Since 1552, the Prayer Book tradition has begun the Morning and Evening Offices with “opening sentences of scripture.” The sentences listed in the English Prayer Books are largely penitential: Ezekiel 18:27, Psalm 51:3, 51:9, 51:17, Joel 2:13, Daniel 2:9-10, Jeremiah 10:24, Matthew 3:2, Luke 15:18-19, Psalm 143:2, and 1 John 1:8 If read through in order, they form a sort of outline of salvation. There are Sentences about repentance, God’s grace toward sinners, trust in God’s mercy, and expressions of commitment to God’s judgment and cleansing. These are not Opening Sentences that are meant to set the mood for the Office as a whole, these are preparatory words of Scripture meant to lead specifically into the exhortation to Confession that follows: “The Scripture moveth us in sundry places…”

The first two American Prayer Books added Habbakuk 2:20, Malachi 1:11, Psalm 19:14-15, Psalm 122:1, and Philippians 1:2 to the list, as well as an additional 14 verses for various seasons and holy days in the Church calendar. The penitential character began to recede, and a broader “call to worship” role came to the fore. The classical list of sentences were retained, however, after the first and seasonal options. This trend was continued in the 1928 and 1979 Prayer Books, where the original list finally disappeared entirely, though several of the original sentences were rolled into the seasonal lists (particularly in Advent and Lent). The evolution continues here: recognizing that these are opening sentences to start the Office as a whole, the need to include all them at the front of the Office is greatly lessened, and therefore the “seasonal” Opening Sentences are now appended to the back of the liturgy to allow the primary text of the Office to be more streamlined and simple.

Another result of this change over the past nearly century and a half is that the Opening Sentences in the 1979 and 2019 Books are optional. This can be understood from two different angles. On one hand, it is a natural result of the “call to worship” role that renders these sentences to secondary importance. If, as in the classical books, they are specifically preparing the congregation for the exhortation and confession of sin, then they very much belong. But when they are preparing the congregation for worship in general, the exhortation to confession could very well do that on its own – and arguably more substantially if the rubric to read only one Sentence is strictly followed. On the other hand, additional rubrics make the Confession itself to be optional, provided it is said at least once in a given day. This allows for the Office to begin with the Invitatory, which has precedent: the 1549 Prayer Book began the Office with “O Lord open thou our lips…”

Unique to this book, however, the rubric’s language indicates that one of the Sentences provided here “is customary.” Thus, it is permissible for the officiant to elect to read other sentences of Scripture that are not provided for, and this opens the door not only for innovation – adding further sentences to the list – but also for restoration, opting to read the opening sentences of a previous Prayer Book.

Discerning Morning & Evening

The Opening Sentences of Scripture were identical in Morning and Evening Prayer until 1892. Since then, several sentences have become established as particularly appropriate for either Morning or Evening. These are largely represented in the sentences appointed on BCP pages 11 and 41, as well as the appended sentences “At Any Time”.

For further devotional considerations on these Sentences, see: Opening Sentences of Scripture in the Daily Office

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