December 12, 2019

Why General Convention Resolution A063 is Problematic

At the recent annual convention of the Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh, I noticed that, although proposed amendments to the Episcopal Church constitution were distributed to deputies, no time was allotted by the agenda to discuss them. Their distribution to the convention arose as a result of Article XII of the Episcopal Church constitution, which reads in part:
No alteration or amendment of this Constitution shall be made unless the same shall be first proposed at one regular meeting of the General Convention and be sent to the Secretary of the Convention of every Diocese, to be made known to the Diocesan Convention at its next meeting, and be adopted by the General Convention at its next succeeding regular meeting by a majority of all Bishops, excluding retired Bishops not present, of the whole number of Bishops entitled to vote in the House of Bishops, and by an affirmative vote by orders in the House of Deputies in accordance with Article I, Section 5, except that concurrence by the orders shall require the affirmative vote in each order by a majority of the Dioceses entitled to representation in the House of Deputies.
(Sorry for this outrageously long citation; I did not want to quote only part of a sentence.)

The constitution is silent on why proposed amendments are to be sent to dioceses, but, presumably, this is to inform the wider church of significant impending actions by the General Convention and to provide an opportunity for individual dioceses to offer opinions concerning the same. There is no special mechanism to take notice of such opinions, but local conventions may try, through resolutions, to influence their own General Convention deputies or General Convention deputies broadly. Without discussion, of course, diocesan conventions can neither elicit concerns nor articulate them.

As I was a deputy from my parish to the 154th convention of the Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh this year, I was able to raise my concern about the lack of opportunity to discuss the proposed constitutional amendments. I did so because of concerns for one particular proposal. Although I was ready to discuss the matter, it was apparent that, through no fault of their own, no one else was. Moreover, since the next meeting of the General Convention occurs in 2021, discussion at our 155th convention could still be timely. Realizing this, I was able to extract a commitment from Bishop Dorsey McConnell that the agenda for our next convention would indeed include consideration of the resolutions sent to the diocese from the General Convention.

My concern was for Resolution A063, which would amend Article X: The Book of Common Prayer. Changes to our fundamental liturgical resource are handled in a manner similar to constitutional amendments, in that they must be passed by successive General Conventions and be sent to dioceses after being first proposed. In practice, revising the BCP is considerably more complicated and time-consuming. (The most recent Book of Common Prayer (BCP) was approved 51 years after the previous version.)

Article X allows some liturgically-related innovations to be approved by a single General Convention and without special notice to the dioceses:
But notwithstanding anything herein above contained, the General Convention may at any one meeting, by a majority of the whole number of the Bishops entitled to vote in the House of Bishops, and by a majority of the Clerical and Lay Deputies of all the Dioceses entitled to representation in the House of Deputies, voting by orders as previously set forth in this Article:
  1. Amend the Table of Lessons and all Tables and Rubrics relating to the Psalms.
  2. Authorize for trial use throughout this Church, as an alternative at any time or times to the established Book of Common Prayer or to any section or Office thereof, a proposed revision of the whole Book or of any portion thereof, duly undertaken by the General Convention.
Resolution A063 proposes to add an item c to this list:
  1. Authorize for use throughout this Church, as provided by Canon, alternative and additional liturgies to supplement those provided in the Book of Common Prayer.
Ostensibly, Resolution A063 is about the legitimacy of collections such as Lesser Feasts and Fasts and The Book of Occasional Services. General Convention has been creating such material without unambiguous authority to do so. Presumably, such material is of lesser authority (or of no authority at all) with respect to establishing church doctrine, though this is perhaps unclear as well. (The official rationale for Resolution A063 can be read here. This explanation was not distributed to Pittsburgh convention deputies.)

My problem with Resolution A063 involves the inclusion of the words “alternative and.” The phrase “additional liturgies” adequately provides legitimacy for the likes of The Book of Occasional Services, which contain liturgies lacking a counterpart in the BCP. The looser requirements for establishing such liturgies arguably signifies their subordinate status relative to the prayer book. One may quibble about whether allowing the looser approval process is a good idea, but Resolution A063 at least makes what the General Convention has been doing completely above board.

The business of “alternative” liturgies is different. Alternatives to what are already “additional liturgies” are, of course, simply additional liturgies. But “alternative liturgies” can mean—and the phrase is certainly intended to include—alternatives to liturgies already included in the BCP. This presents a problem. If the amended Article X is used to authorize an alternative to a liturgy already in the BCP, one has to ask why it is not being proposed for trial use as potential replacement text in a revised prayer book, an option afforded by the existing item b in Article X. (See text above.) The reason a provision for alternative liturgies is being added is almost certainly to allow approval of liturgies having a counterpart in the prayer book for which there is insufficient support for its superseding existing prayer book text. In other words, the matter of alternative liturgies is a backdoor scheme to avoid the laborious prayer book revision mechanism. Moreover, whereas item b of Article X implicitly suggests an end process for a proposed liturgy—it is decided to replace prayer book text or not—the proffered item c implies no such sunset provision.

The proposed addition to Article X raises the prospect of supplanting the prayer book with more easily established (and revised) liturgies. As the Church of England has done with its prayer book of 1662, the Episcopal Church could freeze its 1979 book and widely ignore it in favor of newer liturgies approved without the cumbersome mechanisms attendant to actual prayer book revision. Individual parishes could pick and choose which liturgy to use. The ultimate result could be the effective destruction of common prayer as a unifying aspect of Episcopal Church worship.

It would be easy for an Episcopalian to assume that liturgical collections such as The Book of Occasional Services are a kind of appendix to The Book of Common Prayer, but this is not currently the case. (We could adopt such a view, of course, but our “appendices” would presumably need to be subjected to the same rigorous procedures used in prayer book revision. This does not seem to be direction in which the church wants to go.) As long as additional liturgies are primarily intended for occasional use in special circumstances, they pose no serious threat to the church’s commitment to common prayer. Adoption of resolution A063 with its changes to Article X that would allow alternatives to existing prayer book liturgies, however, do indeed challenge our tradition of common prayer.

Finally, I need to mention one other issue. Suppose the General Convention wants to propose a liturgy intended to be part of a revised prayer book but which is not designed to replace an existing liturgy prayer book liturgy. For example, a gender-neutral marriage ceremony could be proposed as an addition to the prayer book without eliminating the existing Celebration and Blessing of a Marriage (p. 423). Curiously, at least as I read item b of Article X, such a liturgy could not be proposed for trial use. This problem could be resolved by modifying item b, For example, after “or of any portion thereof,” could be added “or any proposed addition.” This would result in item b reading
  1. Authorize for trial use throughout this Church, as an alternative at any time or times to the established Book of Common Prayer or to any section or Office thereof, a proposed revision of the whole Book or of any portion thereof or any proposed addition, duly undertaken by the General Convention.
General Convention should perhaps make this amendment and drop consideration of Resolution A063.

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