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Report by The Rev. Laurence G. Byrne

Does your sacristy wall have a mysterious dent in it about five or six feet from the floor? Many do. Those mysterious dents are caused by the heads of rectors who have just heard yet another person say, “But we’ve always done it that way!” about something or other. While tradition is an extremely important part of the common life and common prayer of the church, it is not static, but rather dynamic. Because it is alive, it changes-sometimes subtly; sometimes dramatically. 

In her presentation, “The Future of Common Prayer,” at our recent Triennial Zoom meeting, The Rev. Dr. Ruth Meyers, Dean of Academic Affairs and Professor of Liturgics at the Church Divinity School of the Pacific and member of the General Convention Task Force on Liturgical and Prayer Book Revision, led us on a swift trip from 1549 and our first Book of Common Prayer to our current book and a glimpse of what the future may hold. 

The very fact of a common prayer book, Dr. Meyers pointed out was somewhat radical. Prior to that time, the holy books and the corporate liturgy were the purview of the clergy. A book that was increasingly accessible to the increasingly literate laity was new indeed. Imagine the difference between being able to engage in a liturgy in your own language and merely being present while a priest was blathering away in Latin. The whole feel of worship must have changed dramatically. The commonality and community of prayer was reborn. It reminds me of my experience with The Great Vigil of Easter. 

In eleventh grade I accompanied a friend to my first Vigil. She was Ukranian Orthodox. The service — all three hours of it — was conducted entirely in Ukranian. Though it was beautiful, I had at best a vague idea of what was happening, and could not wait for it to end. About fifteen years later, I went with my girlfriend to my second Easter Vigil. That one was at St. Thomas, Fifth Avenue. I was blown away by the liturgy and reduced to babbling, “This is so cool!” through my tears of joy at The Great Noise. The difference was in understanding the language and in the fullness of participating. 

The history of our common prayer is a history of changing and adapting our common prayer to the times in which we live without losing the focus and theological integrity of worship. It has been a history of increasing participation for those gathered. Many of us were raised on the 1928 BCP. Much of that book was retained in the Rite I liturgies of the 1979 BCP; however, if one were to attend a 1928 service, one would see how similar the language is, but how much less is participatory. 

The 1979 BCP is perhaps the least static of any of its predecessors and invites a great deal of customization. It continues, and will continue to speak to us and lead us closer to God through our prayers, but it cannot be the last word. As the old hymn puts it, “New occasions teach new duties,” and our common prayer will evolve and expand. New liturgies are being created and can be found not in a book but online. Dr. Meyers pointed us to to get an idea of where we are heading. 

It seems likely that Episcopalians will always be “People of the Book.” It just might be an e-book. The church is remaining faithful to scripture, tradition and reason, but is growing and evolving with the times. Why? Well, because we’ve always done it that way! 

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