On the Prayer Book and the killing of many trees

A liturgical vogue in the Episcopal Church for the past two decades or so has been the weekly printing of very full service bulletins for congregational use. Much more detailed than the service outlines found in bulletins from an earlier time, these leaflets, pamphlets really, may contain all or nearly all the liturgical texts, plus the readings and hymns. They are easy to use, and that’s the point. No worshiper has to open a Prayer Book or Hymnal. Sunday worship then becomes user-friendly, and particularly visitor-friendly. This style of bulletin also allows the use of liturgical texts outside the Prayer Book and hymns not in Hymnal 1982, the usual copyright laws pertaining. (See below)

Principles of congregational development often include encouragement of these fuller sorts of service leaflets. They help make a church within the liturgical traditions, like ours, less strange, less baffling for the first-time visitor. They also help every-Sunday worshipers know their way around. They ease the handling of many books and things. I have a vivid recollection of juggling two hymnals, a Prayer Book, a service leaflet, and a palm on the Sunday of the Passion, aka Palm Sunday. Ah, the good old days.

These are good reasons for publishing a pamphlet-like bulletin every Sunday. The bulletin used in my last parish tilted this direction—lots of text but usually no hymns. But there are good reasons to retain, or return to, a minimalist bulletin to direct the use of Hymnal and Prayer Book. Let me detail some of these.

The minimalist approach is greener. I often cringe when I see piles of thick, single-use leaflets discarded after the Sunday Eucharist, and I wonder about the killing of many trees. Moreover, the mass production of clean, white paper on which these bulletins are printed requires toxic resources, another problem. Prayer Books, on the other hand, never die. Church Hymnal Corporation, now Church Publishing Corporation, used the Smyth binding method to produce every bound edition of our current Prayer Book. This includes the beta-test edition, er, Proposed Book of Common Prayer 1976. I often find these old books in the pews of the parishes that I visit, a little worn but not worn out.

Worship planners may or may not weigh the environmental costs in deciding for the whole-service type of bulletin. Episcopalians tend to opt for green choices, and we might do well to bring that predilection to our arranging for the liturgy.

The Prayer Book is for priest and people. It is an error to think that the Prayer Book is a book for the priest—or even primarily for the priest. The technological revolution of the moveable-type printing press made the English reformation possible, exponentially expanding the distribution of both Bible and Prayer Book. These books powered the reformation in England. The Prayer Books also consolidated into one volume the variety of liturgical books necessary in the medieval era. The people could, and did, follow along with books which had been in the hands the priest only, the Missal and the Manual, the Breviary and Pie. Hand-written books limited the supply, so before the printing press, books were expensive beyond imagination. Chaucer’s Clerk, in Canterbury Tales, carried twenty books with him, a sizeable library for a poor cleric, and too precious to leave at home while he was on pilgrimage. Chaucer himself may have owned as many as sixty volumes, an enormous private library in the day. Books mechanically printed became vastly cheaper and widely available to people of all sorts. The availability in turn increased the incentive for literacy, and the ability to read intertwined with the new piety. So the priest read from the Prayer Book, as did the people. Their doing so implicitly holds the priest accountable: “It doesn’t say that in my book!”

The technological revolution of the last thirty years has effected, and continues to effect, another shift in availability of texts and in in piety. The shift to digital for distribution of media is the new printing press. The outcome of the shift, especially as it affects the life of faith, remains unclear since the shift is ongoing. One positive effect of this revolution in technology lies in making texts more available than ever. I have 2720 volumes available in my theological research software alone. Chaucer would be envious. They are available on my laptop, my smart phone, and my tablet. I use the software to pray the office, to study the Sunday scriptures, to read contemporary and historical texts of the Christian tradition. Then there are hundreds of thousands of texts now available on the internet.  The downside of this electronic availability is that it is increasingly impossible to get lost in a book. Email notification will interrupt, or a beep from social media will ring out. I can ignore notifications, of course, but they will already have intruded. The formation of an attention span, crucial to the spirituality that I know, becomes elusive. And here I have only addressed the issues of texts; the matter of images and videos expands both possibilities and distractions, and who knows exactly how they are shaping people’s faith today.

Back to the Prayer Book as a book for priest and people. The production of the fuller style service bulletin typically emerges from the massaging of various electronic media—texts, images of hymns dropped in where they belong, logos, photos, and artwork. The production is easy, and the finished product can be lovely to see and to hold. Much responsibility, however, lies in the one who compiles these bulletins. The compiler can find it simple to deviate from the Prayer Book, and no one is likely to say: “It doesn’t say that in my book!” Accountability thus becomes more complicated.

The whole Prayer Book in its whole is an irreducible resource for what Episcopalians believe.  Now is the time to trot out the best know Latin cliché in our tradition: lex orandi lex credendi. That is, the law of prayer is the law of faith. Prayer shapes believing, and vice versa. The dynamic between the two, praying and believing, proves more complicated than appears on first glance, the fantasies of would-be Prayer Book revisers to the contrary. The manner of praying shapes the on-going tradition but remains accountable to the tradition. Leveraging wholesale doctrinal shifts by changing Prayer Book language is disingenuous, perhaps even cynical.  Lex orandi lex credendi makes for a two-way dynamic, which furthermore looks to sensus fidelium for its fullest measure—not just to the most recent meeting of the General Convention of the Episcopal Church.

I am no Prayer Book fundamentalist. Just because it is in the Prayer Book does not make it true. I hold, for example, that the Prayer Books in the heritage of 1552 and 1662, with the truncated Eucharistic prayer emblematic of the English Church, are in error—or at least inadequate. The prayer in this tradition ends with the institution narrative, and includes no true epiclesis, no mention of sacrifice. To the fuller blessing of the Episcopal Church, the Scottish Episcopalians, from whom we received our manner of praying at the Eucharist, restored the prayer to its catholic and orthodox fullness. But that is a story for another time.

Even with this caveat, it remains true that Anglican theology is always set to the music of church bells, as I once heard Michael Ramsey say. If you want to know about us and what we believe, then come worship with us. The texts which we use when we pray still matter, even when no claims of inerrancy attach to them. So, for example, how Episcopalians pray when ordaining a bishop sums up what Episcopalians believe about bishops. For my own edification, I reread the Examination (BCP, 517-18) with some regularity. Here is what our Church expects from its bishops. I reread prayerfully the Consecration (520-21) on the anniversary of my ordination, on Ash Wednesday, and on Easter Day.

The Prayer Book includes this rite for no practical reason. The Episcopal Church has used the rite for the Diocese of Missouri a mere ten times in 175 years! It is there mostly to illuminate the faithful, under the heading lex orandi lex credendi. The Prayer Book includes rites in which some people, if not most, will never participate. Having the book in digital form, although handy beyond measure, also allows the fragmentation of all the rites. If a believer sees Confirmation, for example, as a discrete rite only, in that special bulletin for the occasion he, or she may not realize how it sits in an orderly progression among the other Pastoral Offices, a flow that takes the believer through death. Or the setting of Holy Baptism immediately following the Great Vigil of Easter allows each of the rites to inform the other, simply by placement. One would not notice this fact if the liturgy comes entirely from a printed bulletin.

The Prayer Book in the pew is a resource for bored teenagers and many other people. If a sermon is not working for somebody, then there is always the Athanasian Creed. Or the Golden Numbers to work out the date of Easter. Or the Great Vigil of Easter. Or Burial of the Dead Rite I.  Curiosity about the Prayer Book might not be the first choice of the bored, but it has rescued and ultimately fascinated many of us over the centuries.


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An excursus on copyrights. Remember that the Prayer Book 1979 has no copyright, nor has any Prayer Book in the heritage of the Episcopal Church. The Prayer Book by design has been an open-source publication, for the enlivening of worship in this church and beyond, not the raking-in of royalties. In our church the certificate of the Prayer Book Custodian stands in place of a copyright and serves as guarantor that the publication conforms with the standard. Curiously, perhaps anachronistically, there is a certified copy of the Standard Book of Common Prayer in my keeping. By canon every ecclesiastical authority has such a copy. If anyone wants to check a purported edition of the Prayer Book against the standard within this diocese, I could probably arrange it. But only after a determination of why it is that you have so much time on your hands.

The Prayer Book aside, most other liturgical materials, including the trial liturgies of the previous generation and the current rites in the Enriching Our Worship Series (EOW), have a copyright. Often the publications release the copyright for use in congregational liturgies. EOW explicitly states this permission, alongside the notice of copyright. Many hymns lie in the public domain for use without the publisher’s permission, but most remain under copyright. It is ethically and legally worth checking.