April 16, 2015

Provisional Provision

A few folks in the more conservative wing of The Episcopal Church have expressed concerns about General Convention's provision of provisional liturgies to be used at the discretion of the diocesan bishop. There is at present no explicit constitutional clause describing such liturgies. Instead, the Constitution speaks of "trial use" of liturgies supplementing or revising either portions or the whole of the Book of Common Prayer -- which liturgies, unlike their provisional cousins, are not to be gainsaid by individual bishops who do not care for them.

There is a move afoot to amend the Constitution to spell out the practice of provisional use (Resolution A066), and while likely a good thing in terms of dotting and crossing the relevant vowels and consonants, it is not strictly necessary, and at this point in time may raise more hackles than it calms. While such provisional or occasional use is not at present explicit in the Constitution, it is implicit in the present Constitution's allowance (Article X) for individual Bishops, acting in accord with the governing rubric of the BCP (page 13), to provide for liturgies for occasions for which no extant liturgy suffices. If an individual bishop can do this within her own diocese, then surely the General Convention, which includes the whole House of Bishops, can by a majority vote make such a provision, subject always to the local bishop's approval for use within her diocese. The House of Bishops first did this just after the turn of the previous century, authorizing a Book of Offices for occasional use. This reached a settled form in 1917, and was amended in 1949 and 1949; and it led to the Book of Occasional Services in 1979, which has itself gone through several revisions. So if the church has been acting in contravention of the Constitution in this regard, it has been doing so for a century; and the text of the Constitution is silent on the matter, so it may well be taken to be settled as permitted. (Article X is about the BCP and its amendment, not all liturgy. For that, see Title II of the Canons.)

I say this as one who does not favor a proliferation of liturgies, but that is an opinion not all share. But opinions aside, I think the General Convention has acted well within the spirit of the law in its past approval of provisional liturgies whose use is contingent on the approval of the diocesan.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG

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