When was the last time you heard the Exhortation read in your church? Or if you’re a priest, when was the last time you read the Exhortation to your flock? Or when was the last time you read the Exhortation at all? Do you even know what the Exhortation is? I’ve resisted the urge to give this entry a click-bait title, but I have a sinking feeling that a lot of people are grossly unfamiliar with this uniquely Anglican feature of the Communion liturgy.
The main reason the Exhortation is almost completely gone from the modern Anglican landscape is because the 1928 Prayer Book (and other books since) almost completely buried the Exhortation. It’s still there, and there are rubrics to direct its location within the liturgy, but the primary text of the liturgy itself makes no mention of it. It’s a dinosaur, a relic of ages past, preserved in the liturgical appendix to appease the grumpy old traditionalists.
In the 2019 Prayer Book however both our Communion rites have this rubric between the Prayers of the People and the Confession:
The celebrant may then say the Exhortation.
You then have to turn to pages 139-40 for its suggested uses: it can be part of a special “Penitential Order” at the beginning of the Communion liturgy (for those who want the service to be more Lutheran I guess) and that it “is traditionally read on the First Sunday of Advent, the First Sunday in Lent, and Trinity Sunday.” This is an appeal to the precedent of (at least) the 1928 Prayer Book which requires the Exhortation to be said on those three Sundays at least (though again you have to find the Exhortation and its rubrics after the conclusion of the Communion liturgy).
So what is the Exhortation?
You can read it on pages 147-8 of the 2019 Prayer Book. Originally there were three Exhortations: one for the Communion Service itself, one for the Antecommunion when the Communion is coming up (next week or so), and another one for the second setting with a particular emphasis on calling people to receive the Sacrament when they have been “negligent to come.” Now that weekly Communion is almost universally normalized, the latter two aren’t really useful anymore; only first remains.
If you haven’t read it yet, please do so. Like, literally, now. Grab your prayer book, click the link, whatever.
Seriously, don’t think you can fool me; I may technically still be a young priest but I’m that naive anymore.
Okay, great, let’s continue.
The Exhortation as found in the 2019 Prayer Book is pretty similar to its traditional form, though you will find that it incorporates elements of all three. (The 1979 version was re-written to emphasize a fairly liberal agenda regarding the love of God and downplaying the judgment of God, so don’t bother digging that one up anymore.) Rather than one giant block of text it is spaced into six more readable paragraphs.
The first paragraph gets you started on the right foot: if you intend to receive Communion today, make sure you follow the scriptural mandate to approach with penitence and faith. The benefits and dangers are great, appealing to 1 Corinthians 11. The second paragraph continues the same line of scriptural reference, honing in on the call to “judge yourselves lest you be judged by the Lord,” including full confession and restitution as much as is possible. The third paragraph is drawn from the “Communion is next week, guys!” speech, and that shows because it’s kind of too late to make the invitation to private confession to the priest not five minutes before the celebration of Holy Communion begins. Nevertheless, the offer is there, and in this day of cheap grace and faux-forgiveness I think our congregations need to know that private confession to a priest is a real ministry that is available to them.
The remaining three, shorter, paragraphs, take a more cheerful tack – “above all, each of us should give humble and hearty thanks to God…. Because of his exceedingly great love for us…” The facts of the Gospel surrounding the death and resurrection of Jesus are summarized as a show of great love, which he desires to communicate to us in “these holy mysteries” of bread and wine. We are called to love and to joy in submitting to Christ, and that is the last word before the call to confessing our sins.
If you are familiar with the eucharistic canon of the Anglican Standard Text, or any pre-1979 prayer book, you will find several echoes of language between the Exhortation and the Communion prayers. Because of the close similarity in language, I would highly recommend using the “Anglican Standard” instead of the “Renewed Ancient Text” whenever giving the Exhortation.
As for the dates, our rubric only recommends Advent 1, Lent 1, and Trinity Sunday. For the most part, I’ve adhered to that pattern in my church since Advent 2013. The freedom afforded us in this rubric, though, should not be taken as a wholesale opt-out option, but rather, to choose different Sundays or more Sundays to read the Exhortation. People need to know why we celebrate Communion, and how to prepare for it – especially those many who have come into Anglicanism from an evangelical background where the Sacraments hardly played a role in their spiritual life at all. I find that Advent 1 is often a low-attendance week due to post-Thanksgiving-Day travel, so sometimes I save the Exhortation for Advent 2 when they’re all back. Sometimes Trinity Sunday also has that beginning-of-summer slump, too, so I might move the Exhortation up to Pentecost instead. Use your freedom on this part of the liturgy responsibly, not as an excuse to be lazy.
Is it wordy? Yes. Can it be boring? Yes. Is it difficult to read if you’re not used to it? Yes. But don’t let that stop you. This is a valuable piece of liturgy, and the more you expose your congregation to it, the more of it will sink in. Use it in Sunday School or Confirmation preparation when teaching on the Sacraments! Maybe dedicate a Maundy Thursday sermon to exposit its text; it’s basically a sermon on 1 Corinthians 11 anyway.
If you’re a priest, learn to love the Exhortation. It is a valuable tool, ally, and resource, and it’s right there in the liturgy. You don’t have to go full 1662-style and use it every single service, but it’s too good to let it fall into obscurity forever.