After our worship this morning Fr. John is going to have a presentation of all of the most important resolutions that were passed this year’s General Convention, but at the risk of stealing his thunder, I want to speak to one issue in particular which was discussed in Austin this week: the possible full revision of the Book of Common Prayer. The General Convention had set up a “media hub” online, where anyone could watch the deliberations of the church while they were happening. This was my first time watching General Convention events unfold, and as I expected, there was a lot of energy around Prayer book revision, from people on all sides of the issue. The House of Deputies spent over a half hour debating whether or not they wanted to add 60 minutes to the discussion time for prayer book revision. The people were ready for a debate and argument, and we heard impassioned arguments on all sides.
There are no doubt many aspects of the 1979 Prayer book which could be improved or shored up, but the energy behind Prayer book revision at the convention was primarily around how to address God. The revisionists have two primary concerns, and the first is this: God is immaterial, and therefore God is without gender. That being the case, the liturgy of the church should reflect this teaching in its language for God. So instead of saying “God and His people,” we would say “God, and God’s people.” The Lord’s Prayer could be rewritten to begin, “Our Parent, who art in heaven…” Words that would need to be swapped out or deemphasized include “Father, Son, King, Lord, etc.” The second reason for the necessity of these revisions is that all people are made in the image of God. So it stands to reason that God is like all of us people, so we should not use words that make God “seem male.
The revisionists do have a point, and it may be possible to expand our selection of Biblical images for God in liturgical worship. However, gender neutrality (or gender expansiveness) is not the sole or only criterion which should be considered. Dr. Kara Slade and Father J. Wesley Evans, along with the help of many other contributors, submitted to the House of Bishops entitled, “A Memorial to the 79th General Convention.” I would commend each of you to read the Memorial in its entirety, for the point of this sermon let me simply read the second paragraph:
And I quote, “The Episcopal Church affirms the Baptismal promise to “continue in the apostles’ teaching” (BCP 304) as part of the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church. Therefore this teaching ought to be reflected in our liturgy. We affirm that the Christological titles found in the New Testament are integral to the Gospel. While some of these are experienced negatively in the world because of human sin, we affirm that Jesus redeems that which is abused. The dominion of Jesus Christ is not analogous to these concepts as they operate according to the logic of the world. Instead, it subverts them. It is good news for all people that Jesus is the Lord, the true King who upholds them and overturns abusive powers.”
The words of our liturgy, derived from Holy Scripture, and the words and prayers given to us by Jesus are sacred words. While the liturgy is open to revision, we must always keep at the front of our minds its power to transform and change us. We cannot simply intellectually evaluate all of its words as if they were on the level of any other mere human speech. The liturgy is not merely words, but also the place where all of God’s people hear the Word of God, offer worship to God, and are transformed to go out into the world to continue God’s work on earth.
My point in bringing this up is not only to hash out the merits or demerits of this argument for revision, but to more importantly point out in how our theological imperative for revision is lacking. When the Book of Common Prayer was revised in 1979, there were two core theological issues at play: our common identity as Christians is found in Holy Baptism, and the centrality of the Most Blessed Sacrament of the Body and Blood of Christ. In all of the “pro-revision” discussion there was quite a bit of talk about gender and identity, but there was no change in our theology or our understanding of any core doctrines driving this change. Rather, the claim is to adjust the language of liturgy in order to more easily accord with what the Church already teaches and believes. And if that is the case, then perhaps what we need is catechesis, and not revision. Before any kind of revision is possible, we need to be clear about who we are and what it means to be the people of God, what it means to be the Church. Who are we as God’s people? What are God’s plans for us and how can we live into that?
Today’s epistle reading is a beautiful summary of what it means to be the people of God, of what it means to be the Church. This passage gives strong support for the doctrine of prevenient grace, which is a divine grace that precedes any human action. Hear the emphasis in these statements: “as he choose us in Christ before the foundation of the world.” And again in the next verse: “He destined us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ.” The focus is on what God is doing, and not on human action. Ultimately God is sovereign over all that is, and is in no way dependent on anything from any human person. Here it is shown that sin is not pardoned merely on the account that we are sorry for our sins and repent (though repentance is important). No, the primary vehicle for redemption and forgiveness is given “according to the riches of his grace which he lavished on us.” This is God’s abundant love pouring out on us, not because we deserve it, but because God choose us. Indeed, God choose us in Christ before the foundation of the world.
We might also have some difficulty with prevenient grace from and intellectual angle. For example, if God choose us from before the beginning of the world, then that seems to imply that there are others (perhaps non-Christians, or those who leave the faith) who were not chosen by God. It could be construed that if one is not chosen by God then there is nothing they can do about it. In order to avoid the incorrect reading that God is capricious and possibly cruel, we have to consider two points. First of all, this passage says nothing about damnation anywhere. This is a letter from Paul (or more likely someone else writing in Paul’s name to a Christian community). This is insider language, about the identity of God’s people. This is about who we are as God’s people, who we are as God’s Church.
To extrapolate that the opposite of lavish grace must be what is given to other people is reaching for something that is not presented here. This is not about damnation for non-believers. We can know this if we pay attention to the wording. “Just as he choose us in Christ before the foundation of the world.” Christ is the lens through which we understand our election. This is the same Christ who told the repentant thief that he would be in paradise, the same Jesus who told the parable of the Good Samaritan. Being chosen is not about being better than others. We are redeemed through Christ’s blood, and we are called to live as God’s disciples in the world, loving God with all our hearts and loving our neighbor as ourselves. We are also called to pick up our cross and follow Jesus, bearing humiliation and shame for the sake of our Lord should we be called to do so. Our Christian duties are given to us by God, and to whatever degree we participate in God’s plan for us, we must remember that before our will to do anything, it was God’s will that for us to be adopted as His children through Jesus Christ.
That is who we are Christians, and it is ultimately the entire reason or existence itself. The epistle is talking about issues of cosmic and eternal significance. Whatever a group of laity and clergy in Austin Texas do about any issue pales in comparison to the ultimate, foundational truth of this epistle. We need to be united in prayer around the core of our faith before we are in any position to revise our words of prayer.
As it turned out, our bishops are not going to allow the Book of Common Prayer to be revised at this time. They have implemented a compromise position, where a much smaller budget will be allocated for the creation of some new, optional liturgical resources (possibly similar to Enriching our Worship), but the Book of Common Prayer 1979 is to be retained in its entirety. The day may come for a complete revision of the Book of Common Prayer, but today is not that day. Too much emphasis was placed on issues that divide. We will never all agree on everything, but if revision of the prayer book is to be successful, then we to begin not with divisive issues, but with what we all share. We are all God’s children, destined for adoption through Jesus Christ before the foundation of the world.