In New Orleans, amidst billboards advertising old bourbon and new Buicks, some billboards proclaim:

It lives.



"It" is the 1928 Prayer Book, which recently suffered revisions much resented by the authors of those billboard messages.

Those messages were aimed at some Episcopalians by other Episcopalians during the church's recent triennial General Convention in New Orleans. Taken singly, Episcopalians are creatures of brio, gusto and zip, and whenever two or more are gathered together they become a seething cauldron of the improving spirit. This year, when thousands descended on New Orleans, that dangerous spirit was focused on the hymnal.

Churches should be rocks in the river of time, but recently many of them have been corks swept hither and yon with eddies of opinion. Hence, whenever a church undertakes change there is an understandable tendency to suspect it of trendiness. Certainly I, whose motto is "Change, forsooth!", am disposed to think the worst.

But the changes in the hymnal seem, by and large, to have been undertaken for serious -- which is to say theological -- reasons, rather than for reasons of political or other fashion. The signs of seriousness, including those somewhat defiant billboards, are pleasing.

It is said that whereas Roman Catholics claim to be infallible, Episcopalians claim only to be always right. They are not, but at least they did nothing very naughty in revising the 1940 hymnal.

They may have been overscrupulous in expunging Kipling's reference to "lesser breeds without the law" (which I like to think refers to the House of Representatives). There was a large dollop of consciousness-raising nonsense in the campaign against "sexist" language. But in "O God, Our Help in Ages Past," this line survived:

"Time, like an ever-rolling stream

Bears all its sons away."

And when someone suggested that "God Rest You Merry, Gentlemen" should become "God Rest You Merry, My Good Friends," people laughed until their ribs complained.

More interestingly, two baptismal hymns were dropped because they assume that persons being baptized are infants. Those hymns have been replaced by hymns suitable when adults are involved. Because God offers more than one chance for forgiveness, the revisers dropped James Russell Lowell's hymn:

Once to every man and nation

Comes the moment to decide,

In the strife of truth with falsehood,

For the good or evil side.

A press release issued at the General Convention (you don't get this sort of release at Democratic or even Republican conventions) says: "Neo-Platonic references to the flesh/spirit duality of human nature have also been expunged," as in the references to human beings as "Dumb, in the life of the body confined," and longing to "soar as the birds from the mesh/ freed from the weakness and wonder of flesh."

The hymn "Turn back, O Man, Forswear Thy Foolish Ways" expresses, in those words, a sensible thought. But a few stanzas later the Pelagian heresy creeps in. Condemned in the 5th century -- one of the soundest centuries -- this heresy holds that the initial and fundamental steps toward salvation are made by human effort unassisted by grace. With the Pelagian heresy being battled in New Orleans (near the French Quarter, a nest of Neo-Platonists who insist on the duality of spirit and flesh, and are preoccupied with the latter), there is hope for the 20th century.

Theological vigor, including disagreement, is a sign of overflowing life. Even blasphemy (wrote G. K. Chesterton) depends on strong faith. "If anyone doubts this, let him sit down seriously and try to think blasphemous thoughts about Thor. I think his family will find him at the end of the day in a state of some exhaustion." Theological seriousness may be divisive, or may impede the elimination of long-standing divisions. But there is no value to any ecumenicism made possible by tepidness about doctrine.

To the extent that theology is taken seriously, to that extent churches have an anchor against the pull of political and other fads. Roman Catholic leaders say -- or at least they used to -- "Pensiamo in secoli" ("We think in centuries"). Unfortunately, there is today a tendency among religious leaders to try to identify Christianity with (or extract from it) a contemporary political agenda of the left or right: prayer in public schools, or a nuclear freeze, or this, or that.

A new study indicates that in the 1970s, for the first time in at least three decades, church membership declined relative to population. Church leaders preoccupied with politics should remember Dean Inge's admonition: "Christianity is good news, not good advice."