Uncommon People in Common Prayer

Much of the time, we don’t read directly from The Book of Common Prayer—like, from the actual book—most Sundays at St. Michael’s. You probably see it every week, peeking over the pew racks in back of each row, right next to hymnals and miscellaneous information cards. But, except those faithful who gather at the 7:30 service, we use wonderfully produced, edited and printed (or, downloaded) worship bulletins that keep us from having to juggle hymnals and prayer books, and allow us to draw in additional words and prayers from the wider church as we celebrate worship together.

Each time we gather, whether we pick up the actual book or not, our liturgy is guided by The Book of Common Prayer. The first BCP was issued in England in 1549, at the beginning of this long church tradition known to us as Anglicanism. Our current BCP in The Episcopal Church was issued in 1979. This one is the 4th official edition (1789, 1892, 1928 were the three prior ones), though there have been some small revisions to those versions in between the major jumps. Some still miss “the ’28,” others consider the actual BCP functionally irrelevant, and still more believe a new BCP is long overdue. I know this, because you tell me.

It takes a long time for the entire Episcopal Church to agree and issue a new edition of the BCP. The process begins and ends with the work of General Convention. (General Convention is the governing body comprised of lay people, clergy and bishops from all the dioceses of The Episcopal Church, meeting only once every three years.) Once a decision to issue a new BCP is voted up by General Convention, it takes just less than a decade, in a best-case scenario, for the new version to be issued. As you may know personally from past experience, or might imagine as one of us with fewer than four decades in this denomination, the revision process for the BCP can be emotionally charged, passionately debated, and inordinately contentious. The words we say together—week after week and year after year—saturate our hearts; the rituals and forms we engage over time get into our bones. And some may insist that only words to which they can intellectually subscribe should be printed or said together at all. Just getting the process of revision started can take many years, and there is a lot to work through as a church.

The Book of Common Prayer is at the center of pretty much everything we are and do as The Episcopal Church. We don’t hold standalone statements of doctrine and confession to which one must give assent as a prerequisite for belonging. Conformity of thought is not required as a gateway to membership. Rather, our rituals are the path in. We sojourn together along a way of “lex orandi, lex credendi”—praying shapes believing—to engage the words and liturgies of the tradition at the heart of our particular expression of Christian community. This center holds us, as we bring our beautiful diversity of individual thoughts, questions, convictions, values and hopes together into this great body of uncommon people in common prayer.

I’ll write more soon, about how we make specific liturgical choices as a local Episcopal Church parish, one with such a progressive and open character as St. Michael’s. I’m especially looking forward to questions, comments and objections to these notes as we get to know one another and walk together in these still-early days as people and priest.

With you,
The Rev. Scott Painter, Rector