Clergy quickly learn this law: Most worshippers want to sit in familiar pew, open a familiar book and hear the familiar words of a familiar service.
Words such as: "Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven." Or this: "I believe in one God, the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible: And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only begotten Son of God. ..."
Empires and churches have been torn asunder by minute changes in these kinds of texts, because changing people's prayers changes their faith. The faithful get up in arms when asked to change what they say while on their knees.
So Marge Christie wasn't surprised to find anger in the evaluation forms collected after the Episcopal Diocese of Newark began testing a bold new Mass. Even members of one of Christendom's trendiest flocks have linguistic lines they find hard to cross. Nevertheless, seeds planted in places such as Newark have a way of bearing fruit nationwide.
"Our desire goal was to cause people to stop and think about the words they use in worship and THAT we certainly accomplished," said Christie, co-chair on the Task Force on Prayer Book Revision. "I hate this particular phrase, but we pushed the envelope."
The most obvious changes centered on references to God as "Father" or "Lord," words that many consider rooted in patriarchal power structures. This led to changes in texts that even Easter worshippers can say with their eyes closed. Thus, the new Lord's Prayer left the title the same, but began with: "O God in heaven, Mother and Father of us all, hallowed be your name."
Participants rejected this language by a ratio of 4-to-1 or more, said Christie. Thus, the second draft offered a safer substitute: "O God in heaven, holy is your name." The "Affirmation of Faith" -- which replaced the Nicene Creed -- used similar imagery: "We believe in God, Source of all life, of sun and moon, of water and earth, of male and female. ..."
The bottom line: drafters of the new rite edited and revised centuries of Catholic, Orthodox and Anglican tradition, said the academic dean of the most evangelical Episcopal seminary.
"They can say they've left in a form of the Trinity, but it's somebody else's Trinity. It's a depersonalized Trinity that has nothing to do with Christianity's Father, Son and Holy Spirit," said Father Stephen Noll of the Trinity Episcopal School for Ministry in Ambridge, Pa. "You can't just choose some other words and plug them in. ... You end up with something that has some of the form of Christian liturgy, but its substance is actually Unitarian or some sort of Christianized pantheism."
Another fundamental change was the weakening or omitting of references to repentance and the doctrine that Jesus was crucified to atone for mankind's sins. Too much of the language in the 1979 Book of Common Prayer had assumed the "pattern of asking or begging for God's forgiveness," said Father Wade Renn, the other task force co-chair, in a diocesan newspaper interview.
Future prayer books, he said, may need to include CD-ROM discs containing alternative rites reflecting many styles of worship and theological viewpoints. There is, noted Renn, a "feminist vernacular, traditional vernacular, gay and lesbian vernacular, Anglo-Catholic vernacular, low-church vernacular and so on."
The Newark rites have, for now, been shelved and a report sent to national liturgists who are considering requests for a 2006 prayer book. Some insiders believe this would be premature and say that next July's General Convention should merely sanction more trial rites -- a kind of theological "local option" resolution.
"Maybe it can't be 2006. Maybe it has to be 2012," said Christie. "But these kinds of changes are coming and they need to be made at the national level. ... The key is that we have to get to work on this right now. No one thinks this will be easy."