“O Lord, we beseech thee to keep thy Church and household continually in thy true religion; that they who do lean only upon the hope of thy heavenly grace may evermore be defended by thy mighty power; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.” –Collect for the Fifth Sunday After the Epiphany, 1928 Book of Common Prayer
“There was never any thing by the wit of man so well devised, or so sure established, which in continuance of time hath not been corrupted.” –Concerning the Service of the Church, 1928 BCP
Always a small denomination in this country, dwarfed by Roman Catholicism on one hand and the various mainstream Protestant bodies on the other, the Episcopal church has nevertheless exerted a disproportionate influence on public life. It has contributed, for example, an extraordinary number of presidents–from George Washington to George Bush. Some people, of course, have been accused of converting for the alleged social cachet.
Until recently, the Episcopal church set a standard for worship as well. Protestant ministers from many denominations were wont to dip into the Book of Common Prayer for special occasions, borrowing most notably for weddings and funerals. The Book of Common Prayer has in fact influenced all those who live for and with language. For four centuries it survived essentially unchanged, influencing virtually all writers of note in the English-speaking world: its splendid language echoes in the works of writers from John Donne to George Eliot; its influence may be found from Jane Austen to Rudyard Kipling. The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations gives the Book of Common Prayer more than 13 pages, compared to Shelley’s almost 9, Emerson’s 2 and a half, the 8 and a half pages for Anonymous, and Samuel Johnson’s 9. Only the Bible, with 30, Milton, with slightly more than 22, and Shakespeare, with 65, beat it out–and Milton was clearly influenced by the Book of Common Prayer, thoroughgoing Puritan though he was.
But with its antiquated style, the Book of Common Prayer did need to be updated. It should have been done lovingly, with a regard for the beauty of the language and the separate, valuable tradition of the Anglican church. Instead the old language was simply junked in favor of a word-for-word imitation of the changes that have swept other denominations in the last tumultuous decades.
This is the story of the Episcopal church’s lobotomy of the Book of Common Prayer and the tradition it represents, of quiet changes in theology, and of the small but hardy group who oppose the changes.
“Lord of all power and might, who art the author and giver of all good things; Graft in our hearts the love of thy Name, increase in us true religion, nourish us with all goodness, and of thy great mercy keep us in the same; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.”–Collect for the Seventh Sunday After Trinity, 1928 BCP
A brief history lesson on the English Reformation: in about 1527, Henry VIII became convinced that his marriage to Catherine of Aragon was improper because she had been married to his brother; perhaps her inability to produce male heirs played some part in arousing the king’s religious scruples. Pope Clement VII’s refusal to grant Henry a divorce was less a testament to the pope’s views on the sanctity of marriage–such divorces were a routine matter for the well-placed–than to the fact that the lady’s nephew, the Emperor Charles V, happened to be occupying Rome with his armies at the time.
The king called convocations of scholars to debate the arguments for his divorce; from these proceedings he found his pliable archbishop, Thomas Cranmer. Cranmer was consecrated a bishop with the approval of the pope, granted Henry his divorce, and pronounced Henry and his second queen, Anne Boleyn, man and wife in time for the future Elizabeth I to be born legitimate.
The de facto new church that resulted from Henry’s actions was at first totally Catholic but had, in effect, a Tudor pope. Henry didn’t even want English Bibles placed in the churches. His son, the short-lived boy king Edward VI, was a rabid Protestant; his elder daughter, Mary I, a vindictive Catholic.
It remained for Elizabeth, so uneasy on her throne amid conspiracies and accusations of bastardy, to mold the Anglican church into the ecclesiastical fence-sitter it has remained ever since: Catholic in its adherence to the apostolic succession and treatment of the sacraments, yet Protestant in its views on lay participation and its refusal to acknowledge the pope as supreme authority. Because of Elizabeth’s need–and will–to mold all but the most intransigent ideologues into one church, the Anglican faith developed a tradition of relative tolerance, remarkable in an age when others cheerfully slaughtered one another in the name of God.
If the Protestant Elizabeth set the tone for the new church, her godfather, Thomas Cranmer, provided the words, rolling language that has influenced masters of our tongue from Shakespeare to Donne, from Coleridge to Keats, and through them the rest of the English-speaking world. Elizabeth’s prayer book, updated primarily in regard to punctuation and spelling, is still the standard in Great Britain. It was in this country too until 1979.
“Next to the King James Version of the Bible, The Book of Common Prayer has probably had a wider influence than any other book in the English language. It is a product and development of the service books used in the Church for many hundreds of years, and it also contains elements from the Jewish services held in the Temple at the time of our Lord. . . . [It] is one of the finest single collections of great prayers offered by men to God.”–The Episcopal Church: Essential Facts, Executive Council of the Episcopal Church, 1965
“Almighty God, unto whom all hearts are open, all desires known, and from whom no secrets are hid; Cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of thy Holy Spirit, that we may perfectly love thee, and worthily magnify thy holy Name; through Christ our Lord. Amen.”–Collect for Purity, Order for Holy Communion, 1928 BCP
The Anglican Book of Common Prayer, in its historic form, contains one version of each service–Holy Communion, Morning Prayer, Evening Prayer, and so forth–with rules, called “rubrics,” that explain which prayers and actions are mandatory and which are optional. One nostalgic Episcopalian of my acquaintance, who confesses to still reciting the old words under her breath, says wistfully, “No matter where you went in the English-speaking world, you knew what the service would be, and you could always follow it.” No more. The 1979 Book of Common Prayer, the current standard, has three forms of Communion alone, and since the many options within each version mean that the worshiper is constantly hopping about within the tome, the result is rather like a do-it-yourself novel. The name “Common Prayer,” signifying forms of worship held in common, is clearly just a holdover: this book has more to do with the Tower of Babel than with unity.
Beauty of language does not mean much to many current church leaders in any denomination. In the aftermath of Vatican II 25 years ago, the Roman Catholics jettisoned the traditional Latin Mass. They had the excuse of needing to move quickly, to reach people in their own language; the Episcopal church did not. But the swelling tide of ecumenism swept the Episcopalians along; pressure built within the church to dump the traditional Book of Common Prayer in favor of something more “relevant.” The iconoclasts made their first move with the “green book” of 1967.
“It seemed terrible at the time, but looking back, it was nothing compared to what they finally came up with,” says the Reverend Richard Lehmann, a now-retired priest–he was the rector of Saint John’s, Mount Prospect, for 22 years–and still-working artist (he does the artwork on the “partly printeds” sold by the Episcopal Foundation of Chicago for use as bulletins by churches around the country). “It was probably part of a plan,” he says, “making the services worse and worse as they went along, until the final result has nothing to do with Anglicanism.”
Until Father Lehmann’s retirement three years ago, Saint John’s was one of the few churches in the diocese of Chicago to stick to the old book; the new rector generally uses Rite I of the new book, the Communion service that is closest to the traditional version. Father Lehmann, like most traditional Episcopalians, believes that it is only a matter of time until Rite I is itself eliminated in favor of whatever is fashionable by the time the next Book of Common Prayer is produced.
His objections to the new book prefigured those of all the other traditional Episcopalians to whom I spoke: they center around language and theology. “I think the language is garbage, but if that was the only thing, I’d have a hard time objecting to it,” he says. “It’s heretical. It has departed from Anglicanism and from traditional Christianity; it’s really a new religion.” He cites provisions for consecration of women to the order of bishops, something to which there is great opposition in the church; the disappearance of the laying on of hands from the text of the ordination service; the social-justice- oriented baptismal rite; and a Protestant–as opposed to Anglican–statement of belief in the catechism. “The catechism was not in the study copies of the new book; it appeared two weeks before [the General Convention of the church at which the new book was adopted], and was never discussed.”
General Convention, meeting every four years (most recently last summer), is composed of the House of Bishops–rather like the Senate–and the House of Deputies, made up of priests and laity. So far, General Convention permits the use of the 1928 BCP, but under circumscribed conditions decided by each diocesan bishop. Most Episcopalians–traditional or otherwise–to whom I spoke do not expect this grudging tolerance to last.
“O God, merciful Father, who despisest not the sighing of a contrite heart, nor the desire of such as are sorrowful; Mercifully assist our prayers which we make before thee in all our troubles and adversities, whensoever they oppress us; and graciously hear us, that these evils which the craft and subtilty of the devil or man worketh against us, may, by thy good providence, be brought to naught; that we thy servants, being hurt by no persecutions, may evermore give thanks to thee in thy holy Church, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.”–from the Litany, 1928 BCP
On a summer day of record-breaking heat and humidity, two dozen people of assorted ages have gathered in a little suburban church for an extraordinarily long service of Evening Prayer. Saint John’s in Mount Prospect is a far cry from the neo-Gothic and Victorian splendor of churches on the North Shore and in fashionable city neighborhoods. It’s a boxy structure of sturdy red brick on the outside–the cornerstone reads “1955”–and pale green cinder block within. There are long stained-glass windows, but devoid of images of saints or prophets; instead the effect is not unlike that produced by children using sheets of tissue paper and solutions of Elmer’s glue. Small, simple stations of the cross march around the nave; their pale wood matches the blond timber of the unpadded pews into which the participants are slowly melting. Saint John’s does not have air-conditioning.
All the beauty of this little parish church is reserved for the front: a stone wall at the back of the sanctuary with a three-quarter-size Christus Rex depending from a cross in rigid glory, and a striking altar depicting a burning bush. Behind the altar rail three sweating clerics in black cassocks–clergymen, no women need apply–lead their flock through two very prolix psalms and the extraordinarily long and didactic Athanasian Creed, the last word on the topic of the Trinity. Their worship is, of course, from the 1928 Book of Common Prayer, battered copies of which are available at the door, for this is the Chicago chapter of the Prayer Book Society, the organization of traditional Episcopalians, in concourse.
They sing hymns from the 1940 hymnal. The Episcopal church adopted a new hymnal in 1982, but it’s full of such gaucheries as the popular Christmas carol “Good Christian Friends, Rejoice” and “humankind” (instead of “mankind”) wherever possible. The church dealt with the potential embarrassment of “Once to every man and nation, comes the moment to decide” by simply dumping the hymn altogether. But the traditionalists of the Prayer Book Society aren’t having any of that.
Evening Prayer is generally a short service, about 20 minutes; this one runs an hour and a quarter, because they’ve chosen to use every possible option. Afterward, the dehydrated faithful snarf up a couple of bowls of punch and settle down in the steaming, smoke-filled parish hall to watch Firing Line on videotape: William F. Buckley Jr. and a set of traditionalist clergy are demolishing the leftist bishop of Newark on the subject of the ordination of women. I am not entirely at my ease here; I am no longer passionately wrapped up in the questions that absorb these people. I favor the old prayer book, but I have no problem with women as priests.
The members of the Prayer Book Society are a determined lot. This is unsurprising, since those of lesser mettle have either drifted (or stomped) out of the Episcopal church altogether or slid into mildly resentful indifference. Many of the people here today are members of Saint Paul’s Church by-the-Lake, Chicago, the last remaining ’28 prayer book parish in the diocese of Chicago. These are not schismatics; they are determined to remain within a denomination that would prefer that they quietly disappear.
Jim Altena has been an Episcopalian for only a few years; raised a Presbyterian, he was not a churchgoer at all for more than a decade. But he is more devoted to the traditions of the Anglican communion than most of the lifetime Episcopalians with whom he shares a pew. Unlike most of his fellows, the 29-year-old University of Chicago library supervisor and PhD candidate is not afraid to talk of schism should the next General Convention ban use of the old book altogether. “I’d pull out,” he says vehemently. “I’m sick of the swine who are running the church.”
Tall, gray-haired, blue-eyed Louise Gilliom looks as though she’d be perfectly at home at an afternoon meeting of the Episcopal Church Women, pouring tea. She has been a member of the Prayer Book Society since its founding. A parishioner of Christ Church, Waukegan, she attends services there at 7:30 or 11 on Sundays, when Rite I is used. “The rector uses Rite II at 9, when all the children come. Father McCarthy is trying to get them indoctrinated.” She is not fond of Rite I, “But I put up with it,” she says. “I guess that’s what we’re all doing, putting up.”
“O God, who dost ever hallow and protect thy Church; Raise up therein, through thy Spirit, good and faithful stewards of the mysteries of Christ, that by their ministry and example thy people may abide in thy favor and be guided in the way of truth; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee in the unity of the same Spirit ever, one God, world without end. Amen.”
–The Litany for Ordinations, 1928 BCP
The Reverend Daniel Banner, ordained in 1953, is the rector of Saint Paul’s Church by-the-Lake, which uses–almost exclusively–the 1928 Book of Common Prayer. “I get some derision and scorn,” he says good-naturedly, “but it’s all informal and unofficial things thus far. I’m regarded as a great fossil–using the “Stonehenge Rite.”‘
Father Banner says he abides by the letter of General Convention’s law “rather grudgingly.” “Their guidelines are a straw to a drowning man,” he says. “They say we can use ‘texts’ from the old prayer book; I take that to mean I can use the old prayer book. We have to use the new lectionary [or cycle of Bible readings, recently adopted from the Roman Catholics] and collects, and we have to use the new book at one service. So we use Rite I once a month. So far there’s been no formal proscription. I hope we can go on with it; it seems to me it’s keeping a few dozen more Episcopalians in the church rather than out of it.
“I miss the beauty of the collects and psalms; many of them predate the Book of Common Prayer. I don’t think those things should be lost, either to our church or to our civilization. There’s lots of variety in the English church. [The Church of England has] more modern things, but the 1662 book–the basis of ours–is still the official one. In this country, you don’t have to be a great scholar to see the books gradually change up to the present, when there is a very nearly complete break. The 1979 version bears very little resemblance to past books.”
Father William Deutsch, an assistant at Saint Paul’s, has been a priest since 1957 and an attorney since 1975. He says he is not a liturgist–but he does know something about languages. “Literarily, I think the new book is a disaster. They’ve dropped the traditional Anglican forms in favor of others; the ordination service is now more Roman. Furthermore, I have a great deal of skepticism about the translations; they’re not very accurate, and they’re skewed theologically.”
Most of the folks in the pews don’t read New Testament Greek, but Father Deutsch does. “There’s a translation [in the 1979 book] of an old Greek hymn, the Phos Hilaron. In Evening Prayer, the translation they’ve used–‘You are worthy to be praised with happy voices’–is an adaptation of an older translation. But the word they’re translating as ‘happy’ means ‘holy’ in Greek. I’ve tracked it from Homer down, and I can’t find ‘happy.’ It’s a sacral word. Now, this is not a big thing, it’s not the end of the world; but they put these little twists on everything, which I think is basically wrong. It’s all modern pop theology. But the reason I dislike it the most is that it sounds horrible. Whoever wrote it has a real lead ear.”
“I am the resurrection and the life, saith the Lord: he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live: and whosoever liveth and believeth in me, shall never die.”–Burial of the Dead, 1928 BCP
“I am Resurrection and I am Life, says the Lord. Whoever has faith in me shall have life, even though he die. And everyone who has life, and has committed himself to me in faith, shall not die forever.”–Burial of the Dead, Rite II, 1979 BCP
On purely aesthetic grounds, which would you rather have read over you?
“O Lord God, whose blessed Son, our Savior, gave his back to the smiters and hid not his face from shame; Grant us grace to take joyfully the sufferings of the present time, in full assurance of the glory that shall be revealed; through the same thy Son Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.”–Collect for the Tuesday Before Easter, 1928 BCP
John Jamieson isn’t scared. And he intends to fight the forces of Antichurch to the bitter end.
The 32-year-old Jamieson, a clean-cut fellow with a strong chin and the speaking voice of a radio announcer, is a native of Detroit who was raised a Missouri Synod Lutheran. He became an Episcopalian 13 years ago, drawn to the church by studying 17th-century English literature. “The charm of the period was an open door to me,” he says. “It wasn’t something that was obscure or impersonal.” The president of the local chapter of the Prayer Book Society, he not only has the usual objections to uglified language and twisted theology in the new prayer book but also sees a third force at work.
“There’s a cultural issue here, something that’s extrasubtle and reaches into the subconscious,” he insists. “It has to do with the power of language. Communion is the true emotional meaning of faith, and we form our souls according to the truths symbolized in these words. It’s usually overlooked–because it’s unconscious. But the church has a culture, just as secular society has a culture. In its language there are terms that have acquired special meanings, and the roots of that language go way back. People think of it as Shakespearean, but Shakespeare was writing later. It’s such an important literary text that it has shaped the English language. There are echoes of the Book of Common Prayer throughout English literature. Study literature, and then read the Book of Common Prayer–and you’ll be hit with the full import of what is [the writers’] source.”
Jamieson cites a frequent objection to the new baptismal service: “There’s a Gnostic element [a heresy holding that salvation can be achieved through knowledge rather than solely through the grace of God], and there’s an emphasis on social revolution.” The new service requires the celebrant to ask the godparents and the congregation: “Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?” “I don’t mean to say that the revisers are all Communists or Marxists,” Jamieson says, “but Marxism is definitely in the air among academics, and liberalism that draws so heavily on Marxism is practically indistinguishable from it. There’s a lot of secular theology: bringing the kingdom of God to earth by a human agency.
“The liberals and academics are keeping up with the latest theological trends in seminary. There’s a great deal of existentialism, and watering down God from a personal savior into some vague abstraction. Because they are having a crisis of faith, the church needs some other purpose–and it becomes simply a benevolent institution.
“This radicalism of religion has gone through every standard denomination. There’s a lot of crossbreeding going on. The radicals have taken over the ecumenical movement; they have their footnotes in order, they’ve read Hegel and Marx, and they know what they’re doing. Because they have doubts about God, they’re bent on turning the church into a radical movement. The orthodox are irrelevant, and must be done away with; the church is a more effective tool without them. The liberals and radicals have taken over most of the influential positions [in the church], mostly through the carelessness of the conservatives. That’s a judgment on us.”
The prayer book is not the only issue that concerns the Prayer Book Society. They are also concerned with the ordination of women, which they hold is not only unbiblical but antithetical to the beliefs and traditions of the Catholic church as a whole. They are particularly concerned that the recent Lambeth Conference, a convocation of Anglicans from around the world, opened the door to the consecration of women. The American Diocese of Massachusetts almost immediately elected to consecrate a woman bishop.
That woman, the Reverend Barbara Harris, would not seem to be an ideal candidate for a bishopric by any normal standards: she was consecrated this year, after less than ten years as a priest, and her entire career in higher education consists of nine hours of college and a couple of correspondence courses in theology. She never attended seminary at all. Best known as a radical columnist for a left-wing magazine called Witness and as a champion of the FALN, the Puerto Rican terrorist group, she has never had a parish. Her primary qualifications seem to be that she is female, black, and far to the left. Jamieson, who spoke in protest at her circuslike consecration, says, “This is when it hits the fan.”
“Question. What do you mean by this word Sacrament?
“Answer. I mean by this word Sacrament an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace given unto us; ordained by Christ himself, as a means whereby we receive this grace, and a pledge to assure us thereof.”
–Offices of Instruction, 1928 BCP
What are the theological questions involved in the BCP revision? Have more than the words been changed? The members of the Prayer Book Society talk a great deal about gnosticism, to the befuddlement of the revisers, who tend to think of that heresy as specific to the early church, something that has long passed into obscurity. In fact, when modern-day traditionalists talk about gnosticism, they seem to mean the substitution of secular humanism for the old-fashioned Christian value of salvation through faith.
If you accept as essential to Christian faith the twin doctrines of the incarnation (that Christ as God became human to dwell among us) and the atonement (that Christ died for our sins) it is possible to go through the 1979 BCP and examine how that faith has been watered down, and to some extent been changed. The Anglican communion acknowledges seven sacraments. Two are major: baptism and Communion; and five are lesser: confirmation, matrimony, unction, penance, and Holy Orders.
In traditional Catholic belief, baptism brings with it regeneration, or rebirth, for a sinful humanity afflicted with original sin. As Saint Paul put it, we are saved “Not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to His mercy He saved us, by the washing of regeneration, and renewing of the Holy Ghost; which He shed on us abundantly through Jesus Christ our Savior” (Titus 3:5-6). According to the Reverend Jerome Politzer, president of the national Prayer Book Society, in a pamphlet called A Form of Godliness: An Analysis of the Changes in Doctrine and Discipline in the 1979 Book of Common Prayer, the essential doctrine of regeneration has been removed in favor of a new idea: initiation. The references to original sin and to the necessity of baptism for salvation–a pair of fairly basic Christian tenets–are gone. According to the new rubrics, “Holy Baptism is full initiation by water and the Holy Spirit into Christ’s Body the Church. The bond which God establishes in Baptism is indissoluble.” The rubrics say nothing of regeneration, or of sin.
Politzer writes: “The doctrine of Initiation, in regard to baptism, has no organic foundation in either the Bible or Catholic tradition. Initiation is entirely a man-centered, secular concept. . . . The doctrine of Initiation applies more truly to membership in the country club, the radical political activist movement, or the psycho- social encounter group than it does to incorporation into the Body of Christ.”
In the days of the early church, confirmation was a part of the baptism service, and in the Eastern Orthodox rites it still is. In the Episcopal church baptism and confirmation have long been separate, because of the prevalence of infant baptism. Traditionally, children have been catechised in their faith and brought to the bishop for confirmation–the laying on of hands, the imparting of “the seven-fold gifts of the Spirit”–in about the sixth grade, when they were old enough to speak for themselves. The sacrament made them adults in the eyes of the church and eligible to receive Communion.
Confirmation, once mandatory for church membership, today is optional. Once priests made sure that no one received the consecrated bread and wine who had not been confirmed in the Episcopal church (or received into it, in the case of people formerly Roman Catholic or Orthodox). The attitude today is strictly, “Y’all come!” Confirmation, once the opportunity for people to confirm baptismal vows made for them by others, today makes little mention of the Holy Spirit or regeneration. Instead the person being confirmed should have “an inquiring and discerning heart, the courage to will and persevere, a spirit to know and love [God], and the gift of joy and wonder in all [his] works.”
The Roman Catholic church holds to the dogma of transubstantiation, the belief that the bread and wine of Communion become the actual body and blood of Christ. The Lutherans prefer consubstantiation, the belief that the Real Presence of Christ enters the bread and wine but that they don’t become flesh and blood. They use as illustration of the concept iron heated white in a fire but not changed in its nature or weight. The English and Eastern churches managed to keep their feet off this particular piece of flypaper, merely accepting the Real Presence and Christ’s real sacrifice and not asking too many questions about how it’s done. Protestants call it simply a “commemoration” for purely symbolic purposes.
At the center of the Eucharist is the simple fact of Christ’s atonement on the cross: Christ, says the orthodox Christian, was the propitiation (in Greek, “atoning sacrifice”) for the sins of the whole world. But in what Politzer calls the “doctrinal smorgasbord” of the new book, you’d hardly know the cross–Christ’s suffering–counted at all. In only one new prayer of consecration does the cross raise its embarrassingly primitive and messy head; in five others, it barely rates a mention. The theme of repentance, always central to orthodox ideas of Communion, has been largely eliminated. With eight possible eucharistic rites, Politzer writes, it’s “an open invitation to all the secular and gnostic teaching and practice in the Church from Simon Magus to boy-evangelist Jimmy Joe Jeeter.”
The new marriage service seems to acknowledge that a lot of people using the always-tasteful Episcopal church for their wedding ceremony don’t really subscribe to this religion or to any other. It has been reconstructed so as not to give offense, without a lot of mention of Christian doctrine.
The sacraments of penance and of unction have been opened up so that deacons and laypeople may administer them. And Holy Orders has been opened up to women. Most traditionalists argue that this is the most sacrilegious change of all, going against almost two millennia of tradition, the expressed views of the other churches who are bearers of the apostolic succession (the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches), and the will of Jesus himself–who could, they point out, have selected female apostles if he’d chosen to. The service for ordination cuts one of Thomas Cranmer’s most beautiful and spiritual prayers; it also chops the vow that the new priest will be “ready with all faithful diligence to banish and drive away from the Church all erroneous and strange doctrines contrary to God’s word.” “Heresy” is not in the lexicon of the new, relevant Episcopal church.
The overall effect of the changes is to alter the theology of the Episcopal church without taking the trouble to debate it openly or to decide formally what Episcopalians believe. But words, like actions, have consequences.
The National Cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul in Washington, D.C., is billed as “a house of prayer for all people.” It is the de facto mother church for Anglicans in the United States.
Its bishop actively encourages all kinds of ecumenical activity, but he wouldn’t let the national convention of the Prayer Book Society hold an Evening Prayer service in the basement chapel. He said it might offend people.
“For through faith you are all sons of God in union with Christ Jesus. Baptized into union with him, you have all put on Christ as a garment. There is no such thing as Jew and Greek, slave and freeman, male and female; for you are all one person in Christ Jesus.”–Saint Paul’s letter to the Galatians, 3:26-28, New English Bible
“The language of the ’28 prayer book is something of an acquired taste,” says the Reverend Chilton Knudsen, a female priest ordained in 1981 who in 1987 accepted a position with the Episcopal Diocese of Chicago’s office of pastoral care. This was a first in this historically rather misogynistic diocese: in the past, women have not played a large role. “Many people off the street who are seeking Christ have found its idiosyncrasies difficult,” she says of the old prayer book. “The new book is a marvelous evangelical tool. There are a number of things which we now have verbatim in common with Rome, and I think that’s very helpful.”
The Reverend Knudsen says that when she encounters someone who objects to female clergy, her standard response is, “Thank you for telling me. I don’t take it personally; I don’t take it as a judgment on me. I’m so grateful that we’re dialoguing.”
The Reverend Knudsen says she has found four basic objections to her priestly work. “First is the argument from Scripture, primarily Saint Paul [that women should keep silent in church] and that the 12 Jesus chose were all male. But one central tenet of the Anglican faith is that Scripture is not to be taken literally in the same sense that a fundamentalist would take it. . . . The second is a kind of traditionalist one, that we should be in concurrence with the others in the Catholic tradition. But those people never felt that way about any other issue. Third is the sense that only a male can image Christ . . .
“And the fourth is a deep-in-the-gut thing of female inadequacy. People who have that are the hardest to talk to for me, because I worked really hard to appreciate myself as a female. It dissolves into simple irrationality real easily: ‘The church is my one anchor in a changing world, I need a man at the altar, I can’t existentially cope with this paradigm shift.’ It’s probably the entry point for the other reasons.”
The Reverend Knudsen, who has a definite preference for Rite II, says she’s used the ’28 book “probably a dozen times, in accordance with canon law.” But she’s not comfortable with it, saying: “I find myself very self-conscious of the meaning of using it for people. I find Rite I close enough. And I really love some pieces of Rite II.”
In 1988, the Prayer Book Society sponsored a poll of 800,000 lay Episcopalians who were not members of the PBS or on its regular mailing list. Of that group, 73.9 percent endorsed prayer-book freedom of choice by parish; 72.8 percent believed the laity should have a greater voice in decision making within the Church; 52.3 percent opposed the consecration of a woman bishop; and 28.9 percent wanted a complete return to tradition.
“God of all power, Ruler of the Universe, you are worthy of glory and praise . . . At your command all things came to be: the vast expanse of interstellar space, galaxies, suns, the planets in their courses, and this fragile earth, our island home. . . . From the primal elements you brought forth the human race, and blessed us with memory, reason, and skill. You made us the rulers of creation. But we turned against you, and betrayed your trust; and we turned against one another. . . . And in the fullness of time you sent your only Son, born of a woman, to fulfill your Law, to open for us the way of freedom and peace.” –Liturgical Prayer C, Holy Eucharist, Rite II, 1979 BCP
“Ho-zanna, hey-zanna, zanna, zanna, ho,” says Robert (not his real name), a free-lance liturgical cynic, of Liturgical Prayer C and other elements of the new book. Robert is an employee of an Episcopal parish that uses Rite II for most of its services. Because he needs his job, he has asked to speak anonymously. “It’s got it all, hasn’t it? The ecology, freedom ‘n’ peace, and Star Wars–the movie, not the defense system.” I tell him it has always made me think of Star Trek, and he smiles indulgently: “You’re dating yourself.”
Robert, a 40ish bachelor, has had lay-reader training and other liturgical studies. One of his special objections to the new prayer book is that even in parishes formally using Rite I, large chunks of Rite II are frequently introduced. “Father X is always throwing in liturgical prayers, or the confession, from Rite II. I think it’s because these priests get bored with doing the same old thing all the time. They like the new book because they can pick and choose, like a buffet: one of these and one of those.”
Then there’s the Nicene Creed, which historically began credo, “I believe,” but has been “restored” to credemus, “we believe.” “Sounds nicer, doesn’t it?” asks Robert. “More like togetherness. When the Council of Nicea wrote the thing [in 325], they said credemus because they were the ones making the statement of faith. But when they sent it out to the church as a whole, it became credo, because it’s a personal thing. It’s an individual thing. You can only affirm your own faith, not the guy in the next pew’s.”
Robert points out that the membership of the Episcopal church has been draining away over the last two decades, from over three million confirmed a quarter century ago to under a total of two million baptized today. “But [the hierarchy doesn’t] care. If you were sitting on as much cash and prime real estate as they are, you wouldn’t worry either.”
“Let us pray. . . . For those who have lost their faith
For those hardened by sin or indifference
For the contemptuous and the scornful
For those who are enemies of the cross of Christ and persecutors of his disciples
For those who in the name of Christ have persecuted others
That God will open their hearts to the truth, and lead them to faith and obedience.”–a prayer for Good Friday, 1979 BCP
The Reverend Canon Carlson Gerdau has small patience and less sympathy for traditional Episcopalians. On the staff of the Episcopal Cathedral of Saint James, he was the diocese’s officially designated spokesman for this article.
Canon Gerdau is not particularly friendly to one whom he perceives as a traditionalist. He denies that the new book contains Gnostic elements: “I don’t even know what you’re talking about.” Asked about theological changes in the 1979 BCP and the traditional Anglican heritage, he responds, “Anglicanism has always claimed to be in the mainstream of the Christian tradition. Each age’s emphasis is different.”
He disagrees with my definition of a traditional Episcopalian as one who prefers the old traditions, including the traditional language. To him, apparently, a traditional Episcopalian is one who buys completely into the church’s teachings du jour. When pressed, however, he responds: “What is happening to a person [who insists on traditional language]? Is Christianity determined by words? Are they not in many ways denying God’s actions if it doesn’t happen with a certain set of words? It’s really a form of idolatry, and substituting something else for God.”
Canon Gerdau blames the decline in church membership on the declining birthrate.
In 1988, the Right Reverend Alden Hathaway, bishop of Pittsburgh, reported to General Convention, “In the last 25 years, we have lost one-third of our membership. . . . We have become a church which takes our agenda down from whatever is ‘hot’ at the moment. We have become a trendy people, ‘tossed to and fro and carried about with every wind of doctrine,’ Ephesians 4:14.”
Jim Rosenthal is the diocesan communications officer, or as he puts it, “the information person.” He has visited almost every parish in the diocese, including Saint Paul’s Church by-the-Lake. “That it’s a dismal place would be a kind thing to say about it. There’s no outreach. It’s a small place, and it gets smaller as each one dies. I don’t think anything creative is being done in traditional parishes.
“What surprises me is how few [traditionalists] there are. I rarely get a call asking for a 1928 service, or even Rite I.”
Rosenthal agrees that “there’s a different theology in the 1979 prayer book, for sure.” But he argues that that’s a plus: “There’s a great deal of emphasis on the ecumenical movement, and of course Rite II brings us in line with the Roman and Lutheran churches.”
John Jamieson laughs at the characterization of Saint Paul’s as “dismal,” and he denies the charge of idolatry. “First of all, Christ is the Word. The revelation of Christ has come down to us through a literary text, which has been conserved very carefully. Words are the medium of communicating the highest truths; we can never be too sure about the depth in our consciousness upon which language operates.”
Why do most churches now use the new book? “[Priests] made the change, very often, to save their careers. Very often, bishops pressured their clergy to make the change: “If you want to destroy your future, fight this tide.”‘
“All these priests are so sympathetic toward almost anything,” says Robert. “You can tell them you lust after Rin Tin Tin, and they’ll understand. But tell them you prefer the old Book of Common Prayer, or that you don’t like the sociopolitical changes [within the church] of the last 20 years, and they become very unfriendly. It’s ‘Do it our way or go to hell’–literally.”
The Reverend Gregory Norris, the rector of the Church of the Ascension in Chicago and one who has accepted the new prayer book, agrees: “There’s no question that those priests exist; there’s no question that that’s the attitude: ‘Tough luck, get with it.’ I think it’s just terrible. I would respect [a person’s] need to use the ’28 book.” Father Norris, who recently celebrated the 25th anniversary of his ordination, is a thoughtful, friendly man who is willing to discuss his reasons for embracing the ’79 BCP, using Rite I at the early Eucharist and Rite II the rest of the time.
“I like the recovery of the more patristic outlook,” he says, “theologically speaking: it’s based on the early church fathers, as opposed to medieval thinkers . . . I like the prayers of consecration for the Eucharist. I like the restoration of Holy Week as the center of the whole church year. I think that very often traditionalists talk a lot about a shift in the theological emphasis–but I think that the shift toward restoring Holy Week is a shift that is very good, with its concentration on the Paschal.” He doesn’t understand the Prayer Book Society’s contention that the new book is Gnostic, and doesn’t think a case can be made for a left-wing slant to its contents: “I think social concern must be linked with worship.” Nevertheless, he has reservations about some aspects of the language.
“It’s basically pretty good, but there are infelicities in it; the worst of the infelicities are in some of the ecumenical texts. The Gloria, the Lord’s Prayer–they’re just not felicitous. I’d rather have the old prayer book translation of the creed–just change the thees and thous to yous and yours. I do value language, but I don’t personally go along with wanting to hold onto the old prayer book.
“I guess I wish that the people who like the old prayer book could accept Rite I–it would be a way to have most of the things that are precious to them and still get the benefits of the new version, such as moving the Gloria to the beginning of the service. I honor and respect where they are–I know it’s painful to change. I’m saddened, though, because I think they’re going to be increasingly isolated, and not isolated in any healthy way. If it’s because of language only, it’s not a sufficient reason to be isolated from the rest of the church. If it’s for theological reasons, one has to hold to one’s convictions, no matter what.”
Father Norris questions whether all members of the Prayer Book Society are as well-informed as they might be. Attending one General Convention, he looked in on the PBS booth, “And not a single person in the booth had even looked at the [new] book,” he says. “That, I think, is very nonconstructive. I think there’s a lot of fear there.
“I do think that the beauty of language in the old prayer book is really wonderful. But it is the nature of language and society to change.” Father Norris has his own problem with change: he opposes the ordination of women to the priesthood, “because I believe our Lord didn’t intend that.” He says he could not serve under a female bishop.
“They’re such difficult times, aren’t they? It’s hard to keep your balance,” he says. “There are those forces who would sweep it all away and don’t care about the past, and those who wouldn’t change anything. I find I have to live between the two of those–and t’ain’t easy.”
Madeleine L’Engle is a noted writer; among many other books, she has written the Newbery Award-winning A Wrinkle in Time. She is, in her words, “a cradle Episcopalian,” and she readily agrees that her Anglicanism has influenced her use of language and of symbols. Many of her books are set in and around New York’s Cathedral of Saint John the Divine.
Although she’s not a ’28 BCP loyalist, L’Engle nevertheless dislikes the phrasing of the ’79 book as only the language-attuned can. She jabs at “inclusive language,” summing it up with: “Dear Mother-Father of Personkind.” And she especially resents the quiet changes in theology in the new book. “They’ve taken away our myth,” she snorts. “If they’re going to do it, they should do it publicly.” She points at the rewording of the Nicene Creed, which she says has removed the old concept of the virgin birth of Christ. “They’ve changed my myth. I can’t say the creed anymore.”
“We therefore pray thee, help thy servants, whom thou hast redeemed with thy precious blood.
“Make them to be numbered with thy saints, in glory everlasting.”–from the Te Deum, 1928 BCP
“This is another day, O Lord. I know not what it will bring, but make me ready, Lord, for whatever it may be. If I am to stand up, help me to stand bravely. If I am to sit still, help me to sit quietly. If I am to lie low, help me to do it patiently. And if I am to do nothing, let me do it gallantly. Make these words more than words, and give me the spirit of Jesus. Amen.”–prayer for use by a sick person, 1979 BCP
For those who reject the changes in the Episcopal church–“I didn’t leave the church, the church left me,” is the common refrain–schism does not seem to be the answer. Anglican schismatic movements have a way of withering fast: when I attempted to track down a half-dozen “independent Anglican” outfits for this article, I came up with a half-dozen dead ends. Still, just last week in Fort Worth, Texas, representatives from five conservative dioceses and others from individual parishes met to explore the possibility of setting up on their own as a “church within a church,” or as a separate province of the Anglican communion, like the Episcopal church in the United States or the Church of England.
John Jamieson definitely plans to hang tough. (He also plans to attend seminary in the fall.) “I think there are always going to be a certain number of people who want to be Anglican and don’t want anything else, and they’re not going away. Some people have been scared away–but there’s a core here that just gets more determined with every setback.”
“I do live with a great sense of discomfort and apprehension,” says Father Norris. “I think Barbara Harris’s election will change the nature of Anglicanism. I think now we’re in a waiting period to see what settles out–Anglicanism is never going to be the same, and it fills me with dread.”
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Kathy Richland.