Daily Archives: November 11, 2013

On the Penitential Orders

Or, more properly, on the “Penitential” Orders.

A little bit of back-story first…

Regular readers will know that I grew up Lutheran in an ELCA church. While it used the Service Book & Hymnal (aka “the red book”) in the first few years after my birth, it’s fair to say that I grew up as a child of the Lutheran Book of Worship (aka “the green book”). Every Sunday, worship began with the Brief Order for Confession and Forgiveness. This has a few basic elements:

  • A Triune invocation
  • the Collect for Purity
  • 1 John 1:8,9 (If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us…)
  • Confession of Sin
  • Absolution

Then the service starts as usual and goes on its merry way. (I’d love to know if it still appears this way in the new Evangelical Lutheran Worship aka “the cranberry book”)

As Episcopalians know, our Confession of Sin appears after the Prayers of the People (as long as we’re not using Prayer D…).

But, why…?

The Eucharist in the 1549 prayer book places the Confession of Sin at the very end of the service right before the reception of the Eucharist. The 1552 book adds in several more Confessions and moves it to what will become its normative spot in the Anglican rites. [Edited to fix my original error that Michael pointed out…] In this book, a Confession of Sin kicks off Morning Prayer (and thus the whole Sunday rota), then comes the Litany. Then, in the Communion service, another confession is added—but only for those (few) people who are remaining for the Eucharistic rite; everybody else gets dismissed beforehand. In both of these books, the reason for placing the Confession late in the service and in particular after the Prayers  derives from the (odd) custom of only a few people remaining for the act of Communion, and a redundant Confession being offered for them at that point. (For all the heinous sins they must have committed since being absolved at the beginning of Morning Prayer…)

In the Historic Western Liturgy, the Confession occurred before the proper start of the Eucharist: in the Prayers at the Foot of the Altar. We see this in the Sarum and in the Tridentine books. Thus, the Lutheran placement that I grew up with is more “mainstream” in that it follows the classical placement better than the Anglican placement does which was related to a practice of restricted Eucharistic reception.

So—all of that having been said, the current Book of Common Prayer includes optional orders (one for each Rite) before the Eucharistic services proper with the ominous-sounding title “The Penitential Order.” What’s in these orders when used before a Eucharist (rather than as a stand-alone service)?

  •  The three standard options for the Opening Dialogue
  • The Decalogue (Ten Commandments) [optional]
  • One of three Scriptural sentences [optional]
    • Mark 12:29-31 (Jesus’ Summary of the Law)
    • 1 John 1:8,9 (If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves…)
    • Hebrews 4:14, 16 (Since we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens…)
  • The Confession of Sin (just as it appears after the Prayers of the People)
  • The Absolution (just as it appears after the Prayers of the People)

Question: what exactly makes this penitential?

The Decalogue is penitential specifically because of how it’s framed. That is, following each commandment with “Amen. Lord have mercy” or “Lord, have mercy upon us, and incline our hearts to keep this law” is an indirect acknowledgement that we have failed to do so.

But if the Decalogue is not used, what qualifies this order as penitential? Because it has one sentence of Scripture that may directly (1 John 1) or indirectly (Mark 12, Hebrews 4) refer to the fact that we have sin?

Hatchett’s commentary states: “A penitential order is provided for optional use in Lent or at other times when it is desired to emphasize the penitential element in the Eucharist or when a special service of preparation for the Eucharist seems appropriate” (p. 311). Personally—I’m not feeling it. In particular, I can’t help but notice that we have three options for the opening dialogue and they are—get this—the standard one (Blessed be God: Father Son and Holy Spirit…), the Easter one (Alleluia. Christ is risen…), and Lent/penitential one (Bless the Lord who forgives all our sins…). Silly me, if this were intended to be particularly penitential, I’d think we would only have the last, and would certainly not include the Easter one!

Maybe it’s my Lutheran roots showing, but the more I look at these, the more I think that they make perfectly good sense for regular Sunday use. Why?

  • They place the Confession back in its proper historical location and not where it was put for the sake of reduced-reception Communion.
  • We get at least a sentence of Scripture which reminds us of the reality of sin and our need for grace.
  • We provide a place for the regular (though optional) hearing of the Decalogue. The Church has historically maintained—even through the medieval period—that all congregants should know the Apostles’ Creed, the Lord’s Prayer, and the Ten Commandments in their native tongue; this gives us a liturgical framing for it.

There’s only one good argument against it to my mind: as currently written, the Penitential Order and the Collect for Purity sit in an either/or position. If a Penitential Order is used, the regular Eucharist picks up with the Gloria/Kyrie, omitting the Collect for Purity. The irony, of course, is that this “penitential” order is exactly where the Lutheran Book of Worship inserts the Collect for Purity!

Modern seminarians are taught to believe that “penitential” is a bad word. In turn, that’s what they teach their congregations. Saddling this rite with the title “Penitential Order” unduly prejudices what we find there. The reality is that it’s more a reassembly of elements into the classical order than the addition of a great liturgical or psychological burden. The truth is, I think its more frequent use would be a great benefit—particularly with the “unlawful” addition of the Collect for Purity in its natural spot. And, hey, if anyone gives you grief about the insertion, you can say you’re just honoring our Full Communion agreement by prefacing the Episcopal Eucharist with a Lutheran service…