Acceptable liturgy

By Micah Jackson

There’s a new show on VH1. It’s called Acceptable.TV. Have you seen it? If not, the premise is this—each week the show presents five allegedly comedic sketches. When the show is over, fans go to the website and vote for their favorites. The top two “pilots” are “renewed” for the next week and receive new episodes. The others are “cancelled” by the host and “producer,” Jack Black, and are replaced with new contenders. Professional staff writers develop some of the new sketches, and fans contribute others. Either way, it had better work for the audience, or it’ll never see another week.

It’s a very common gimmick for television these days. Survivor and American Idol all use a similar method of slowly eliminating competitors until the winner is revealed. The rise of YouTube and its ilk are giving ordinary creative people a way to reach an audience much larger than the crowd at the corner bar. The truth is that whereas “user generated content” and “fan voting” seem new, they are not. In reality, this is the way that our church has developed its liturgy since the beginning. Episcopal liturgy is truly leitourgia, the work of the people.

The 1789 Book of Common Prayer came about in response to the pastoral needs of Anglicans in the brand-new United States of America. Prayers for the King needed to go, that was obvious. “But since we’re revising the book anyway,” they must have thought, “let’s find out what else isn’t working for us?” When they were done, the Preface of the BCP put it this way, “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.”

Ever since then, the users of the BCP have controlled its content. Changing the rites is not an easy or quick process, to be sure. After all, our worship shouldn’t be blown around by every wind of popularity. But it is true that when it becomes clear that old rites are no longer working, or that new rites are needed to express our intercessions and thanksgivings, we can revise or create them. In this way we fulfill Christ’s instruction, “Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.” (Matthew 13:52)

For example, as a pastoral response to the influenza epidemics of the early 20th Century, and the dramatic rise in childhood death that accompanied them, the 1928 BCP introduced special rites to be followed “At the Burial of a Child.” These concerns were not so pressing during revisions for the 1979 BCP, and the special rites for children’s funerals were left out. However, many people felt that the issues surrounding the death of a child required a particular response from the Church, different than that for someone who had lived a long and full life. Enriching Our Worship 2 re-introduced this rite in response to this pastoral need. Looking forward, the Standing Committee on Liturgy and Music has again responded to a sad contemporary reality by proposing special prayers “For a Child who Dies by Violence.” Our Church has always, and must always, be aware of the pastoral needs of its members and respond to them by authorizing rites and prayers which can carry our joys and concerns to our God.

In its concluding words, the Preface to the 1789 BCP says, “And now, this important work being brought to a conclusion, it is hoped the whole will be received and examined by every true member of our Church, and every sincere Christian, with a meek, candid, and charitable frame of mind; without prejudice and prepossessions; seriously considering what Christianity is, and what the truths of the Gospel are; and earnestly beseeching Almighty God to accompany with his blessing every endeavour for promulgating them to mankind in the clearest, plainest, most affecting and majestic manner, for the sake of Jesus Christ, our blessed Lord and Savior.”

More than 200 years before reality television, the revisers of the first American BCP set out the rules for evaluating new liturgies. Since then, we’ve used this method to evaluate liturgies and prayers written by professional liturgists and other Episcopalians. How can we do any less in these days?

The Rev. Micah Jackson is doctoral student in Homiletics at the Graduate Theological Union. His personal blog is St. Jerome’s Library

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