When in doubt the Romans can look to the Magisterium, the Orthodox can look to the practices and theology of the Early Church, Calvinists can look to the writings of Calvin, and Lutherans to Luther, but when Anglicans are at variance upon a point, things can get a little tricky. Under most circumstances we can grudgingly agree to disagree, but you go your way and I’ll go mine, becomes a difficult motto to employ when what’s on the table is precisely that which unites us: The Book of Common Prayer.
In the Tracts for the Times #3, John Henry Newman pointed to the fact that the only thing uniting the great multitude of voices calling for prayer book revision was the desire for a new prayer book. Some wanted a more Presbyterian version, others something more rationalist, others still hoped for a bit of Roman pizzaz. With the vast array of voices, then and now, some might ask if we even need to be united by common prayer at all? Perhaps we should just have a constellation of liturgies from which to draw: my church will go with an ancient Syriac text, you do something a bit more Maōri, and the church across town can maintain a strict adherence to the original text of the first U2charist.
What does it mean for the Church pray as one? In the good old days, according to Liturgical Historian Dom Gregory Dix, no one came to church just to receive communion, instead, the baptized would often have a small store of the Sacrament at home, from which they would receive daily. All across the vast Roman Empire, in the wee hours of the morning, Sunday by Sunday, the bishop and people risked their lives to gather, not to receive, but to consecrate: to offer the Church’s sacrifice of bread and wine, the oblation that represents all that we are, and all that we have, to be transformed by God through the prayers of the collected faithful into the bread of life and the cup of salvation — into the body and blood of Christ.
The Church from London to Antioch was united in this action of praise and thanksgiving, and yet, there was no prayer book as such. St. Justin Martyr tells us that each bishop said a lengthy Eucharistic prayer, “according to his ability,” and that the people would then complete the prayer with their assent, “saying Amen.” There was no single, common prayer text of the Early Church; instead there was a common form, a common shape of the Liturgy.
There are now calls for a revision of Rite II and other aspects of the BCP which would minimize masculine language for God, often replacing gendered nouns like Father and Son with functions (Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer) or adjectives (Glorious, Holy and Undivided), and this seems like a compromise with which no one will be ultimately happy. Because English, as it now stands, uses gendered terms to speak of people, and non-gender language to speak of objects, to move away from gendered language is to move away from the language of personhood, and towards the language of objecthood.
You might wakeup and turn to your spouse to say Good Morning Larry! but it would feel very unnatural to say Good morning lawyer! His personhood is not reducible to his function in the world or to a set of descriptive adjectives. In the same way, when I begin to pray exclusively to the Creator, to the Glorious or to the Ground of Being, I begin to relate to God less as my loving, living parent, and than as a force or an abstract concept.
I have already been told by several of my parishioners (both women and men) that if the proposed gender-inclusive changes come to pass, they will consider leaving the Episcopal Church, and I believe that these traditionalist Episcopalians need to be able to remain in the Church. On the other hand, I know that there are other communities who find masculine language for God extremely problematic for a variety of very significant reasons, and I believe that these also need to be able to reman in the Church.
Rather than trying to create a new document that somehow satisfies both camps, or simply throwing out the idea of unity in our common prayer and creating a liturgical free-for-all, it may be that the legislation by both Houses will create a bit of space for unity in diversity. Space for more traditional congregations to continue worshiping in the cherished words of the 1979 Book of Common Prayer, as well as space for bishops to listen to the specific needs of their various congregations who are not able to hear the fullness of the Gospel in our prayer book’s current articulation. It might be that if each bishop has the freedom, “according to his [or her!!] ability” to help lead their congregations in contextually meaningful words of prayer, this will allow even more women and men to hear the full, life-giving, impact of the Gospel of Jesus Christ in the Episcopal Church.