Season after Pentecost, 2023
The primary governing body of the Episcopal Church is the General Convention, which meets every three years.
The first meeting of General Convention was held in 1785 in Philadelphia. The second meeting of General Convention was held a year later, in 1786, also in Philadelphia (they hadn't quite worked out the every-three-years thing yet).
The list is pretty nifty, and it's on Wikipedia: List of General Conventions of the Episcopal Church
When Episcopalians from all over gather at one of these General Conventions, they not only pass legislation relating to our common prayer, but they also worship together.
So, I find myself thinking particularly about the worship history of General Convention specifically as it relates to worship.
Worship at recent General Conventions is a veritable smörgåsbord, with a little of this liturgy, a little of that rite, some of this music, and a whole lot of that...
It reflects the diversity of our liturgical rites, styles, and musical traditions.
But should it?
Because surely it has not always worked this way.
The key piece of legislation for the modern Episcopal liturgical era is here: Resolution 1979-A133. This is the resolution that authorized the present Book of Common Prayer. It was the second reading of this resolution. In order to change the prayer book of the Episcopal Church, the resolution must be passed at two successive General Conventions. It's a serious decision, so the founders of the church built in a three-year waiting period.
So, what does this mean for the worship at General Convention historically?
In broad strokes, it means this: Rite I was used exclusively for the first 60 General Conventions of the Episcopal Church.
I'm using the term "Rite I" to loosely refer to the rite which was continuously revised by the General Convention in American prayer books up through the 1928 Book of Common Prayer.
And I'm being slightly conservative here, I think.
Trial materials leading up to the 1979 Book of Common Prayer were only published in earnest in 1967 (the eucharistic rite) and 1970 Services for Trial Use (the "Green Book").
Is it possible that some of these trial liturgies were used in worship services at General Convention before then? I think it's possible, but I can't know for sure. The Episcopal Church has very thorough records of the legislative proceedings of the convention, but no records on the nature of the worship that has occurred.
This is an interesting thing to consider: the bishops and delegates at General Conventions past: how did they worship? who made the decisions about how they would worship? to what degree were trial liturgies used in the worship held at General Convention?
Among the many steps toward the 1979 Book of Common Prayer was a resolution at the 1964 convention right here in St. Louis:
The time seems ripe to many in the Church to undertake a revision of the Book of Common Prayer in this Church so that the language may be more easily understood of the people, and the forms of services more suitable to the present age; … …with a special view to making the language and the form of the services more relevant to the circumstances of the Church's present ministry and life.
Is it possible that by 1964 trial liturgies were being used at the plenary worship of the General Convention? Yes, but without accounts of the worship, or orders of service themselves, I have no way of knowing for sure.
But lets assume for a minute that 1964 is when it happened, that a new – let's call it "Rite II" – service was introduced as a form of worship for that body.
That means that for 60 General Conventions, from "I" Philadelphia to "LX" in Detroit, Rite I was used exclusively.
From then, only at the past 19 General Conventions (and I'm including the "Special" unnumbered convention held in Fort Wayne, Indiana in 1969), the worship has been more "Rite II".
In recent General Conventions, however, we have seen a move to represent nearly all of the possible modes of eucharistic liturgical expression – with the seeming exception of Rite I. Rite I was not used at the 2015 General Convention of the Episcopal Church in Salt Lake City
It was the sole liturgy of this Church from 1785 to 1976. It would have been the language of worship used at the first 60 General Conventions.
If those who design the liturgy of General Convention are so deadset on giving us (seemingly) all the liturgical options at one point or another, why is this option never given?
It seems to me that if you look at the two most frequently used liturgies in our church, they would be the 1) Holy Eucharist, Rite II (done as the principal service in most parishes), and 2) the Holy Eucharist, Rite I (done as the early service in most parishes).
The inclusion of Rite I was deliberate in our rather daring 1979 Book of Common Prayer. This volume binds the old together with the new, so that both may inform each other in our common life.
The quest to represent all the diverse interests and experiences in worship at any Episcopal Church gathering is a tall order, nowhere more so than at our ultimate ecclesiastical conclave. But surely it is a mistake not to include one of the most commonly experienced liturgies in our church.
To omit Rite I is disingenuous to the liturgical reality of the Episcopal Church – the very Church this body is gathered to govern. Furthermore, it disconnects General Convention from its own history, which is the history of this Church.
Many of us may be a modern people who need "a language more easily understood," but for many Episcopalians, the most understood language is in the form of Rite I.
How many Episcopalians were baptized, fed, and buried with the language of Rite I? To jettison this language at our triennial gathering proves that we are, in the words of G. K. Chesterton, "the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about."
General Convention is a grand, representative democracy, but should it not also have a bit of the "democracy of the dead"?
So, let me say it loudly for those of you in the back: Bring back Rite I at General Convention!
And maybe a bit of Morning Prayer too.
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