A “Most Convenient” Liturgy

Note: This post is a living document, subject to continual revision.

The Preface to our beloved Book of Common Prayer begins like this:

“It is a most invaluable part of that blessed ‘liberty wherewith Christ hath made us free,’ that in his worship different forms and usages may without offence be allowed, provided the substance of the Faith be kept entire; and that, in every Church, what cannot be clearly determined to belong to Doctrine must be referred to Discipline; and therefore, by common consent and authority, may be altered, abridged, enlarged, amended, or otherwise disposed of, as may seem most convenient for the edification of the people, ‘according to the various exigency of times and occasions.'”

Book of Common Prayer: 1789, 1892, 1928, 1979

Although these appear as the very first words in every edition of the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer, they don’t receive much attention. In my opinion, most Episcopalians would be surprised to read them, because they don’t assume our liturgies to have this degree of flexibility. We have been using the same forms, and even the same words, for so long, that their authority becomes assumed.

Of course we’re all aware that several editions of the BCP have been published since that first one in 1789. New prayers are added, some old ones are phased out. Elements which were once required have become optional, and different variations and verbiages have been approved. Liturgical planners now have more choices than before, namely between Rite I and Rite II, all in one book.

In addition, we have bonus resources, so long as our bishops approve our use of Enriching Our Worship, as well as the liturgies of other cultures, such as the popular New Zealand Prayer Book.

But we often imagine that all these resources must be produced by the Commission on Liturgy, and approved (at great effort) by the General Convention. Which is why, again, I think we tend to be surprised at the flexibility expressed in the book’s own Preface. The framers are naturally concerned that changes not do violence to the “substance of the Faith” or any matter of “Doctrine” but are otherwise pretty laid-back about the whole thing.

This is the foundation upon which I plan to embark on a “Liturgy Series” of blog posts on this website. I will address big-picture concepts, such as Expansive and Inclusive Language, and the ideas of Original Sin and Original Goodness. I will then address specific elements of our standardized liturgical experience, such as the Opening Acclamation, the Collect for Purity, the Creed, and the Confession.

These writings, however, are only intended as a journal, and repository for ideas and arguments. The real proving-ground for any liturgical experience is the worship space. As such, we will be introducing variations on that experience each Sunday morning here at St. Michael’s, and evaluating them as we go.

As the Gospel reading for this Sunday charges us, the ultimate rule for everything we do, as Christians and as human beings, is Love. Although there are many potential rubrics and markers by which to evaluate our worship, none of them surpasses the mandate to love God, and love our neighbor. As such, we will judge the quality of our worship by its ability to remind us, inspire us, and compel us to live into, and live out God’s love, both inside and outside of our church walls.

Lastly, please keep in mind, as the highlighted Disclaimer at the top states, that these posts are “living documents”. Further ideas, historical context, and supporting resources will be added over time, as our liturgical experiment unfolds.

Thank you for following along!

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