Not Inviting God’s Presence

Let’s jump into something that may be a bit of a shock to some people.  We do not “invite God’s presence” in worship.

In this I am referring to the now-popular practice in the “praise and worship” movement to say, pray, or sing things like “we invite you here”, “come be with us, O Spirit,” or “you are welcome in this place.”  While perhaps seemingly innocuous at first – expressing, after all, a healthy desire for the presence of God – this can be theologically and doxologically troublesome.  Such invitations espouse a particular theology of worship, and since they originate from a movement of musicians typically with no theological education, one should be very careful about normalizing such prayers.

The idea of inviting God to be with us (in worship or otherwise) fits nicely into image of the domesticated deity of post-modern times.  God is my friend, Jesus is my boyfriend, we’re just generally chummy with the Holy Spirit.  This mentality was an understandable, almost needed, backlash against the dry and distant deity of the modernists, but it is a response of one bad extreme to another bad extreme.  God is both transcendent (or above us) and immanent (among us).  However, Scripture and tradition do not teach us to invite God’s presence in worship, but rather the opposite.

We prepare ourselves to enter into God’s presence. Yes, there is a sense in that he condescends to us, but the primary “motion” of worship is us going to him, approaching the throne or altar of grace (cf. Hebrews 12:22-25)…

you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God, the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.  See that you do not refuse him who is speaking.

In accord with this, the wisdom of the liturgical traditions is that we acknowledge our unworthiness, or confess sins, or pray for the Spirit’s purification of our hearts, at the beginning of every worship service.  To “invite God’s presence” is to turn that paradigm around completely, and assumes that we are so worthy of God’s glory among us that he should come under our roof.  At best, that’s ignorance; at worst that’s blasphemous presumption.

Specifically, the Daily Office begins with a sort of exhortation leading to a confession of sin; the Litany begins with pleas to the Holy Trinity for mercy; the Communion service begins with the Collect for Purity and continues with some form of penitential rite.  These devotions and forms teach and remind us that we are not worthy of God’s presence apart from his grace, and that he invites us to worship him.  More than that, it is right, our duty and our joy always and everywhere to give him thanks and praise, as our Communion Prayers proclaim.

So don’t “just invite your presence this morning” in prayer to God at church… prepare yourself to approach his throne and listen to him.

The Comfortable Words

After the Confession and Absolution in the Service of Holy Communion follow The Comfortable Words.  In my planning notes, this entry was to be entitled “The Comfortable Words (old & new)” which I can only assume was a joke to myself, as the comfortable words are always the same four quotes from Scripture.  Both their function and their content are the same in the classical Prayer Books and in the 2019 Prayer Book.  All that differs are what the rubrics say.  Also, for the many people who are used to the Roman Rite, or the 1979 book, or similar liturgical revisions, the Comfortable Words may be a “new” feature of the liturgy to them.

This lovely graphic explanation of the Comfortable Words made the rounds on Facebook last month, and it’s worth sharing here:

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I’ll let the commentary there stand for itself.  What we can explore from a liturgical perspective is the question of what these “words” do, and how we use them.

Classically, all four of these statements were read by the priest after the Absolution, and were introduced individually: “Hear what our Lord Jesus Christ saith… hear also what what St. Paul saith… hear also what St. John saith…”  But in the 2019 there is one introduction: “Hear the Word of God to all who truly turn to him.”  This is matched with a rubric that states The Celebrant may then say one or more of the following sentences.  Basically, this means that the rubrics allow us to skip any or all of these Words.

It is the recommendation of this Customary that you go all-or-nothing on this.  The Comfortable Words have always been the same group of four ever since Thomas Cranmer first appointed them in 1549, and the logical progression they form together makes the omission of one or more a loss to overall coherence.  Besides, if you just read one, then it runs the risk of just being a “random Scripture reading” floating out there, whereas if you read all four it makes a more bold and clear statement about the forgiveness of sins.  The liturgy will survive without them, so either embrace them as a whole or leave them be entirely.

Their function is to stand as a sort of reassurance of pardon.  Beyond the Anglicans and the Lutherans (the only two Protestant traditions that retain any sense of sacramentality of Absolution from a minister) an “assurance of pardon” is about all a minister can give, after a confession, and quoting the Bible is the best way to go about it.  For us, then, who do have an Absolution pronounced, the Comfortable Words serve as a sort of biblical seal upon the priest’s word of absolution.  This emphasizes that the ministry of the Church is grounded upon the authority of the Word of God written.

Priest, if your congregation already has a high view of Scripture, and a clear understanding that your ministry is derived therefrom, then the function of the Comfortable Words has been fulfilled whether you read them or not.  This does not make them extraneous, however.  The Word of God is living and active, arguably even more alive and active than you are.  Therefore we should not treat the Comfortable Words as “extra add-ons”, but words of great significance and comfort.  The rubrics permit us to skip them, but tradition and wisdom together exhort us to make regular use of them.

Anecdotally, I find myself using them throughout Advent, Lent, and Easter, and only occasionally reading them through the rest of the year.  Like many priests, I feel pressed for time: so-and-so wants to get home on time for the Patriots game, the kids only have so much attention span left, and wasn’t the sermon already long enough?  Perhaps there are good reasons for omitting the Comfortable Words from time to time.  But as a norm, we probably ought to be reading them far more often than we omit them.

The Confession at Communion

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.

Book Review: A Manual for Priests of the American Church

Welcome to Saturday Book Review time!  On most of the Saturdays this year we’re looking at a liturgy-related book noting (as applicable) its accessibility, devotional usefulness, and reference value.  Or, how easy it is to read, the prayer life it engenders, and how much it can teach you.

One of the most useful supplementary liturgical texts on my shelf is A Manual for Priests of the American Church by Earl H. Maddux.  Originally produced in 1944, it reached a fifth edition in 1968.  Its subtitle is “Complementary to the Occasional Offices of the Book of Common Prayer” (paired with the 1928).  After the 1979 Prayer Book was released, I don’t believe this book had a successor.  This is partly because the 1979 Prayer Book added to its pages a few things supplied in this book, and partly because what remained useful in this book didn’t really need any updating for those who were disposed to its it.

The book consists of three sections: Offices, Blessings, and an Appendix of extra material.

The “Offices” supplement what’s in the 1928 Prayer Book, adding some instructions for emergency and conditional baptism, admitting catechumens, sacramental confession, communion from the reserved sacrament, blessing civil marriages, ministry to (including anointing of) the sick, prayers for the dying and departed, particular situations for Burial services, and the like.  Much of this is found in the 1979 Prayer Book in one form or another.  The 2019 Prayer Book provides a form of most of this material too.  If you’re a 1928 Prayer Book user, this part of the book is still immediately practically useful; for the rest of us it’s informative reference material to see how some of the “new” parts of our prayer book were previously rendered.

The “Blessings” section is the part that I don’t know if can be found in any newer books.  It begins with a set of rubrics about how priests and bishops are to handle priestly blessings, how to vest, what sort of contexts and permissions are necessary, and starts the list with the blessing of holy water, as that is what’s typically used in blessing nearly any other object or locale.  If you are open to this line of tradition, this collection is invaluable, as it represents an Anglican adaptation of traditional Western liturgical material.  My congregation is not particularly high-church in their devotion and piety, but there have been times when they’ve asked me to bless new crosses, bibles, and the like.  Rendering some of this book’s blessings into contemporary English has been a handy resource for me!  It’s got blessings for advent wreaths, vestments, pictures, pregnant women, children, books, candles, houses, other types of buildings, prayer beads, vehicles, even including…

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you know… just in case you’re the chaplain to NASA or something.  Clearly the star-gazing 60’s had an impact on the later editions of this book!

The Appendix section of this book is a sort of catch-all for various bits and bobs.  More blessings and offices, including the Asperges, the Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament, imposition of ashes for Ash Wednesday, and large pile of additional blessings and prayers, fill another 70 pages of the volume.  A few of these features (like ashes for Ash Wednesday) have found their way into modern prayer books, and therefore make for interesting comparative liturgical study as we consider how mid-20th-century highchurchmen sought to restore ancient traditions such as the imposition of ashes into the Anglican context.

The book closes with a set of indexes, making its rather scattered contents much easier to find, especially if you find yourself “is there a blessing/prayer for this?”

As you can probably tell from a number of the features listed in this book by now, this is a decidedly highchurch, Anglo-Catholic, resource.  It is to such a degree that many would consider this in violation of the Anglican formularies by (re-)introducing prayers for the departed, traditions that suggest a “sacerdotal” priesthood, and so-called Roman superstitions concerning the Sacrament of Holy Communion.  A lowchurch or charismatic Anglican may find elements of this book useful on a careful pick-and-choose basis, but on the whole this book is unashamedly Anglo-Catholic.  However, before you dismiss this book entirely on theological-party grounds, it should be noted that this book is presented as complementary to the Prayer Book; nothing in here replaces the authorized Prayer Book.  So let us not regard this book as representing a divisive element who wanted to replace the Prayer Book; that is an extreme to be found elsewhere, not here.

The Saint Aelfric Customary, apart from its primary role of parsing out the execution of the 2019 Prayer Book liturgy in a traditional manner, also aims to provide some supplemental liturgical material, and many of the blessings in this book will be drawn upon, adapted into contemporary English to match our new Prayer Book’s style.  If you are priest with even just a little bit of high-church interest, I recommend this book very highly; it is a useful resource to have around, even if it’s only practically useful once in a blue moon!

The ratings in short:

Accessibility: 4/5
Because it’s been through a few additions, some of its sections, especially the Appendix, aren’t as logically ordered as one might wish.  But the index section in the back is simple, making it easy to find what you’re looking for.  The fact that its material is in traditional English may also be a slight deterrent for those unused to it.

Devotional Usefulness: 2/5
It’s hard to rate this book on this scale.  If you’re an Anglo-Catholic Priest, in a high church 1928 Prayer Book parish, then this book is probably a 4.  For the rest of us priests, though, this is much more of an occasional resource.  If you’re not ordained, this book will almost never be “useful” to you at all.

Reference Value: 3/5
From the standpoint of the History of Liturgy, or liturgiology, this is a really cool text.  You get see, here, several examples of Anglo-Catholic recoveries of traditional liturgical material before it gets appropriated the Liturgical Movement of the 1960’s as represented in the 1979 Prayer Book.  In this sense, then, this book is a fascinating study to anyone interested in the subject.

By way of a last word, this is a book that I think all Anglican priests should know about, most should have, even if only a few will use.

On Private Confession

So with Lent around the corner, let’s talk about the sacramental rite of Confession and Absolution.  In the upcoming 2019 Prayer Book, this is a simple matter: go to the “Rites of Healing” section and use that brief liturgy with your priest.  A traditional practice is to make a confession on Shrove Tuesday in preparation for Ash Wednesday.  This is part of the genius of Pre-Lent; having three and a half weeks to prepare for Lent meant you had time to prepare your Confession, which you could make on the day before Ash Wednesday, and then Lent would be the season of penitence in light of the confession you already made. Rather than 40 days of self-examination, it was 40 days of spiritual warfare to grow in grace after that confession.

Shrove

Now, one of the big objections raised against confession to a priest is that it’s a “Catholic” practice, and we’re “Protestants.”  While I could quibble with the terminology, I think it’ll be easier simply to argue in favor of the practice of Private Confession – that it is, and always has been, an option in classical Anglicanism.

Consideration #1 – the Exhoration

The Exhortation(s) in the Communion service invite those who are penitent to come to the priest for absolution and counsel. This is a public announcement to a private invitation. Reading this as a public confession is completely against the context, as the public confession follows shortly thereafter. That invitation is meant to eradicate “any scruples or doubt” in the individual conscience.  Even now, that invitation still exists in the Exhortation:

If you have come here today with a troubled conscience, and you need help and counsel, come to me, or to some other priest, and confess your sins; that you may receive godly counsel, direction, and absolution. To do so will both satisfy your conscience and remove any scruples or doubt.

Consideration #2 – Theological Consistency

The theology of priestly absolution is supported in the explicit wording of the Absolution in the Daily Office and in the Words of Ordination in the “Ordering of Priests” liturgy at the very moment of laying-on of hands.  The wording hasn’t really changed since 1662:

Receive the Holy Spirit for the Office and Work of a Priest in the Church of God, now committed to you by the Imposition of our Hands. If you forgive the sins of anyone, they are forgiven. If you withhold forgiveness from anyone, it is withheld. Be a faithful minister of God’s holy Word and Sacraments; in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.

The authority of the priest to absolve is further supported in the text of the Daily Office’s words of absolution, again substantially unchanged since the originals:

Almighty God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, desires not the death of sinners, but that they may turn from their wickedness and live. He has empowered and commanded his ministers to pronounce to his people, being penitent, the absolution and remission of their sins…

Consideration #3 – a classical prayer book example

Until 1979 the Prayer Books did not provide a liturgy for private confessions, but they did provide a model for how it could be done.  The practical example of this invitation to private confession is modeled in the Ministration of the Sick, in which the sick person is invited to confess to the priest (using very similar phraseology to the Exhortation).  You can see the whole liturgy here, but the specific words are as follows.

Here shall the sick perſon be moved to make a special Confession of his sins, if he feel his conscience troubled with any weighty matter.  After which Confession, the Prieſt shall absolve him (if he humbly and heartily desire it) after this sort:

OUR Lord Jesus Christ, who hath left power to his Church to absolve all sinners who truly repent and believe in him, of his great mercy forgive thee thine offences: And by his authority committed to me, I absolve thee from all thy sins, In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.

The 1662 Prayer Book is anything but a Papist document; it should be noted that the Lutherans also generally maintained a sacramental (or almost-sacramental) status for absolution by a pastor in their theological tradition.

Consideration #4 – why Private Confession was absent from the old Prayer Books

One might question why the old prayer books, if my arguments are correct, didn’t simply provide a liturgy for private confession.  The answer is simple: a private confession is by definition not “common prayer” and therefore didn’t need to be in the Prayer Book itself.  The only part of a private confession that needs (or ought) to be scripted is the priestly absolution, and the minister already has three statements of absolution in the Prayer Book to choose from (Daily Office, Communion, Visitation of the Sick); there need not be any further liturgical form to the saying of a private confession.

That being said, it’s nice to have a brief summary of private confession to a priest in the modern prayer books.  Even though it’s not strictly necessary, having set forms and structure for the confessee can help him or her feel more comfortable in the moment, and cut down on the awkward of feelings of “am I doing this right?”  The only thing that matters is honest contrition about the sins being confessed, so having a liturgical form can help reduce the awkwardness of knowing “how” to say it.