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Wednesday, August 23, 2006

The Myth of Common Prayer

This essay was originally published in The Witness Online Magazine ( on March 17, 2005.

As I continue to reflect on the vast differences between those who sit on the Left and Right side of the pews in The Episcopal Church - it occurs to me that this little essay is still very timely.

By the way, while strolling down memory lane, I happened on this picture of me presiding at Eucharist at King's College in London at the "Not-yet-ready-for-Lambeth" Conference sponsored by LGCM.

This photo was from the London paper, THE GUARDIAN. Finally, they had a face to put on a label, and they just didn't know what to do with me. ("Have a look at this, Madge. She looks rather normal, doesn't she? Two eyes, one nose . . . Fancy that!")

You can just imagine the headlines! Imagine! Little me, part of a "vast Left wing sinsiter plot" to bring down the Church of England.

The British don't get their knickers in a bind very often, so when they do, they don't do it well at all.

The year was 1998. The next Lambeth Conference is scheduled for 2008 - to which we may or may not be invited.

We still may not yet be ready for Lambeth. Or, more specifically, they for us.

As my friend and brother, Louie Crew, always says, "Joy Anyway!"

I've been beside myself trying to figure out why the primates of the Global South do not understand our position in the Episcopal Church (USA). For the life of me, I'm certain that I do not understand their position.

Definitions of "conservative" vs. "liberal," "orthodox" vs. "progressive," and "moderate" vs. "everything else" are also part of it, but of all the various and sundry components, this simply fails to take in the scope of the difficulty.

Part of it is, to be sure, the vast, almost cavernous differences in various social structures. One part is the enormous difference in our polity. Another part is the sharp differences in our cultures, and as much as the evangelicals lament of this (they who have "praise music" which sounds like modern, cultural music with religious lyrics), how that informs our understanding of church.

This Lent, as I've used Rite I at the 8 a.m. and Rite II at 10 a.m. services in my parish, I've come to understand what I've begun to call the myth of common prayer, which, I believe is at the core of all of that which confuses and complicates the tension in our church.

To understand this, we need to return to General Convention, 1949. A clerical deputy from the Episcopal Diocese of Bethlehem presented a resolution asking the national church to design a church sign which would help new post-World War II families -- rugged individuals enthusiastically developing the new frontier of suburbia and planned communities -- to find a local Episcopal Church.

The resolution passed handily and by 1951, the now recognizable signs, bearing the Episcopal Shield, began to make their appearance on Main Streets and neighborhoods across the country. The slogan, of course: "The Episcopal Church Welcomes You!"
It's been a slippery slope ever since.

By the late 1960s, a cartoon appeared in The New Yorker magazine. The Rev'd Very Dignified is standing in front of Church of the Fashionable Redeemer greeting two "Bluehairs." The caption read: "But, Sir, anyone who NEEDS to be an Episcopalian already IS!"

The church was not untouched by the various revolutions -- cultural, sexual, racial, gender, political and liturgical -- swirling about during those years. Flags and draft cards and bras burned while tempers flared. By the late '60s and into the mid-'70s we had "experimental" books of fairly uncommon prayer -- all of which seemed to express liturgically what our church signs proclaimed.

The Two Great Sacraments -- Baptism and Eucharist -- were restored to primacy in the "new" 1979 Book of Common Prayer (BCP), which also featured the return of the Great Vigil of Easter. The priest was to face the people during the Eucharistic Prayer -- of which there were now six: Prayer I and II in Rite I and in Rite II, Prayers A (most like the 1928 BCP version), B (most like the Roman Catholic rite), C (most liked by evangelicals) and D (most like the Orthodox rite) -- insuring that the Episcopal Church, in word and deed, welcomed YOU -- from wherever you had ventured in to find us.

There were other significant changes -- including the radical notion of italicizing pronoun usage for humankind, suggesting the even more radical notion that women were actually present in the community and that God (and they) might actually be pleased to have women addressed with pronouns of corresponding gender assignment -- but for the sake of brevity, I'll end the discussion here.

Suffice it to say, I now understand the hue and cry from the folks who wanted to keep their liturgy straight-up 1928 BCP. We were not only shifting our images of God, but our understanding of our relationship with each other and God through Christ Jesus.

The point is that the guiding principal of our Anglican liturgy has done its work. "Lex orendi, lex credendi." "We pray what we believe." And, we have come to know what we believe by what we pray.

I think it's a safe bet to say that we know our Baptismal Covenant better than other denomination. As I look around my congregation, I can attest to the fact that we are becoming the variety of our Eucharistic Prayers. We are the incarnation of our slogan: "The Episcopal Church Welcomes You." Well, at least liturgically -- and in some places.

So, here's my question (well, it's not "mine" actually. I seem to remember Bishop Barbara Harris asking it at Lambeth 1998): What did YOU do with all your 1928 prayer books when we made the switch way back in 1979? I'm willing to bet that some of you sent yours to places in the southern hemisphere. Furthermore, last time I was in England, they didn't use the American BCP. And, when I was in Ghana, they used their own "common prayer" book.

Think about that for one red-hot second, and tell me again why you are surprised that other parts of the Anglican Communion, who don't pray as we do, also don't understand what we did at General Convention 2003. Why am I surprised that I don't understand the primates?

Despite the cultural and linguistic differences which divide us -- and they are significant -- there are even more significant theological differences which undermine our unity. Not only do we have different ways of interpreting scripture, here's the truth of it, straight away: We do not worship the same images of God.

Read the Eucharistic Prayers in Rite I and then consider the image of God to whom you are praying. Now read the Eucharistic Prayers in Rite II and consider the image of God reflected in those prayers. Now, compare Rite I and II.

Got the picture? Do the same with prayer books from other countries and you begin to catch a glimmer of how deeply we have already been divided.

Homosexuality is not the issue. Authority is not the issue. The difference in our interpretation of scripture is not even the issue. Like the aftermath of an earthquake, these are simply the visible eruptions -- the fault lines -- of the shifts in the foundational strata in the depths of our denominational underground.

The most serious threat to the unity of the Anglican Communion is not "the homosexual menace." Rather it is this: the myth of common prayer. Explore that myth, and we may have a chance of explaining -- and understanding -- each other when the Anglican Consultative Council (ACC) gathers together in June.

Even so, at the end of a long day tenaciously held together by a string of uncommon, individual prayers, I still believe that what unites us is greater than that which divides us.

And that one great instrument of unity would by Christ Jesus.

Published by The Witness (, March 17, 2005.
Original article | Contents


Random Ramblings NJ said...


First and most important, your recent post about your new grandchild is precious! Congratualtions.

I only have one question about your essay. Is my memory failing or perhaps I misread your post, I thought that the pre-lambeth eucharist you presided at was in 1998. I believe your essay said 1988. Not a big deal either way.

Finally, thank-you for your voice and for your kind words about my blog

Love ya,


Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Duly noted and appropriately changed from 1988 to 1998.

At our age, 10 years is a very big deal, either way.

Good to hear from you, my dear.

Y'all - check out Tyler's blog.

R said...


Thanks for re-posting this. Came across it from comments at Fr. Jake's place.

I agree you point to something terribly profound -- that the Communion has been together, up to this point, due to a mythology that doesn't stand up to the light of day.

I still think scriptural authority has a key part to play, but I agree that it is terribly bound up in the movement of sacramental life in different places in the Communion.

Much to think about. Thank you!