A half-baked absolution for a half-baked confession

Posted 10 March 2011 by
Blessed are the Pure in Heart

Blessed are the Pure in Heart. Stained glass window in the Florence Henry Memorial Chapel, Shoreline, Washington.

The words of the 1928 Book of Common Prayer (BCP) still abide in me.

More importantly, the words from Daily Morning Prayer in the 1928 BCP still abide in me. Since Morning Prayer was the de facto primary Sunday service when I was growing up, those words still resound in my soul.

We have erred, and strayed from thy ways like lost sheep.

But thou, O Lord, have mercy upon us, miserable offenders.

From thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead.

we humbly beseech thee for all sorts and conditions of men;

for thine inestimable love in the redemption of the world by our Lord Jesus Christ; for the means of grace, and for the hope of glory.

and dost promise that when two or three are gathered together in thy Name thou wilt grant their requests;

These are only from Daily Morning Prayer. We have not begun to consider such evocative wording such as “We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under thy Table” from Holy Communion.

Do not mistake me for a member in good standing of the Prayer Book Society. Nothing could be further from the truth. God does not change, it is true. At the same time, language lives. Understanding grows. Sensibilities develop. In short, humans change.

In addition, there are occasional problems with the wording in the 1928 BCP. While attending Ash Wednesday services last night, I ran into one such wording problem that was carried into the 1979 Book of Common Prayer. The absolution after the Litany of Penitence in the Ash Wednesday service of the 1979 BCP is almost word-for-word the same as the Declaration of Absolution after the confession during Daily Morning Prayer in the 1928 BCP.

A Comparison of Absolutions
1928 BCP Absolution in Daily Morning Prayer1979 BCP Absolution in the Ash Wednesday Liturgy
The Declaration of Absolution, or Remission of Sins. 

¶ To be made by the Priest alone, standing; the People still kneeling.

¶ But NOTE, That the Priest, at his discretion, may use, instead of what follows, the Absolution from the Order for the Holy Communion.

ALMIGHTY God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who desireth not the death of a sinner, but rather that he may turn from his wickedness and live, hath given power, and commandment, to his Ministers, to declare and pronounce to his people, being penitent, the Absolution and Remission of their sins. He pardoneth and absolveth all those who truly repent, and unfeignedly believe his holy Gospel.

Wherefore let us beseech him to grant us true repentance, and his Holy Spirit, that those things may please him which we do at this present; and that the rest of our life hereafter may be pure and holy; so that at the last we may come to his eternal joy; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

The Bishop, if present, or the Priest, stands and, facing the people, says 

Almighty God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who
desires not the death of sinners, but rather that they may turn
from their wickedness and live, has given power and
commandment to his ministers to declare and pronounce to
his people, being penitent, the absolution and remission of
their sins. He pardons and absolves all those who truly
repent, and with sincere hearts believe his holy Gospel.

Therefore we beseech him to grant us true repentance and his
Holy Spirit, that those things may please him which we do on
this day, and that the rest of our life hereafter may be pure
and holy, so that at the last we may come to his eternal joy;
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Both of the above absolutions say that an minister (read: priest or bishop) has the power to declare the absolution and remission of sins to penitent people, but both lack direct wording saying that sins are foregiven.

ALMIGHTY God, our heavenly Father, who of his great mercy hath promised forgiveness of sins to all those who with hearty repentance and true faith turn unto him; Have mercy upon you; pardon and deliver you from all your sins; confirm and strengthen you in all goodness; and bring you to everlasting life; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen. (Absolution from the service of Holy Communion in the 1928 BCP, emphasis added)

I noticed the indirect wording as a child. I also noticed that the priest would stand, say the Declaration, and make the Sign of the Cross over the congregation when getting to the words “the Absolution and Remission of their sins.”

Being that I was raised in a Low Church congregation, very few people ever made the Sign of the Cross on their person at any time. This included the absolution at either Daily Morning Prayer or Holy Communion. So, I never really saw an outward and visible sign of what individuals in the congregation thought was happening when the priest declared and pronounced to us that our sins have been absolved.

(For those of you from certain Christian traditions would say that it is Christ that declares us absolved anyway. A priest is not needed. There is no argument about whether or not a priest is needed. We are made worthy to stand before God by Jesus Christ. That being said, why do we, as Christians, need physical acts for Baptism, Holy Communion, Anointing the Sick, and many other actions? When you understand the answer for the other physical acts, then you will understand why absolution is one of the gifts given to the Church, also.)

This started me thinking last night. Why did those that compiled and wrote the 1979 BCP use the “weak” absolution on Ash Wednesday—and only Ash Wednesday? (Now the Daily Offices have a clearly worded absolution for the priest to say.) Of all nights during the year, you would think this one would clearly state our sins are forgiven.

Then something occurred to me, after looking at the words of the Litany of Penitence found in the Ash Wednesday service. Before I give my answer, look at the words of the Litany of Penitence.

Litany of Penitence

The Celebrant and People together, all kneeling

Most holy and merciful Father:
We confess to you and to one another,
and to the whole communion of saints
in heaven and on earth,
that we have sinned by our own fault
in thought, word, and deed;
by what we have done, and by what we have left undone.

The Celebrant continues

We have not loved you with our whole heart, and mind, and
strength. We have not loved our neighbors as ourselves. We
have not forgiven others, as we have been forgiven.
Have mercy on us, Lord.

We have been deaf to your call to serve, as Christ served us.
We have not been true to the mind of Christ. We have grieved
your Holy Spirit.
Have mercy on us, Lord.

We confess to you, Lord, all our past unfaithfulness: the
pride, hypocrisy, and impatience of our lives,
We confess to you, Lord.

Our self-indulgent appetites and ways, and our exploitation
of other people,
We confess to you, Lord.

Our anger at our own frustration, and our envy of those
more fortunate than ourselves,
We confess to you, Lord.

Our intemperate love of worldly goods and comforts, and
our dishonesty in daily life and work,
We confess to you, Lord.

Our negligence in prayer and worship, and our failure to
commend the faith that is in us,
We confess to you, Lord.

Accept our repentance, Lord, for the wrongs we have done:
for our blindness to human need and suffering, and our
indifference to injustice and cruelty,
Accept our repentance, Lord.

For all false judgments, for uncharitable thoughts toward our
neighbors, and for our prejudice and contempt toward those
who differ from us,
Accept our repentance, Lord.

For our waste and pollution of your creation, and our lack of
concern for those who come after us,
Accept our repentance, Lord.

Restore us, good Lord, and let your anger depart from us;
Favorably hear us, for your mercy is great.

Accomplish in us the work of your salvation,
That we may show forth your glory in the world.

By the cross and passion of your Son our Lord,
Bring us with all your saints to the joy of his resurrection.

Did you notice what is missing from this confession of sins? Contrition. That is, being sorry that you have sinned and want to change.

After receiving a ticket for going 80 miles per hour in a 60 miles per hour speed zone, you can admit to a judge what you were doing when the police officer stopped you. Are you heartily sorry for this, your misdoing? Or, will you speed in the future, hoping an officer does not catch you?

When you confess your sins to God, do you want amendment of life? Or, will you be happy to come back in a week and confess the same sins? Are you penitent?

ALMIGHTY God, Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, Maker of all things, Judge of all men; We acknowledge and bewail our manifold sins and wickedness, Which we, from time to time, most grievously have committed, By thought, word, and deed, Against thy Divine Majesty, Provoking most justly thy wrath and indignation against us. We do earnestly repent, And are heartily sorry for these our misdoings; The remembrance of them is grievous unto us; The burden of them is intolerable. Have mercy upon us, Have mercy upon us, most merciful Father; For thy Son our Lord Jesus Christ’s sake, Forgive us all that is past; And grant that we may ever hereafter Serve and please thee In newness of life, To the honour and glory of thy Name; Through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen. (Confession in the Holy Communion service of the 1928 BCP, emphasis added)

The Litany of Penitence found in the Ash Wednesday service of the 1979 BCP is a half-baked confession. It lacks a clear statement of contrition.

The Absolution found in the Ash Wednesday service of the 1979 BCP is a half-baked absolution. It lacks a clear statement of absolution.

The two were made for each other.

A tip of the hat to Seven Whole Days for making me aware of this version of Psalm 51 on YouTube.

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