On July 10, 2018, the Episcopal Church voted to begin revising its Book of Common Prayer to move toward more inclusive language for God. The Book of Common Prayer contains the liturgies, prayers, and theology of the Episcopal Church. The first version was adopted in 1789 and the most recent in 1979. Its revision has been fiercely debated, some even suggesting it might cause a schism in the church. The Rev. Dr. Ruth Meyers, a scholar and professor at the Church Divinity School of the Pacific, is one of the foremost experts on the prayer book in the Episcopal Church. She is leading many of the conversations around its revision. She spoke with Dani Gabriel about what is at the heart of this debate and why it’s critical for Christians to hear.
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.
Dani Gabriel, Sojourners: Why do you love the Book of Common Prayer?
Rev. Dr. Ruth Meyers: Having a book, a place that I can go to that covers the whole range of human experience. It's partly the book itself and it's partly what it represents, which is the sense that this is handed down wisdom that represents something larger than me, larger than my particular faith community. It can give a much wider sense of connection to a much wider community of saints.
Gabriel: Why is the Book of Common Prayer potentially being revised?
Meyers: Tradition is not just what was but also what is and what is coming to be. So, tradition literally means that which is handed on. Part of that handing on, and part of the beauty of the prayer book, is a sense of change and adaptation to the needs of the time. One lovely example is when the 1928 prayer book was being finalized, airplane travel was just becoming a thing. Almost at the last minute, a prayer for those who travel by air was slipped in. That's not something that would have been there 10 or 20 years before because that was not an experience. Times change, so we catch up with all that has happened since the last revision of the prayer book and prepare ourselves to step into the future in new ways.
Gabriel: Why is prayer book revision important?
Meyers: It's important because our worship needs to speak to this world that's on fire today and needs to tell this incredible gospel story that we have and draw people into that gospel proclamation. When I was doing some work with this “Me Too” committee preparing for general convention, one of the women on my committee talked about being in conversation with one of her peers. And their image of the church was, you know, God is this old white haired old man with a beard and what does he have to do with me? This kind of stilted and narrow vision of God. And my friend said, "Oh, the Episcopal Church isn't like that. We're much more open and accepting and welcoming." And then this person came to church on Sunday and it was all father, he, and this imagery of kingship and lordship and not the sense of God that my friend was trying to communicate. Our worship didn't reflect people's experience of God and themselves as children of God and the world as we know it today. So I think it's vital to revise the prayer book so that it does reflect God as we've come to understand God today.
Gabriel: How does expanding our language for God impact this struggle for gender equality within the church?
Meyers: I think there's a big connection because when we have a strongly masculine image of God, a strongly patriarchal understanding of God, that creates a world and a worldview that is more patriarchal and hierarchical. This then allows for abuse of women, sexual harassment, sexual exploitation, and a sense of entitlement by men to women's bodies.
It creates a whole structure and world view. Our prayer is really quite powerful and seeps in in ways that we aren't necessarily consciously aware of and yet shapes the way we understand reality. [ We need to] expand our language about God, draw on riches of tradition, and find the quieter voices that are still there. If you think about how patriarchal the world was when the Bible was being written, and we still find Jesus talking about himself as a mother hen or a she-bear, and realizing that those somehow are also part of our tradition, [we] recognize that [ this] has the potential to reshape our world in a way that helps every person see themselves as created in the image of God.
Gabriel: Can you say a little more about how this work fits in with larger movements for social justice?
Meyers: Some of the movements for social justice are rooted in Christian faith. If you go back to Mary's song in Luke, that song is a song of justice. It's about God who cast down the mighty, raises up the lonely, and satisfies the hungry. That echoes Hannah's song in Samuel after she’s given birth to a child. The language of our prayer, however perfectly or imperfectly, can capture that image of God. Having a language of our prayer that more fully captures that liberating sense of God is an important piece of it.
Gabriel: Can you say a little bit about same sex marriage and prayer book revision and why it's important?
Meyers: So, bottom line, when the prayer book was revised in 1979, the world understood marriage as between a man and a woman. The 1979 prayer book says that marriage is covenant between a man and a woman. As long as that's in the Prayer book, then we don't have full marriage equality.
Gabriel: Why is prayer book revision important to people who are not Episcopalian?
Meyers: Some of it is simply the work that we do — partly because of way it shapes people who are Episcopalians and how they are in the world and partly because other Christians do in fact pay attention to what's happening in other churches. What we do can matter for people who are not Episcopalians.
When we revise the prayer book and say, "No, actually we have full marriage equality in the Episcopal Church." That takes a stand in a time in this country where there is a strong voice of evangelical Christianity which says that marriage of same sex couples is contrary to the gospel. Well, that's not what the Episcopal Church teaches or understands. Revising the prayer book says there's a different way of being Christian in the world and a different way of understanding and receiving the teaching of Jesus that is about God's care and compassion and love for each one of us created in the image of God.
Gabriel: What is your vision? What do you think a revised prayer book could do?
Meyers: A revised prayer book could give us new ways of imagining God and understanding ourselves as children of God. It could be a real force for proclamation of the gospel to people who don’t necessarily think of themselves as Christian. I think it can give us a much deeper understanding and appreciation of creation and our role in caring for creation. We have some of that in the prayer book now, but in a time when the world is literally on fire and we are at a huge ecological crisis, it could, because of the power of language, subtly reshape our understanding and relationship to the world in which we live in a way that might enable us to take better care of it.
Gabriel: You told me one story about the power of inclusive language or the power of not having inclusive language. Can you give me the reverse? Can you tell me a story about a time you've seen expansive or inclusive language and having an impact?
Meyers: Well, I can tell you from my own personal experience, I went to seminary in 1982 as a very young woman. It was soon after the '79 Book of Common Prayer had been revised and I had some strong feminist leanings. And I had this intellectual belief in a God beyond gender but I was steeped in prayer language that was very masculine. As a Lenten discipline one year, in worship, I consciously changed every he to she for that entire 40 day lent period. And that completely reshaped my understanding of God and my own experience of God and gave me this whole new understanding of myself as a woman who is created in the image of God.