Bishops to consider Rachel's Tears, Hannah's Hopes

Proposed liturgies address loss related to childbearing and childbirth
July 13, 2009

A resolution to add "Rachel's Tears, Hannah's Hopes: Liturgies and Prayers for Healing from Loss Related to Childbearing and Childbirth to the Enriching our Worship" series of supplemental prayer book materials has moved to the House of Bishops for consideration.

Rachel's Tears includes multiple services; prayers addressing situations such as unexpected or unwanted pregnancies, the loss of a child, termination of pregnancy, infertility or sterilization, and adoption; and suggested readings and music.

The Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music developed the materials in response to a 2003 General Convention resolution asking for rites responding "to the pastoral needs of women and men and who have experienced miscarriage, abortion or other trauma in the childbearing or childbirth process." That resolution, in turn, stemmed from a request to convention by the president of Anglicans for Life (formerly the National Organization of Episcopalians for Life or NOEL) for a healing service for those who had undergone abortions.

"The power of it lies primarily in its capacity to relocate systems of reproductive loss and grief from the shadows … of our collective life into the very heart of worshiping communities" and equip them to walk with people in pain and "not move to hope and healing so quickly that it invalidates pain as a dignified, holy response to that kind of loss," said the Rev. Devon Anderson (Minnesota), who chaired the project for the standing commission and is a member of the Prayer Book, Liturgy and Music committee that considered the resolution.

During hearings and discussions of the legislative committee, she and others offered personal stories about how they encountered the need for such rites in their own lives and ministries. Recalling helping a couple bury a stillborn child after nine years of infertility, for example, Anderson said, "As a parish priest I wish I had had the liturgy to help wrap our community around those two people and stay with them throughout their long road of grief and healing."

"What I am most proud of about the project itself is the process we used to develop it," Anderson said. "We engaged as many different people in as many different parts of our church with as many different perspectives as possible."

They "fully included the original proposer of the resolution," Anglicans for Life President Georgette Forney, in the process and distributed the final draft for comment to bishops across the theological spectrum, she said.

While many people lauded the overall project, committee members debated whether a specific "Rite of Repentance and Reconciliation for an Abortion" was needed or whether existing Book of Common Prayer rites were sufficient.

"At first blush," the proposed rite seems to indicate that all abortion is a sin, said the Rev. James Burns (New York).

"We had a lot of conversation about that" during the project, Anderson said, noting they tried hard to avoid making a political or theological statement about abortion. "The original resolution was called Post-Abortion Healing Services. We had to be able to develop something that the originators would be able to use in their ministry because General Convention asked for that, so it's been a really delicate line."

During discussions July 13, the Rev. Carolyn Kuhr (Montana) urged retention of the new rite. "As a hospital chaplain, I can see the opportunity for using the new rite as well as possibly the two that are in the prayer book."

Stacy Thorpe (Alaska) also supported keeping the rite. "This is really a missing link that we have pastorally, and I feel like this is not a morning-after pill that's going to be used as a constant thing … Right now it is difficult for some priests to even deal with the issue."

The Rev. Lorraine LLunggren (North Carolina), however, noted that a "large contingent" of women within her congregation who reviewed the materials, including Rachel's Tears, "were very distressed partly over this rite and spoke to me about the prayer book being more than sufficient. And they really felt as though [the rite] were a political statement and not only a rite of reconciliation."

Committee members decided to retain the rite but then debated whether to expand its scope. Ultimately, the committee replaced the first sentence in the introduction with the more expansive explanation: "Sometimes people feel themselves carry unresolved guilt over an abortion, or mishaps of pregnancy and infertility. Relationships can also be damaged in these processes. We recognize that all of these situations have a tragic dimension and call for great pastoral sensitivity to the needs of the women and others involved."

The introduction goes on to outline the church's stance that it affirms the legal right to abortion but "it should be used only in extreme circumstances." Further, the introduction says, "A woman who repents an abortion is to be received like any other penitent. Her sense of loss and remorse should be honored."