On Books of Worship: Then, Now, and Going Forward

By Taylor Burton-Edwards


The United Methodist Book of Worship (1992), The Book of Common Worship (Presbyterian Church USA, 1993), The Book of Common Prayer (The Episcopal Church, 1979), and more recently Evangelical Lutheran Worship (2006, a significant revision of the 1978 Lutheran Book of Worship) are all denominational collections of worship resources built on a common platform of ecumenical liturgical renewal. While each expresses its own denominational distinctives in worship quite thoroughly, all of them sprang from a shared hope that the use of these resources would accomplish two things: a renewal in the depth and vibrancy of worship grounded in widely ecumenically shared understandings of early Christian practice, and, consequently, the advance of ecumenical work to make more concrete the visible unity of the Church around the world.

There were substantial reasons to hope for both as these volumes, especially the first three, were being developed and released. The liturgical renewal movement, which had become strong enough to lead to substantial reforms of the Roman liturgy at Vatican II, was itself already an ecumenical movement, springing from the burgeoning work of historians and liturgical scholars of many Christian denominations, East and West, in recovering and interpreting early Christian liturgical texts starting in the late nineteenth century. Concurrently, there had been significant advances in ecumenical relationships among the various churches worldwide, certainly advanced in part by the degree of ecumenical collaboration in liturgical scholarship. There were national councils of churches not only in the US, but worldwide, aiming at finding ways to recognize each other's ministries, plus the remarkable emergence of the World Council of Churches in the 1930s and 1940s. There were multiple plans in development over decades for church union or at least Christian unity among Protestants in the US and elsewhere. Vatican II dramatically advanced both ecumenism and much of the vision of the shape and nature of Christian worship advocated through the ecumenical scholarship that informed the liturgical renewal movement.

So, it was no surprise that after Vatican II, nearly every Protestant denomination would begin to revise its own ritual resources to reflect if not the wording or theology of the Roman Catholic revisions in Vatican II, at least the same findings of the same ecumenical scholarship, and would do so in deep ecumenical consultation with others along the way.

The tide had simply turned toward far greater possibilities to express, and it was hoped embody Christian unity by the process of developing and then leading our congregations to embrace and use resources built on this shared, historical, and ecumenically recognizable platform. And leadership in all four of these denominations in their worship books set them forth with the expressed hope and confidence in both liturgical renewal as the best way forward not only for worship but, through the use by many of their congregations of these compatible if not identical resources, Christian unity as well.

That was then.

I would suggest that the ecumenical convergence in worship now looks almost nothing like that expected by the shapers of these volumes.


Part of it is the result of widespread downsizing in US mainline denominations. Both the pioneering ecumenical work in liturgical studies begun in the late 19th century and the unprecedented levels of inter-denominational collaboration in liturgical reform and the development of common texts in translation launched just after Vatican II were predicated largely on the existence and capacity of strong denominational structures in the US, Canada and elsewhere to propagate and build audiences sympathetic to their findings. Leaders in worship related positions within national “mainline” denominations—Presbyterian, Roman Catholic, Episcopal, UCC, Anglican, Lutheran, United Church of Canada and United Methodists-- shared a commitment to these ecumenical standards and could and regularly did use them to inform official resources and training in their use across the denominations they served.

During the past 25 years, either those positions or their capacity to act have been dramatically curtailed. The Episcopal Church no longer has a liturgical officer. The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America has dramatically reduced the staffing of its worship office. The United Church of Canada and the Anglican Church of Canada, Canada’s two largest non Roman Catholic denominations, now each have less than half-time denominational worship staff. The Presbyterian Church USA, UCC and United Methodist Churches still have some discrete, full-time worship staff, but in each case these staffs have also been cut while being given more responsibilities and reduced authority within their areas.

The effect has been chilling. Absent strong, well-staffed structures at both the denominational and regional levels, the capacity to propagate a common ecumenical vision of worship has been increasingly absent as well. Ongoing and in some cases escalating pressures to downsize mean the prospect for recovering a more robust set of structures by which such a common vision could be more coherently shared appears nowhere on the horizon.

Downsizing is not the only force that has radically redirected the ecumenical convergence in worship. Another is the so-called “worship wars” that erupted among these churches almost coincident with the release of The United Methodist Book of Worship and The Book of Common Worship.

For at least a decade, the worship wars created pitched battles between proponents of “traditional” and “contemporary” worship styles. The United Methodist Book of Worship was portrayed by some “contemporary worship” proponents as an example of the kind of “traditional” approaches that must be overcome if the church sought to be “relevant” in its worship. Though the heat in these conflicts began to die down in the early 2000s, what replaced the pitched battle was a fundamentally changed conversation about worship across our church and many others. Conversations about faithfulness to tradition or any sense of ecumenical unity have been generally displaced by consumerist market values. Throughout the early 2000s and to the present day, those congregations, of whatever worship style, who attract and to some degree retain the most consumers for their services (attendees) are declared “successful models” of “best practices” and set up as a “teaching churches” whose example all others, even those with very different resources and stories, are widely expected by their judicatories to adopt or adapt. Allegiance to values about ecumenical convergence in worship (or anything else, despite the denomination's constitutional commitment to "pray, seek, and work for unity at all levels of church life" (2016 Book of Discipline, Par. 6)) is no part of the “dashboard metrics” now commonly deployed in the UMC to measure pastoral and congregational effectiveness.

This is not to say that the earlier efforts toward resourcing an ecumenical convergence in worship have borne no fruit at all. In some ways, that fruit may be more present than ever. But its form may be almost unrecognizable.

The way this fruit now exists may be best described by the terms “mashup” and “remix.” Worship designers, of whatever denominational tradition, may sample “sound bites” from a variety of traditions and mash them together to create a new form thought to work best in their local contexts. Or they may take one continuous text from one source, and set it against another text, video, or piece of art or music from another context, to generate a remix. In either case, the aims of using this material may be more focused on that particular use for that particular congregation at that particular time than on generating or even using the ecumenically shared originals as a means of participating in some larger vision of ecumenically informed worship or ecclesiology. So while more such resources are now being mined for use more widely, they are often being repurposed for decidedly local and sometimes non- or even anti-ecumenical aims.

How will the "grandparents" who developed these resources respond to what many of the grandchildren have done with the liturgical and ecumenical vision they have bequeathed them? If the grandparents believe they can convince the grandchildren to love and enact the same vision of ecumenical convergence in worship they may have hoped for, it appears to me they will be frustrated and disappointed. The vision that common texts and shared resources on an ecumenically common platform would help unite our denominations in mission and ministry is an endangered species headed toward extinction in the North American context. Our denominations appear to have neither the organizational capacity nor the systemic will to revive it.

What can we do in an era where the social network has effectively replaced the institutional hub as a system of authority and wisdom?

Though the conversations about worship have changed, and though the purpose of using a variety of resources for worship has become almost radically localized, the grandparents may remain sought after sources of wisdom about the riches and depths that may be found in these diverse, enduring resources. Some of us (myself included) may find ourselves feeling crotchety at times toward “those kids” playing in “our yards,” and messing up “our gardens.” We may be tempted either to wall ourselves off or yell at them through our windows-- or call the “ecumenical liturgical police” after them! (As if any of them still existed!) None of this will help.

Instead, we can keep doing our work and living our own commitments as best we can. We can go meet the new users on their turf or ours when they stop by. At a minimum, this means getting engaged actively in blogs and social networks around issues related to worship-- such as we have done at Discipleship Ministries through our various Facebook Groups (UMC Worship, UMC Preachers, UMC Music). We can visit their blogs and social sites to show genuine interest in what they’re doing with “our stuff.” And we in denominational offices can do a better job of learning and modeling the mashup culture in the resources we provide-- as we have sought to do in the dramatic changes we have brought to our own worship resourcing as of Advent 2016. Perhaps along the way, we can share something of our own joy in finding and assembling some of these collections of resources and in the work we continue to do for the vision we continue to hold dear.

We can be very sure a richer, more ecumenically generous ecclesiology and liturgical life across our churches will not come to flower as we had expected. May we be equally sure that the Spirit who birthed such visions in us will continue to complete them through or sometimes despite our efforts and those who follow after us.