Is there a future for the Book of Common Prayer?

by Derek Olsen

The pieces that George Clifford wrote a few weeks ago cover a lot of different territory around the future of the Episcopal Church, ultimately ending with some unusual possibilities for restructuring the Church. I won’t try and comment on all of what he has written, but I do want to focus some attention on and address one aspect of what he has said—the initial attention-grabbing statement that “[t]he 1979 Book of Common Prayer is the last printed version of the prayer book that The Episcopal Church (TEC) will ever publish.”

While this bold thesis statement turns out to be more a lead into how digital technologies can lead us to re-envision the art of doing and being church, it is worth attention in its own right.

What is the future of the Book of Common Prayer especially with regard to format and media? I’ve spent a fair amount of time thinking about this question from three different angles.

First, I study liturgy—especially liturgy over time. Most of my work has been in the liturgy of the medieval West from about the 6th century to the 16th with most of my time spent in the smack-dab middle, England’s 10th century Benedictine Revival. Within the short space of time between when I started my PhD to when it was signed, sealed, and delivered—from 2001 to 2011—the study of liturgy was revolutionized by the Internet. At the beginning, I had to hit the library to look up most anything. By the middle, I could look up copies of old scholarly editions of liturgical manuscripts on Google Books. By the end, I could access a host of digital archives giving me access to high quality images of the manuscripts themselves. Today, ever increasing numbers pour online at some of my favorite libraries—and particularly interesting images are tweeted. Between the archivists at the British Library (@BLMedieval), Notre Dame (@d_gura) and my local treasure trove at Baltimore’s Walters Art Museum (@MedievalMss), the hits of manuscript illumination—many liturgical—flow through my Twitter feed every day.

When it comes to the Books of Common Prayer, a whole host are now available from every conceivable time and format in which they were printed, most in PDF for convenient download. Do you want an exact copy of the original manuscript of the English 1662 Book of Common Prayer? You can get that. Do you want to admire the layout and printing of Daniel Updike’s edition of the American 1892 Book of Common Prayer? You can do that. Under the conservation of Charles Wohlers and through the good graces of the Society of Archbishop Justus, the authoritative BCP site can lead you to all of these and more.

It isn’t just the future of the BCP that’s online; its past is there too, enabling anyone with the time, patience, and curiosity to gain first-hand knowledge of its changes through the years.

Second, I’m a database programmer. One of my hobby projects over the last few years is the St. Bede’s Breviary, an online site with a customizable Daily Office app. I put it up for my own use because I could never find an Office book with the perfect blend of options, and it gave me an outlet to hone my coding skills. I now get upwards of 1300 hits a week, and my code-base is behind Forward Movement’s digital initiative. The experience of coding this application has taught me a lot about the various possibilities and pitfalls of putting the BCP into an electronic format. I had to make a host of decisions—what programming languages to use, how to represent the various elements, how to get it to work properly. At various points I’ve even back-tracked and reworked entire sections once I figured out I’d made a wrong turn. Literally tens of thousands of lines of code, over a dozen database tables, and countless development hours go in to making something that manifests itself as nothing more than a basic web page. And that’s just the Daily Office!

Third, I’ve recently become the chair of the Electronic Publications subcommittee of the Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music. In particular, we are dealing with a set of resolutions for General Convention that have been passed or have been referred to us for study that relate to electronic resources and official Episcopal liturgies: 2009-A102 which resolves that the completed portions of Enriching our Worship be made “freely available in electronic format on the internet,” 2012-D060 (PDF) on a format and platform-independent means of making our liturgical and musical materials available, and 2012-D079 (PDF) also calling for “electronically available and easily accessible” liturgical materials. Envisioning such a digital resource is easy; working through the issues and making it happen in a way that respects the complex interactions at work is a lot harder! What if there are copyrighted items from outside authors included in our materials? (The hymnal is full of this—check out the several pages of very small type from 931 to 936.) What exactly does the language of “freely available” mean—“easy to find” or “provided without cost”? What would this move do to Church Publishing and its parent, the Church Pension Group?

The very simple response to George’s provocative statement is pretty clear to me: The ’79 being the last printed (American) Book of Common Prayer? I wouldn’t bet on it.

Several factors play into this assertion. First, the Book of Common Prayer is an authoritative document. Whether people like it or not—I know some on both sides—the prayer book is legislated by both our constitution and canons. Digital materials are, by nature, ephemeral. While our culture has made many strides towards embracing digital media, as the travails of print newspapers clearly display, an authorized document is one that will and must have a particular physical embodiment. Even if an electronic version becomes more widely used, this will not relieve us from the need of having an authorized and authoritative physical document upon which the electronic version is based. If a document is authoritative, there must be a stable text and assurances that it cannot and will not change without agreement by General Convention. I can’t see there being enough trust across the church in an electronic text held by “the leadership” with no concomitant physical copy.

Second, I doubt that the use of books of common prayer in parishes will convert quickly or easily to digital devices. One of the things that has surprised me as the curator of a digital Office site is the number of requests I’ve received to make my contents of my breviary available in physical form. The first few times this happened I was very confused: don’t they understand that the whole point was making it digital? That a digital text gives greatly enhanced feature flow and accessibility? What I didn’t understand initially was the importance of the object itself. Many people prefer to have a physical object to pray with—a screen or a device just doesn’t cut it. They want a well-bound book in their hands. It’s a tactile thing. Now—is this purely a generational thing that will pass away as we “digital natives” become a larger percentage of the population? I don’t know.

Third, I think the perspective that George advocates suggests a wider interest in clerical experimentation and variation than I have seen on the ground. As a layman, I understand the prayer book operating as a contract. This is the book that the church has established itself upon, and I ought to be able to expect that when I go into a church with an Episcopal sign out front for the primary Sunday service it will be a service from the prayer book. I understand that clergy may like to tinker. You want to do a New Zealand prayer service with elements from the Quakers and the Eastern Orthodox? Fine, knock yourself out—in the middle of the week. As long as there is a coherent expectation of a stable Sunday morning service, though, there’s no need to suggest that a printed book is inadequate for handling the possibilities. Does that mean that there couldn’t be digitally available alternatives for non-primary services? Of course not—I wouldn’t say that at all; but to assume that nothing would be stable to the degree that a printed book could not serve would represent a theology and ecclesiology that I would no longer recognize as “Anglican.”

I don’t see the printed prayer book going away any time soon. That having been said, this can’t be where the conversation ends. Just because we will need a printed prayer book doesn’t mean that there aren’t all sorts of fabulous things that we could and should be doing in the digital space! Let me offer just a few rather random observations based on my multiple perspectives…

1. The Church needs to recognize the digital world as its own distinct sphere with its own missionary aims, activities, and strategies. My jaw about hit the floor when the Mission Enterprise Zone and New Church Start grants were announced in August as innovative initiatives that were tied to geographical areas. What—nothing about digital initiatives? Interaction with social media is one of the best ways going to spread ideas, feelings, and convictions. Isn’t that a big part of what we want to do? Isn’t there potential for digital initiatives that lead into connections with local embodied communities? Digital and geographical shouldn’t have to be binary options—it can (and should!) be a “both/and” rather than an “either/or.”

2. The digital realm is creating new opportunities for spiritual renewal. As the article posted on The Lead a bit ago indicated, new spiritual practices are growing out of faithful interactions with technology. On the other hand, some very old ways of doing things are also seeing a revival. Over the last several years, the Daily Office—Morning and Evening Prayer—have received greater visibility and use due to electronic means. Mission St Clare, Josh Thomas’ Daily Office site, and my own efforts have made praying the Office a lot easier—far less page-flipping required—and have also made it a more digitally visible act. Of course, if you’d rather pray with others, there’s the Office feed from @Virtual_Abbey on Twitter! We’re not done seeing things here. The interaction between spirituality, liturgy, and technology is still new and I expect we’ll see quite a lot of interesting things develop in the next decade.

Either the Church will get on the notion of a stable, correct, digital prayer book text—or someone else will! I have a group of dedicated volunteers who point out to me the typos in my breviary. Well, hey—you can’t expect to have 900+ collects in the cycle without a few missed keys somewhere along the line! Unless they were coming from a stable, corrected source… While there are arguments to be had and factors to be considered around putting all of the Episcopal Church’s liturgies online in a digital form without cost, there’s one text where this shouldn’t be an issue and that’s the prayer book itself. It is in the public domain. There could be a digital prayer book with an API (a kind of electronic interface) that allows apps or websites to tap into a single corrected source. Will the Episcopal Church create such a thing? I don’t know. On the other hand, most of the cool, innovative, useful resources out there on the web haven’t been started by church initiatives. It’s been by individuals with a vision and a passion. The Church may well choose not to do such a thing—but that doesn’t mean that it won’t be done.

The printed prayer book isn’t going away any time soon as far as I can tell, but that doesn’t mean that the digital space and electronic alternatives aren’t going to be major players in the future. On the contrary, I think they will. My crystal ball doesn’t work better than anyone else’s; I have no idea what we’re going to see in the coming decades. Mobile technologies are only taking off. App integration into personal products will only accelerate. What will this mean spiritually and liturgically? I have no idea—but I can’t wait to find out…

Dr. Derek Olsen is a layperson in the Diocese of Maryland where his wife is a priest and his daughters are an acolyte and boat-bearer respectively. He serves as Theologian-in-Residence at Church of the Advent, Baltimore, and as the Secretary of the Standing Commission on Liturgy & Music. An IT specialist by day, Derek created and maintains the online Daily Office site The St. Bede’s Breviary. His reflections on life, Anglo-Catholic identity, and liturgical spirituality appear at Haligweorc

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