After more than a week of debate among church leaders about whether God should be referred to by male pronouns — and about the numerous other issues that come up when writing a prayer book — the Episcopal Church has decided to revise the 1979 Book of Common Prayer that Episcopalian worshipers hold dear.
The question now is when it will happen.
At the denomination’s triennial conference, which concluded in Austin last week, leaders considered a plan that would have led to a new prayer book in 2030. They voted it down.
“There’s no timeline for it,” said the Very Rev. Samuel Candler, chair of the committee on prayer book revision. “There’s no A-B-C-D plan. The plan is to put a joint task force together now that will work on how we do it. They’ll be gathering liturgies and working in dioceses and assembling texts. I think we are going forward.”
Candler said the new book might end up being completed on the proposed 2030 timetable or might be considerably delayed. An advocate of introducing a new book, Candler was pleased with the outcome, he said. But he acknowledged that people on the opposite side were pleased, too: “Others would say we saved the 1979 prayer book. That’s still our prayer book. They can claim victory, if you will.”
The main impetus for the drive to rewrite the book — the central unifying text of all Episcopal worship, with roots in the first Anglican Book of Common Prayer, published in 1549 — was a demand for gender-neutral language to refer to God, rather than “He” and “King” and “Father.”
“We really hold fast to the prayer book as a core text — as a marker of our identity,” said the Rev. Ruth Meyers, a leading theologian on Episcopal liturgy. She shares the view of many in the church: that God does not have a gender, male or female, and the prayer book should be revised accordingly.
“It’s an impediment to the mission and evangelism,” she said. “We miss this opportunity to proclaim the gospel, and a gospel of equal love and compassion for all. . . . When we use solely masculine imagery for God, we make it difficult for women to really, truly understand themselves as created in the image and likeness of God, which is what the Bible says in Genesis.”
The church has already authorized many alternate texts, which churches can use as supplements to the Book of Common Prayer, with gender-neutral language. To address the strong demand at the conference for the lessening of male imagery for God in Episcopal services, the conference authorized more of those texts and voted to make them more widely available.
In the past, priests needed the approval of their bishops to use the supplemental texts; now, any priest can choose to use them, Meyers said.
That goes as well for rites that are not in the 1979 prayer book: same-sex marriage ceremonies. While the Episcopal Church has performed same-sex marriages for many years, eight bishops continued to not allow priests in their dioceses to use those rites.
At the conference, attendees struck a compromise to let priests in those dioceses perform same-sex weddings without their bishops’ approval.