A reflection on Holy Eucharist liturgy changes for fall 2015 at St. George’s

This Book of Common Prayer found in the Elsie Lewis Room is actually from 1977--it's a "proposed" BCP.  Its use was "authorized...as an alternative at any time or times to the established Book of Common Prayer, for a period of three years, as from the First Sunday of Advent, 1976,
This Book of Common Prayer  (BCP) found in the Elsie Lewis Room is actually from 1977–it’s a “proposed” BCP. Its use was “authorized…as an alternative at any time or times to the established Book of Common Prayer, for a period of three years, as from the First Sunday of Advent, 1976.”

When I arrived at St. George’s last January, I was immediately struck by the vibrancy of the worship life here. All the Sunday services had a distinct and wonderful energy. People ask me to name my favorite service, and I cannot do it. I love them all. In these first months, I have made a few adjustments and tried a few experiments in the worship services but have left their general structure in place. My sense is that the structure works well. We have a balance of two “traditional” services at 7:45 and 11 a.m. and two “alternative” services at 9 a.m. and 5:30 p.m. These services include the Holy Eucharist, in keeping with our Book of Common Prayer’s direction that the Holy Eucharist is the principal act of Christian worship on the Lord’s Day (Sunday BCP p. 13). We also offer compline, a simple service of chanted prayer, at 8:00 as a wonderfully traditional way to close the day. To offer this kind of variety is pretty unique for a parish our size in the Episcopal Church. Thanks be to God!

As part of The Episcopal Church we are expected to follow the Book of Common Prayer for our worship together, unless granted permission by the bishop to deviate from it. Years ago, the bishop gave permission for St. George’s to offer a service known as “Rite III,” designed in keeping with the BCP’s Order for Celebrating the Holy Eucharist on pp. 400-401. The prayer book is clear that this is not to take the place of the principal Sunday celebration of Holy Eucharist. St. George’s been using some additional resources for this Sunday service at 9:00 a.m. including “Enriching Our Worship I (EOW I)” a supplement to the BCP approved by the Episcopal Church in the late 1990’s. As we go back to our 9:00 service this fall, we will go back to a similar format with jazz music and alternative prayers. We have changed a few of the words to match what is in EOW, so that we are using words that are used by other congregations in the Episcopal Church that have adopted EOW. We are still people praying “in common” in some form or fashion. A slightly different practice will be saying a creed or affirmation of faith and a confession on alternating weeks. One week we will offer a creed and the next we will say a confession. This keeps the service a little shorter (which is helpful for getting to our classes on time following the 9:00). It also exposes us to the creeds and confession prayers in a lighter way. The 9:00 service was started, partly to reach out to families and people who might find a traditional service too heavy. Creeds and confessions can be hard for some folks. I do not want to omit these parts from the service completely, though, because they are important foundations of our worship life. At the same time, I do not want these parts to become stumbling blocks that make it hard for some people to worship. I hope that alternating their use will be a middle way.

Our other alternative service, Celtic evening prayer and Eucharist at 5:30 p.m. will stay consistent with a few prayers changed for variety’s sake. This service was started as a way to reach people for whom a gentler, quieter worship experience, later in the day, would make it possible for them to come to church. It was modelled after a similar service at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Richmond and uses language from the Iona Community in Scotland. Iona is an ecumenical, Christian community dedicated to exploring new ways of sharing the Gospel. Some people have asked why we no longer say the Lord’s Prayer at this service according to the version found in the New Zealand Book of Common Prayer. Our bishop, Shannon Johnston, has been very accommodating of St. George’s requests to have alternative worship. However, he has asked that we stick to the versions of the Lord’s Prayer found in our Book of Common Prayer for any official service of worship. As Episcopalians, the authority of bishops is important. At this point, I want respect his wishes, especially given that he has been so flexible in other ways. I do think at some point we can ask him more about his preference. He is definitely open to dialogue.

Likewise, our traditional Eucharist service, Rite I, at 7:45 will also remain consistent. The language in this service is the closest we have to the original Book of Common Prayer from our roots in England. In such an historic congregation as St. George’s, the fact that we offer this service is a testimony to those foundations. We might occasionally offer Rite I at another time, because we have some folks who really enjoy the tradition but find 7:45 a.m. too early an hour.

Our principal Sunday service is the 11:00 a.m. Holy Eucharist, Rite II. When I arrived here, I became aware that this service had been modified from the language of the BCP, and that these changes were not without some controversy. Some people welcomed language, especially in the Eucharist prayers that reflected more gender-neutrality or inclusion of feminine as well as masculine references to God. Others felt these changes were not appropriate for our principal service, since they did not follow the BCP. I have engaged the congregation and our bishops in conversations about our liturgy, because I am new here and want to understand more. Those conversations are still in process. For now, the response I have received from our bishops is that we should restore our principal service to follow the prayer book. Personally, I wish that the revisions of the 1979 BCP had gone farther to be gender neutral or gender inclusive. However, I am not comfortable editing the prayers of our BCP without some wider guidance from the Church. After all, if every Episcopal parish edited the prayer book on their own, we would risk losing some of our identity as people who worship in common.

At the same time, there is also a “tradition” in the Episcopal Church of pushing the envelope! I did continue the practice of editing the prayers in my first months, because I did not want to make too many changes too quickly. I love our Episcopal Church, because we are a church of the “via media” the “middle way.” I have decided (in consultation with bishops, clergy, staff, and parishioners) to make the following changes for the fall, until Advent (to be reviewed as seasons change and conversations continue). As rector, the liturgy is ultimately my responsibility, though I am thankful to share that responsibility with others. We will use the language of the BCP at 11:00 with a couple of additions where they are allowed. Pastorally, I know that many St. Georgians just want to worship using the prayer book and felt that the previous changes were forced upon them. There are also many St. Georgians who love the prayer book and traditional music but are averse to patriarchal language. There are places in our liturgy where the prayer book gives latitude for the celebrant to insert prayers of his/her choosing. One place is the Prayers of the People. There are forms provided in the BCP beginning on p. 383, but the instructions make clear that adaptations and insertions may be made. We will balance between forms from the book and prayers composed by our own St. George’s prayer guild. Following these prayers, there is a “concluding Collect,” and ending prayer. The BCP says the celebrant may select “a Collect expressive of some special need in the life of the local congregation” (BCP p. 394).

For this season, we will pray using a medieval text by the great Anglican archbishop, Anselm of Canterbury. His prayer makes reference to Jesus as a mother figure (inspired by Luke 13:34; included in the Enriching Our Worship materials). I have chosen this prayer, because I hope it will addresses a pastoral need of those in our 11:00 congregation for language that is not exclusively masculine. Another place where the celebrant has options is the blessing at the end of the service. You may hear me or others using feminine as well as masculine language or simply language that is gender neutral. Again, this is my attempt to find a middle way. I realize that there is no way to make everyone happy. Let us try these changes for a season and keep the feedback coming.

I also want to suggest, perhaps controversially, that if there are words in our prayers that make you uncomfortable, there is no requirement that you say them. If the prayer book refers to God as “him,” I am fine with individuals saying their own word quietly or simply pausing in silence. There are times when I do this myself. Common prayer does not mean we all have to walk in lock step. We pray together in our own voices, our hearts united in common respect and love.

For the fall season we will return to a chanted psalm with refrain at 11:00. This will also mean printing more of the service in the bulletin at the 11:00 service this fall. Many St. Georgians have expressed a preference to print less of the service and ask people to use the prayer books in the pews. This is the time of year when many newcomers arrive. It is an act of hospitality to welcome them with a bulletin that makes it easier to participate. We will ask people to open the BCP from time to time. Of course, you are welcome to use the BCP as much as you want! In future seasons, we may again try using less paper.

In general, these topics need more conversation and study. We have had some of those discussions over the summer, and I look forward to more in the future.

I have written a lot here, and appreciate your taking the time to hear some of the “method” behind our “madness.” I am having a wonderful time at St. George’s, and I hope this fall will be a time of continuing vibrancy in our worship life. The liturgy is where we begin and end and begin again our mission as Christians. The Lord be with us…

Your rector and brother in Christ,