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…

27 thoughts on “On the Penitential Orders

  1. Barbara (bls)

    So you’re saying that the Collect for Purity would always be omitted if the Penitential Order were used? I have to say I’m not at all in favor of that; the CfP is one of the best parts of the service! But perhaps an amendment could be written that would allow the CfP in its regular place?

    I think I would actually prefer to use the Lutheran order you’ve pointed to here, too; I really like that sentence from 1 John, and I think it would really be beneficial to use it all the time. It’s very to-the-point….

  2. Derek Olsen

    Barbara, yes, the CfP would be omitted if the rubrics are interpreted strictly.

    The 1 John sentence is quite beneficial. In particular, I believe that my theology of sin and grace and especially my understanding of the role that self-deception plays in sin to be a result of youthful meditation upon that verse.

  3. Barbara (bls)

    That’s interesting. That sentence gets to the absolute heart of things, and so simply!

    There’s a lot going on there, as you so clearly point out….

  4. Greg Tallant

    The last two seasons after Pentecost, we’ve tried to divide the season into three 2-month segments, where we rotate green vestments, service music, Bible translations, etc. I wonder how it would be next year to have one of those 2-month segments begin with the Penitential Order (without titling it so in the bulletin).

  5. Barbara Ramsay

    I am always in favor of intentionally confronting my sin and seeking forgiveness. The immediate time after the season of Pentecost is summer…slower pace at church, in life, some times in work…a good time to be confronted with our sin and giant need for grace. I’m in favor of making it intentional and obvious with emphasis on a deeper level of self-examination. Like recognizing relationship with God and man is our goal and sin ruins it.

  6. Fr. Michael Shirk

    “The Eucharist in the 1549 prayer book doesn’t have its own Confession of Sin.”
    Are you sure? The same confession that remains in Rite I was present in the “Order for Communion” that was intended to be inserted into the Sarum Mass… Did the only omit it briefly?

  7. Derek Olsen

    Ah–I see it now! You’re right, Michael, it is there but it doesn’t change the substance of the argument as it only appears *after* the canon and before the reception itself. So—again, it’s still with the reduced reception concept.

  8. Elizabeth

    Derek, thanks for an insightful reminder. I remember using The Litany a lot in all seasons in the 1928 BCP. One rector in particular did it very well.

  9. David Cobb

    Another argument for the Penitential Office in Rite I would be that it lets more people become familiar with the confession used at the daily office.. and the wonderful phrase “we have followed too much the devices and desires of our own hearts…”. That said, there is something helpful, I think, in the confession’s position where it is part of the response to the liturgy of the word- and to the prayers of the people all of which leads to a deeper understanding of the preparation that should be expected of us before offering our gifts at the altar and celebrating the mysteries.

  10. Paul Goings

    Keep in mind that the Sarum Use (like most of Western liturgy) would have included (during the second millenium at least) both the mutual confession during the prayers at the foot of the altar, and also the confession that was a part of the communion devotions, which is the one that the 1549 Prayer Book retained, albeit with different wording. The placement in 1552 is the idiosyncratic one, as far as I am aware, and the the one at the start of mass involved only the ministers during a sung mass. I’d be loathe to be stuck with an order of service that had a mandatory penitential section in the midst of the entrance rite, especially in the context of the sung mass. I realize that Solesmes, etc., have done the best they can with this, but it really is out of place.

  11. Susan Loomis

    I like the idea of preparing for the worship service with confession. We prepare to hear God’s word by being cleansed from sin that blocks our hearing. But, if I had to choose between the Collect for Purity and starting the service with confession, I’d go with the Collect of Purity. I love that Collect.

  12. John-Julian, OJN

    The Order of Julian has used the so-called “Penitential Order” at the beginning of ALL Masses FOR ALMOST THIRTY YEARS! (With the exception that on “anti-Penitential” Major Feasts we use the standard BCP beginning with the Collect for Purity and omit the Confession.)

    And, I’m sorry, but Hatchett’s comment is simply dead wrong! I was present at the committee meeting when the “Penitential Order” was authorized and it was the preference of the majority there that it have the potential for “universal” use. Indeed, most folk wanted that Confession to be part of the BCP Eucharist itself, but the decision was that it probably would not be acceptable——too much like the old Western Rite “Confession at the Foot of the Altar”. [A humorous moment: when I was about 13, I was serving Mass and doing a very-pious, huge beat-the-breast thing during that old “..my fault, my own fault, my own most grievous fault…” After Mass, my rector called me over, “About the breast beating, John——hair shirts are usually worn UNDER the ordinary clothing!”]

    Anyway, the “Penitential Order” before every Mass is literally wonderful—it gets rid of all the penitential baggage before one approaches the altar for the Eucharist. I cannot say enough in praise of the practice!!!!!

  13. Barbara (bls)

    I like your point here, David. I wonder if other options could be added for the confession at some point? I don’t really like the form we currently use much….

  14. Fr. Michael

    I do really like the whole flow though, of “Ye who do truly…”, the confession, the absolution, “Hear what comfortable words”, and the Prayer of Humble Access. Rite 1 permits all those parts (slightly altered); but the Penitential Order not only removes the Collect for Purity, but the Invitation and Comfortable words as well. The comfortable words *could* have been included at that point, but the invitation to confession is really only appropriate near the communion.

  15. Greg Tallant

    A quick question, as I read these posts out of order. Derek, do you feel strongly that the Collect for Purity should be used for every Eucharist? My training was that it was a preparatory prayer that could just as easily be done prior to the liturgy. While I like it very much, I suspect it’s the beautiful cadence of the prayer that I love, more than the theology.

  16. Greg Tallant

    Barbara, that’s why your presence at HTP is so important to our collective spiritual health.

  17. Chris Arnold

    Morning Derek. I’m picking up on a different bit of this post. Do you mean you’d not have any prayers of the people in the usual place if using prayer d?

  18. Derek Olsen

    Greg, In its origin it is a preparatory prayer for the priest; we find it in the sacristy prayers in the Sarum and Northern French missals. However, it’s been an integral part of the Anglican service since Cranmer’s original books. To say that it can be omitted because it’s just preparatory strikes me as a case of 4th century hegemony (i.e., if it’s not in/from the 4th century Eucharist, it’s suspect/optional).

    It is beautiful—and that’s important in its own right! Too, the theology of the prayer makes two key moves that are worth being reminded of. First, it never says that we are “bad” or “wretched” or anything of that nature (not that there’s never a place for that…), it simply acknowledges that God knows the full depths of our hearts and allows us to draw our own conclusions! Second, it acknowledges that the perfect love of God is outside of our ability without the assistance of the Holy Spirit. There are deep resonances here with Luther’s explanation of the First Commandment in both the Small and Large Catechisms where he defines original sin as the inability to “love, fear, and trust God as we ought.” It seems to me to be a beautiful package for sound theology—not to mention that it is one of the most beloved prayers of the prayer book.

  19. Derek Olsen

    Prayer D incorporates the Prayers of the People into itself, but places the body of them in brackets. If you choose to use the bracketed parts, then you would not have the Prayers of the People at the usual spot. If you omit the brackets, then you would use the Prayers of the People in the usual place.

  20. Erich

    The cranberry book should be called scarlet. Scarlet is a liturgical colour; cranberry is not.

    The Scarlet book is also one of the reasons I left the Lutheran Church and started worshiping in an Anglo-Catholic congregation. (still Lutheran) It’s probably not the best resource for a person interested in liturgy.

  21. Derek Olsen

    Well, I don’t know that liturgical books have to be covered with liturgical colors; for a while there we had a “zebra” book…

    It’s my practice to always keep an eye on what the other guys are doing—especially those with whom we have Full Communion agreements.

  22. C. WIngate

    Maybe it’s just me, but this is the first time I’ve come across this interpretation of the additional petitions as a potential replacement for the Prayers in their usual place. The rubrics don’t specifically authorize it, for one thing. I’d have to look at Hatchett again but I’m pretty sure he doesn’t mention this possibility either. Also, doing so would run quite contrary to eastern practice at least: adding a litany in one place doesn’t get rid of one somewhere else.

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