After the Prayers of the People and the Exhortation comes the general confession of sins.  As Anglicans we may take this for granted… very few evangelical churches out there have any regular confession of sin in their worship services.  And the Roman Catholics only kinda-sorta do, at best.

In the old days, there was the confiteor, a prayer of confession, said during the “Fore-Mass”, which I believe was said at the bottom of the steps before approaching the altar during the Introit, and that was the Roman Catholic pattern until the 1960’s. Pope Benedict XVI’s revisions may have brought that back a little bit, but for the most part Roman piety traditionally expected people to make their confession in private the day before coming to Mass.  The English Reformation de-emphasized private confession (though despite what some say, we never abolished it!) and favored a corporate public confession within the Communion liturgy itself.  If private confession is needed, one of the Exhortations encourages people to go make that happen before coming to Communion next week.

The confession we’ve got in the Anglican Standard Text on pages 112-113 is a modern rendition of the traditional Anglican confession prayer for this liturgy.  The confession in the Renewed Ancient Text on page 130 is the “economy class” prayer from the 1979 Prayer Book – shorter, simpler, but arguably cheap.  So we’re going to leave that prayer be, and focus on where the 2019 Prayer Book is in line with Anglican tradition, rather than out of line.

2019: Almighty God, Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, maker and judge of us all:
1662: Almighty God, Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, Maker of all things, Judge of all men:

We’ve trimmed it down a bit here, doing away with the language of “men” in favor of something more gender-neutral by contemporary standards.  We’ve exchanged the Maker of all things for the maker of us, which takes away from the cosmic scope of things.  Fortunately, there’s plenty of other imagery in this prayer, so the loss of that little detail shouldn’t make a big difference overall.

2019: We acknowledge and lament our many sins and offenses, which we have committed by thought, word, and deed, against your divine majesty, provoking most justly your righteous anger against us.
1662: 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.

Again our trend to streamline and trim the language down a little.  “Bewail” has become “lament”, which is conceptually is a toning down of our response to sin, but “bewail” runs the risk of sounding melodramatic today, given it’s a word that we don’t really use anywhere else anymore.  The phrase “from time to time” has been removed without replacement, largely because the implication of that phrase today is “occasionally” rather than the original sense “from moment to moment”, and that would be too unwieldy to say. Other phrases, “most grievously” and “wrath and indignation” are also simplified.  It was a common feature of English liturgical language (and likely rhetoric and poetry in general) to produce strings of pairs: “this and this, that and that”, which sometimes we keep for sake of aesthetic, but sometimes we simplify so it doesn’t get too cumbersome.

2019: We are deeply sorry for these our transgressions; the burden of them is more than we can bear.
1662: 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

It is curious, now that I look at this closely, that in all our streamlining, “repent” is not a word we kept.  This really is the heart of the confession prayer – the previous lines lead to this statement, and the remainder of the prayer grows out from here.  The language of our sins being a “burden” though, is good to note, as it brings us to the biblical language of Christ bearing our sins for us on the Cross.  For us, sin is an “intolerable” burden, or “more than we can bear”; only Christ can bear that sin, and bear it on the Cross he did.  Thus, though the Cross is not explicitly named, the Cross remains at the heart of our confession of sin.  Yes we have this sacramental moment in the liturgy, complete with an absolution from a priest, but it is the Cross of Christ where that absolution ultimately originates.

2019: Have mercy upon us, Have mercy upon us, most merciful Father;
1662: Have mercy upon us, Have mercy upon us, most merciful Father;

Why, in the final draft of the 2019, did we bring back this full phrase?  Why not simply “Have mercy upon us, most merciful Father”?  This is an ancient piece of prayer.  The three-fold miserere (appeal for mercy) is traditionally where the priest (and people?) beat their breast three times, with the word “mercy.”  When you pray this, whether you make that gesture or not, make sure you’re saying it slowly enough that you could be striking your breast at each “mercy.”  The point is not to hurt yourself, as if this were an aggressive penitential discipline; it’s an expression of penitence and humility, which can be found mentioned throughout the biblical narrative.

2019: for your Son our Lord Jesus Christ’s sake, forgive us all that is past; and grant that we may evermore serve and please you in newness of life, to the honor and glory of your Name; through Jesus Christ our Lord.
1662: 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.

The phrase “ever hereafter” has become “evermore”.  Otherwise, we’re praying the same way Anglicans have been praying for centuries, here.

All in all, there is an extra layer of richness and beauty, as well as theological profundity, if you dig into the classical prayer books.  What we’ve got here in the 2019 Prayer Book is the same prayer in essence, but there are a few nuances that got streamlined out of the picture.  (Whereas the confession from the “Renewed Ancient Text” is barely the faintest echo of Anglican penitential piety.)  So we can pray this with confidence that we are praying in communion with our millions of forebears, drinking of the same fountain as those great divines of centuries past.  Just, I encourage you, dip into the classical language from time to time.  It’s not just historical interest, or liturgical legacy or context, but actually an enriching worship that has inspired and informed the entire English-speaking world.

6 thoughts on “The Confession at Communion

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