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This past Sunday, The Rev. Mark Stanley focused Forum on the history and use of the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer (BCP). But what I thought would be a more purely historical lecture quickly surprised me by transforming into a lesson in Episcopal spontaneity and openness. To many, Episcopalians aren’t exactly known for their art, dance, spontaneity, or creativity. Our dedication and focus on the calendar and contents of the BCP is at once what binds us as a denomination, helping laypeople participate more easily and giving us firm ties to our historical foundations, as well as what often labels us in many eyes as staid, deeply ritualistic, and even unwelcoming of change.
This Sunday, however, I learned about a new face of the Episcopal Church and of our Prayer Book—I learned of possibilities like (what’s commonly known as) Rite III, The Order for Celebrating the Holy Eucharist, a guide to holding an exceptionally more free-form, creative, and spontaneous service than our typical fare. As you may have noticed in my epigraph, our Prayer Book outlines a style of service that not only allows for the possibility of having the congregation respond to the Word of God through dance, but through “other art forms” as well, through any respectful, reverent, and heartfelt art we choose! We could, theoretically, paint our response to the Word. We could (mindfully, lovingly) jazz-scat our response or line dance or write poetry, using our freedom and unique gifts to better pursue and strengthen our relationship with God.
In 1549, Thomas Cranmer came out with the first Prayer Book to help make worship more inclusive and participatory for the laypeople (helping translate services into English and welcoming laypeople to join the priest in things like saying the Lord ’s Prayer). Since then, the Episcopal Church has updated the Prayer Book four times (we now currently use the 1979 version; though, in the overall Anglican history, the BCP has been revised many times), working to make our services as welcoming, participatory, loving, open, and true to ourselves as possible. And while Cranmer may not have imagined a world where his idea for the Prayer Book allowed for dance, poetry, song, and art as responses to the Word of God, I think it’s safe to say that he would be glad to know the Episcopal Church has kept firmly to its tradition of inclusivity—working to welcome and encourage worship in its congregants that meets them where they are on their faith journeys, that helps them connect to their Creator through the talents and blessings said Creator has bestowed upon them.
I often feel funny in church, because I’m one for whom writing is the best meditation; it’s what helps me think more clearly and creatively about my day, my thoughts, and the world around me. I was the kid in class who was always taking notes, and now in Old St. Paul’s Forums and worship services, I’m that layperson who seems to always be filling up a notebook in between hymns. For me, writing is a way to better connect with not only what I learn in Forum, but what I feel after listening to the choir perform, what occurs to me as I listen to the sermon, and even helps clarify my thinking when it comes time to pray.
While we may not take up the wildness of the Rite III every Sunday as a congregation, know that this doesn’t mean you’re barred from taking it up for yourself whenever you need it. Try bringing a notebook or sketchpad to church with you one Sunday and see how that changes (or doesn’t change) your experience. Don’t ever be afraid or embarrassed to approach worship and responding to the Word as best fits and feels right to you.