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.


* * * * *

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.


9 thoughts on “On the Prayer Book and the killing of many trees

  1. Excellent article! Thanks, Wayne! I would appreciate your sharing of the digital resources you use. I believe it would be very easy to modify the current practice to publish the bulletin by WiFI to use with your own device (BYOD in the industry).


    • Thanks, Allan. General Convention last year was (nearly) paperless, with leased iPads for every bishop and deputy, and the network open in the worship space for visitors to use their smartphone for the liturgy. A few parishes in Missouri have bulletins available in the cloud but still use printed bulletins, a transitional solution I suppose. I am an avid user of Logos software and have been for about twenty years.


  2. I agree. I know it can be frustrating flipping back and forth, but you have to use the BCP to learn how to use and cherish it. Detailed instructions can still be printed. More teaching needed.


  3. I understand your point, but I think the printing of numerous and voluminous bulletins is a result of the real difficulty of finding your way through a single service in the 1979 BCP. In the 1928 you could just hold the BCP and the next service item is next in the book. The only changes were for hymns and service music, and there were many fewer service pieces in the 1940 Hymnal, so churches tended to stay with one service if they expected the congregation to sing. There are many choices in the 1979 BCP, and without the printed bulletin, people spend all their time flipping back and forth, often not finding the next item until it is over. This is particularly difficult for children who are learning the service. As a children’s choir director, I can barely teach the kids to follow along when switching from the BCP to the hymnal – they lose their places so easily and are not fast readers. The variety available in the service may be pleasing to some people, but it is a direct cause of confusion and non-participation. The long printed bulletins may include more variety, but I believe they are an attempt to help people to participate. At my church, that is exactly why we introduced them.


  4. I appreciate this reflection.

    I understand that some parishes print the whole service leaflet to make it simpler for newcomers. Our parish does not. We print a simple leaflet with references to the page numbers in the BCP & Hymnal 1982.

    I typically, and intentionally, take my seat rather late. I scan the people to see who may be new, and I try to sit with them. I can recite the whole service without use of the BCP. But I’ll whisper “Do you know the drill?” or something like that. If they don’t, I use the BCP in the pew, flip to the correct page, and hand it to the visitor who seems unsure of BCP navigation. When we do a Big Flip (e.g., to the Prayers of the People), I find the page and swap books with the visitors. When we sing a hymn, I point them to the blue hymnal (and quickly past the Service Music).

    In my experience, this helps me set up a relationship with the visitors so we can more easily chat after the service.

    I wish someone had done that for me when I first began worshipping in the Episcopal Church. I remember the frustration I felt as I tried to follow the service in the BCP!

    Let me also say “Amen” to your words about the richness of our BCP. The more I know it, the more I love it. Often is the time that I flip to page 814ff and find a prayer that precisely suits my need.

    Fortunately, I have never been so bored in an Episcopal service that I needed to read the “Historical Documents” section of the BCP. 🙂


  5. My remarks here I make chiefly because I think this is most important–especially if we have in mind newcomers or visitors to our worship. It can be confusing, daunting, puzzling if there is no printed-out service with all words right there before them.

    [One thing I do NOT like, however, is a big screen up front with “bouncing-ball” words to follow for everything, including music that’s provided or led mostly by a loud band! I attended one of those recently in California (Diocese of El Camino Real) recently and was turned off greatly by it. They even had a strange ceremony of everyone being given a seashell, then taking that as a symbol for all sins to be forgiven at the Confession and leaving it up front!]

    Even though I, too, am concerned about global warming and the killing of many trees, I think it’s well justified in our worship. I am no newcomer, having used the 1928 book for the years almost from its first publication (!) till 1976, when we started using the 1979 Book of Common Prayer, a wonderful and rich treasure to be sure, as well as the 1940 and 1982 hymnals of our beloved Church. Yet, I attended a church just today where I was lost several times because of two different printed leaflets (neither of which had the Scripture readings printed out), and had to find the hymn numbers either on the hymn board up in front or one of the two sheets. So, it was a case of flipping among two sheets, two books, and trying to have some sense/feeling of worship and wonder, too. (Almost made me feel like 4 sheets to the wind!)

    I agree with Virginia S. Moe about the ’28 book, the ’76 one, and the two hymnals also of the last century. In an attempt to enrich our worship, which we have done pretty well, but we have indeed made it more complicated and difficult for many children, perhaps very old people (of whom there are many in our pews now, and will be in greater proportion likely as the years roll along), and even as I say above for well-experienced Episcopal worshipers like me, a priest of 58 years! And I’m not sure the Bishop is right when he writes that “Episcopalians tend to opt for green choices, and we might do well to bring that predilection to our arranging for the liturgy.” (p. 2.) That may be true for the more liberal ones, but what percentage of all Episcopalians drive the more efficient, small cars, live in smaller, energy-efficient homes or apartments, and the like? Not that we should therefore “sin bravely” and cut down all the trees we want to make worship easier, but we need to put all this in proper context.There are all kinds of “greener” choices today, in many ways.

    I think it would be good for all Episcopal churches to have the Book of Common Prayer (BCP) available to each worshiper, as well as the Hymnal 1982. But some older people I personally know simply cannot read the small print of either, so definitely need large-print service booklets, printed just for that day, with music and words included, including Service Music. These could be given sparingly, with an announcement at the outset that encourages use of the smaller booklet by all who can read it and the hymns in the Hymnal without difficulty. Visitors or persons with very poor eyesight should not be denied the larger-print option if it be suspected by an usher that that is the case. And all should be encouraged to take the booklets home for the announcements and (importantly) for non-church members to get more familiar with our worship.
    I know this is impracticable in many especially smaller churches or any without adequate staff and technical means to effect this sort of thing, and I don’t know the answer to that, other than just to continue to use the two regular books for worship, guiding the worshipers along with page numbers, hymn numbers and the like as needed

    So far as getting used to, and using the 1976 BCP is concerned, an occasional instruction about it, the pastoral and ordination services, prayers at the back, and so on would be the way to go, I think. Of course this would be in addition to Confirmation classes. Many several-decades worshipers in our Church where no BCP has been used for decades, would benefit by this as well.

    So, I am not for a minimalist, but a “maximalist,” use of printed service booklets. Let’s make our Church and its worship “user-friendly,” welcoming, and poised for growth, not shrinking back into fondly familiar patterns for ourselves of using mainly the BCP with its many hurdles for visitors and possible new members. What Lisa Fox does to help newcomers is praiseworthy, but there aren’t too many “old-timers” in my view who would do all of those things with/for newcomers.
    Let’s be about the proper worship of our Church, without getting too pedantic or technical for the average person-in-the pew, and about the growth of our often declining Episcopal Church.



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