered.

To those individuals tempted to tinker with the Common Prayer, I offer some old advice, “Put it down; it don’t belong to you.”

— Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG


Thomas Williams said...

Preach it!

June Butler said...

My sentiments exactly, Tobias. Be creative in the liturgy without messing with the basic text of the faith, the BCP, and especially leave the Creeds and the rites of Baptism and the Eucharist alone.

Lisa Fox said...

Preach it, Brother Tobias. A hearty "Amen" from me.

Priscilla said...

I love my BCP (both the print and the iPhone versions, LOL) but they are not the central focus of my faith. I guess I'm not a good Episcopalian since I don't place the books of the faith above the lived practice, perhaps a reaction to very bad experiences with biblical literalists over the years of my life.

This saddens me greatly to see this issue dividing many of us yet further. I respect and love all of you but I feel far apart from you all on this issue and I feel it very strongly and I hate the feeling of separation statements like these cause in me. So be it.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Thanks for the comments. Priscilla, I too hate to see this being a point of division -- but nor do I think I'm trying to place the books above lived practice. I see the books as the stable foundation towards good lived practice -- Bible and BCP. As to interpretation, style of worship, and all the rest, it is from the foundation that the building will rise -- and it can be Classical, Baroque, or Bauhaus! But if there is no foundation, no shared common words we can all say together, yet to which we bring our own accents, meanings, and intentions -- then I fear we will drift apart, or be driven even further apart, each into our own separate world of words, and thus lose sight of the one Word who is at the heart of all our worship.

Bless you, and know that you are loved and lifted up.

June Butler said...

I guess I'm not a good Episcopalian since I don't place the books of the faith above the lived practice, perhaps a reaction to very bad experiences with biblical literalists over the years of my life.

Priscilla, I see participating in the worship of the faith community as part of the lived practice. Sharing the liturgy with my community sustains me and strengthens me in my determination to go out and live the Gospel for the rest of the week, however imperfect the results may be.

Марко Фризия said...

Oh, I agree! With the wonderful options from the "Enriching Our Worship" series and the "Order for Celebrating the Holy Eucharist" framework (commonly known as Rite III in the BCP) I can't see any justification for deviations from the BCP texts. So much flexibility exists already without any need to tweak the texts. I grew up using the 1928 BCP. I still catch myself calling the 1979 BCP "the new prayer book." That's really funny considering that the 1979 proposed book has been in use (initially as a "proposed book") for 33 years. I don't see this issue as some form of literalism or separation. It's all about respect for our common values and beliefs. In a way, it helps hold us together. Prosper of Aquitaine said, "The law of praying is the law of believing." I don't think our liturgical texts shouldn't be considered as being set apart from praxis. I particularly love the psalter in the 1979 book. After daily use for so many years, those psalms have become part of who I am.

Bill Carroll said...

It seems like there are probably two very different interpretations of the lex orandi going on among tinkerers and non-tinkerers. It would probably take a long essay to tease that out.

Liturgies do develop and change over time. Local customs do emerge and are sometimes taken into the Church's liturgy. But liturgy is intended to be a catholic, communal, public act, i.e. common prayer. And we tinker with the prayer that forms us at our peril. True liturgical renewal requires that we meet a higher standard in order to discern the mind of Christ.

Kirkepiscatoid said...

Once again, Tobias you have very eloquently stated the crux of what has been my unease involving a particular situation on the Episcoplanet.

I say this with full knowledge of also having personally crafted a few things for "special services." The most important thing my priest told me is to pay attention to the italics in the BCP.

For instance, if I were asked to write a "special intercessory prayer," p. 359 of the BCP says the intercessory prayer must include the following:

1. The Universal Church, members, and mission;
2. Nation/all in authority;
3. Welfare of the world;
4. Concerns of the local community;
5. Those who suffer/are in trouble;
6. The departed

There is a lot of creative leeway in there, you know? Um...kind of like icon painting!

What I have learned from those sorts of experiences is that it does not "stifle my creativity" but it makes me incredibly aware of our common worship, and the need to preserve the common parts to honor the needs of all the church, not just "what I want to do."

Fr. Bryan Owen said...

Amen, brother! And thank you for posting this.

Brother David said...

I stand with Priscilla, and respectfully agree to disagree.

Country Parson said...

Good post and interesting comments, but what inspired it in the first place?

Unknown said...

Amen! I first saw this post over at Fr. Bryan Owens' "Creedal Christian" and commented there. Because it is your post that Fr. Owens reproduced, I repeat my comment here (as he suggested).

I firmly believe that, as an Episcopalian (Anglican), I should feel perfectly comfortable walking into any Episcopal Church anywhere in the United States and know that when I do, the liturgy that I will share is going to be substantially the same one that I experience in my home parish (that is, our common prayer and common liturgy as approved by our church and published in our Book of Common Prayer). That, unfortunately, has not always been my experience. I have learned to be suspicious when I enter an Episcopal Church to find a "Service booklet" being used instead of the prayer book.

I'm glad to see this post Fr. Haller. As one of the dreaded dinosaurs within TEC, a committed traditionalist, conservative, orthodox (or however others might choose to label me), I rarely find much on your blog that I can embrace. This I can, and do so fully.

God's peace. <><

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Bryan, thanks. Dahveed, noted, with similar respect.

CP, this has been on my mind for a long time, as it seems to have become more common for clergy to take liberties with the common texts. Some of these, I admit, are essentially harmless, minor, and ex tempore -- which I generally find annoying when I encounter them. Often such "on the fly" amendments seem to be banners of partisanship rather than substantial efforts at serious theological reflection.

However, I've also seen more intentional (but not necessarily more theologically adept) revisions proffered here and there, with sometimes extensive alterations that radically revise the texts away from their original meaning. Quite apart from this being a violation of the canons, I find it undermines the unity of the church, and tends to produce parishes with the atmosphere of a boutique -- a specialty shop that offers a liturgy to be found no where else. (I readily admit such things happen in terms of music and liturgical style -- but at least the text has a common center. With the text altered, everything is literally up for grabs.) It seems to me that the further apart parishes are, the more they should aim for being as plain vanilla as possible -- good vanilla, of course, organic beans with heavy cream -- not only for the sake of the visitor or newcomer, but in order to have more in common with the wider church. In more urban settings, parishes can, I think, risk more variety in style (though not, as I'm attempting to note here, substance). But if the only church in town is offering a liturgy that is not BCP -- I can only think it will become more and more peculiar and isolated as time goes on.

The proximate cause of my writing came out of a discussion in which I was involved concerning the revision of the baptismal rite by the Bishop-elect of No Michigan. In this post, I by no mean intended to point a finger only at him -- it became in issue the discussion, because as a bishop he would be charged with opposing such revisions, as well as the threat they introduce to the unity of the church. -- but my concerns go far beyond the issue of consents to elections, to the broader question of what kind of a liturgical church we are, and the missional importance of sticking with a principle form of visible unity (the Common Prayer).

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Thanks, Joe. (I think... No, really; thanks! At least we have something important in common.)

Марко Фризия said...

Father Haller, One question: Are you OK with parishes using non-BCP materials produced by the Standing Liturgical Commission and authorized by General Convention (and with use of An Order for Celebrating the Holy Eucharist as specified in rubrics on BCP pp 400-401?). I totally agree with your post. But I am also curious if David (Dah.Veed) & Priscilla thought perhaps you were rejecting those extra, authorized options? We are permitted so much flexibility with the liturgy in the 79 PCB (and we have approved BCP texts available in non-English languages) I can't understand why anyone would feel the need to deviate from approved texts.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Dear Marko,
Oh no... I have no trouble with the authorized texts in EOW (though their use requires the permission of the bishop -- a nicety I imagine not always observed!). In fact, I've celebrated a number of times using the EOW eucharistic prayers (though not in my own parish, but as a guest celebrant.) On the whole, I find them a bit too wordy -- but so was Rite I! (And I actually don't mind wordy, as you can probably tell... ;-)

Unknown said...

I'm always amused when I thumb through worship leaflets/bulletins from parishes and dioceses who complain the loudest about the need for orthodox biblical-based uncompromising we-have-the-final-and-unalterable-answerness. What amuses me is when the worship service barely resembles The Book of Common Prayer, or has been stripped of inconveniences to make it palatable, e.g., only one reading.

A number of years ago GIA Publications Inc. of Chicago had a button: "Stick to the script."

A careful read of the Prayer Books rubrics reveals perplexing flexibility possibilities. Together with Enriching Our Worship, the ability to engage the worshipper in the work of the Liturgy.

plsdeacon said...

Fr. Haller,

Amen! to what you said. It is the Book of COMMON Prayer, not the book of my prayer.

There are times to innovate with the liturgy (a Summer Camp Eucharist may be such a time) or to experiment with new ways of expressing our faith. But the norm for the congregation's worship on Sundays should be the Book of Common Prayer. The "supplemental liturgical texts" should be used for "supplemental" worship!

I remember (a number of years ago) attending worship a the Cathedral of St. Mark in Seattle. I was 3/4 of the way through the Lord's Prayer before I realized that is what they are trying to say!

In addition to sticking to the words and rubrics of the BCP, we should also stick to the translations of Holy Scripture that are authorized by General Convention rather than picking our own favorite translation or even our own personal translation. Save the personal translation for Bible Study or even for the sermon, but use the translations authorized for worship.

Phil Snyder

Kirkepiscatoid said...

There is only one EP in EOW that we've ever used (we've used it in a once a year outdoor service at shelter house at the local state park) and we almost never use EP-D; seems A, B, and C are plenty for "regular" worship.

On rare occasions (home Eucharist/house blessing/family gathering) I have crafted a "special" prayers of the people, but by the time you include all the things in italics, it pretty much looks like Form III with a few extra stanzas.

It seems in my mind, it has to pass the "duck" test. You see it and say, "that's a duck." Might be a mallard, or a wood duck, or a pintail, or a domestic duck, but it's still a duck.

I am not so much concerned with the actual "literally every single word" part, because every branch of Anglicanism has different wordings for the same prayers. But all the parts of the forms must be there to pass the "duck" test. IMO. I realize others' mileage might vary.

RENZ said...

Thank you, Tobias.

Lisa Fox said...

I was sad to see Priscilla's comment above.

Let me just tell my story -- not to argue any point or deny the truth of anyone else's story.

I came into the Episcopal Church after the adoption of the '79 Prayer Book. Reading and talking with other people in the '90s, I came to believe there were some defects in the '79 BCP. I privately substituted pronouns. I changed "he" to "she" in the last part of the Nicene creed. I adopted and said several other gender-neutral words, such as "Creator" instead of "Father."

Eventually, I came to believe that I was wrong. Wrong for me. I'm not saying it's wrong for anyone else. The words I speak from the BCP are the words of the whole Episcopal Church. This is what "we" believe -- not a protestant, private version of what I believe. In the last couple of years, I have reverted to saying the words as written in the BCP. If/when our General Convention changes those words, I will change with them. In the meantime, I came to realize that my uttering my private words was merely contributing to Babel.

As for me and my cats, we will recite the BCP texts. {grin}

Unknown said...

Fr. Haller,

One follow up to your response to my earlier comment, I think that we have two things in common: we both desire to walk toward God; and for that we can both be thankful. I pray that we both find the way. I am reminded that the gate is narrow, but the reward is great!

God's peace.

Joe <><

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Thanks for the additional thoughts. Joe, I pray that as we approach God together, we will find we have very much in common! Peace and joy in Christ be yours.

G said...

I was also saddened by Priscilla's comments, and even more puzzled by David's apparent "drive-by" assertion without argument.

What precisely is the "lived faith" that we are supposed to value above the books? If it's not a shared and story and experience, defined in common, then it does seem to be, per Lisa, private and Protestant. Priscilla says she supposes she isn't a good Episcopalian, and I'll reserve judgment, but I do wonder what the appeal is of a church that values common worship for someone who doesn't. Why would one be an Episcopalian if one believes the baptismal liturgy to be in error to such an extent as to require unauthorized revisions? Or worse, if one simply doesn't believe the words used in baptism are important?

Prior Aelred said...

Yes -- this was my issue with the No MI consents when I saw the Baptismal Liturgy used -- if someone wants to understand the BCP liturgy in those terms, so be it -- if you refuse to the BCP liturgy because you disagree with it, there are problems ...
I think the EOW translations of the Creed & the Benedicite are improvements -- not the Benedictus or Magnificat (changing from proclamation to prayer is my issue) -- for the sursum corda, if we can say "it is meet and right so to do" then "it is right to give our thanks and praise" is the way to go (IMHO)

Jane R said...

I left a long comment (I think it was here, not the post above) and Blogger ate it -- or perhaps you were moderating and did not post it. Did I offend? I did not mean to.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Dear Jane,
You have not offended, except perhaps against Blogger's 4096 character limit on posts. I've been caught in that myself once or twice. The problem is, once you click to post the comment, it is very easy to miss the message that says you've overspent the character limit, and when you close the window the message is lost. I invite you to re-compose in a WP and then clip in two, and cut and paste to post. I'm interested in hearing what you say!

Jane R said...

Oh dear. I must not have left a long theological comment in a while and gotten carried away there. And I was trying to be brief!

I am in the middle of writing and editing a Big Theological Tome and am on deadline, so my reconstructed comment may have to wait. In between edits, I am much preoccupied with an old and dear friend who is dying many miles away. (See FB and my blog) But I shall return...

I do think some flexibility and adaptation are just fine, in fact necessary, even and especially with the BCP structure, and I also was raising some questions about gender and culture. They are perhaps related to Priscilla's concerns. Also, I worry about a certain literalism of the book - the Prayer Book. Worship the living God, not the book, and all that. But I'd best not start. Will be back though, I hope with clarity and charity! Pray for my friend, meanwhile, that her death be gentle.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Jane, I look forward to your comments. My only thought at this point in reaction to your short note here, is that considering the wide range of inclusive language and culturally sensitive material that has been developed through the official processes of the Church, I'm not sure how much further tinkering at the local level is absolutely necessary.

Good luck on the Tome; and I'm sorry to hear about your friend's illness --- especially at a far remove. May the angels gently welcome her into the everlasting abodes.