By Matthew S. C. Olver

I despise the Penitential Order. Scratch that. I actually have come to think that the so-called Penitential Order in the 1979 BCP is theologically and ritually preferable. I just hate the name the prayer book gave to it.

Now that we are in Eastertide, many places where the Penitential Order was grudgingly accommodated in Lent, have now shed it joyfully in place of the “correct” order and maybe even rid themselves of the general confession of sin altogether. The whole question of the structure or ordo as scholars sometimes name the basic shape of the eucharistic liturgy raises a number of interrelated matters liturgical, theological, and ascetical that I think we should consider carefully.

The question revolves around the placement of the Confession of Sin within the liturgy (throughout, my references to “the liturgy” refer to the liturgy for the Holy Eucharist). We should first remember that none of the historic rites, East or West, had a general confession in the Eucharist. To be sure, many of them had penitential prayers where sin was acknowledged and forgiveness requested (often for the clergy before the liturgy begins and also during the preparation of the elements themselves at the offertory).

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The Roman Rite for the Mass has included, from around the 11th century, a version of the confession known as the Confiteor as part of the opening rites of preparation said by the priest and attending ministers at the foot of the altar. It was said by the priest, after which the others said a prayer requesting forgiveness; then the rest repeated the Confiteor, after which the priest said two prayers of forgiveness (requests, not declarations of formal absolution) and a series of versicles and responses. But it would be unwise to assume that this is the same as the general confessions in the daily offices and the Eucharist of the prayer book tradition (as well as some other Reformation churches). East and West, it was generally assumed that serious or mortal sins must be confessed in the sacrament of Reconciliation. Less serious or venial sins were understood to be forgiven through participation in the Eucharist, assuming one comes in penitence and faith. The General Confessions of the prayer book tradition are innovations, liturgically and theologically speaking.

One result of this fact is that there is not a clear historical precedent in the eucharistic rites of the Church for the location of such prayers. Any location is, in a manner of speaking, an intrusion. In the first English prayer book of 1549, Cranmer put the confession just before the reception of the sacrament (the order was eucharistic prayer, Lord’s Prayer, the Peace, “Christ our Pascall Lamb…,” confession and absolution, the “Comfortable Words,” the Prayer of Humble Access, and then reception). The order changes radically in the second prayer book of 1552: after the offertory sentence, the Prayer for the Whole State, Exhortation, Confession and Absolution, the “Comfortable Words,” are inserted, which then proceed direction to the eucharistic prayer. Cranmer followed Martin Bucer’s recommendation that no devotions be interjected between the eucharistic prayer and reception: the Prayer of Humble Access was moved to after the Sanctus and the Peace is removed entirely, not return until the 1979 BCP. The 1928 American prayer book retained this basic order, though it restores the Lord’s Prayer and the Prayer of Humble Access between the eucharistic prayer and reception.

One of the 1979 prayer book’s many revisions was to the basic order of Anglican prayer books: the Prayers of the People (in older BCPs, the Prayer for the Whole State of Christ’s Church) is restored to the traditional Western location, after the sermon and Nicene Creed. The confession of sin is introduced into a new location: after the Prayers and before a newly-introduced Peace. The editors of the BCP placed the Peace in the traditional Eastern location, as the hinge-point of the liturgy, just before the Offertory (this idiosyncratic combination of Eastern and Western liturgical features is another hallmark of the 1979 BCP). The traditional Western location, however, was at the Fraction as part of the devotional rites between the end of the eucharistic prayer and the reception of the Sacrament. Cranmer retained the Peace in the first BCP in this Western location, but it then disappeared. However, tucked back in the Additional Directions on page 407 of the 1979 BCP, is this rubric: “If preferred, the exchange of the Peace may take place at the time of the administration of the Sacrament (before or after the sentence of Invitation).” This is one of many rubrics that are placed so far away from the rite as to out of mind for most clerics.

Another rubric that is printed in the liturgy itself is one that has been a matter of some debate: “A Confession of Sin is said here if it has not been said earlier. On occasion, the Confession may be omitted.” The question is how to interpret “on occasion.” In his classic commentary on the 1979 BCP, Marion Hatchett gives this reading:

Confession is the obverse of thanksgiving; to give thanks for redemption is to acknowledge one’s sinfulness. On the great festal days of the church year, when it may be more appropriate not to make use of explicit acts of confession, this is allowed by rubric, “On occasion, the Confession may be omitted.” (342)

In an article from 2008, he gives some insight into the thinking of the prayer book’s drafting committee as it concerns the word “may,” which appears with some frequency in the 1979 book:

We had assumed that when a rubric states that a text may be used that this text would be seen as not a normal part of the rite but as a text to be reserved for use when it would be particularly appropriate to the day or season or occasion. (“What’s in a Rubric?,” Sewanee Theological Review, 51.4, p. 278)

One of Hatchett’s successors at Sewanee, J. Neil Alexander, goes further. He indicates that it is “desirable” to omit the penitential elements (Collect for Purity and Confession) not only on the two great festivals of Easter and Christmas, but also in the seasons that follow (the Twelve Days of Christmas and the Great Fifty Days). Omitting these elements is, in his judgment, definitely in accord with the “best liturgical practice” and should not outweigh the pastoral impulse to provide for confession and absolution for those who may only come at Christmas and Easter. I’ll have more to say on this at the end.

There are, in fact, a rather wide range of ordos permitted by the 1979 BCP. The “normal” order, with the peace in either location; an option to begin with the Great Litany (again, with the Peace in either location); and then the Penitential Order, with the Peace in either location. The 2019 ACNA prayer book allows for most of these options, except for the Western location of the Peace (it also includes the Collect for Purity in the Penitential Order). A further permission is given in the ACNA book to rearrange the entire liturgy according to the 1662 BCP, which removes the acclamation and Peace and places the Gloria just before the blessing. Below is a summary of the possible ordos in the 1979 BCP:

Normal Normal + Western Peace Location Great Litany Penitential Order Penitential Order + Western Peace Location
 

Acclamation

Collect for Purity

[Summary of the Law/Decalogue]

 

 

Kyrie/Gloria

Collect of the Day

Great Litany

Acclamation

Collect for Purity

[Summary of the Law/Decalogue]

 

Kyrie/Gloria

Collect of the Day

 

Acclamation

Collect for Purity

[Bidding/Summary of the Law]

 

Confession and Absolution

Kyrie/Gloria

Collect of the Day

Lessons and Psalms

Gospel

Sermon

Nicene Creed

Prayers of the People

[Confession and Absolution]

Peace

Lessons and Psalms

Gospel

Sermon

Nicene Creed

Prayers of the People

[Confession and Absolution]

Peace

Lessons and Psalms

Gospel

Sermon

Nicene Creed

Prayers of the People

[Confession and Absolution]

[Peace]

Lessons and Psalms

Gospel

Sermon

Nicene Creed

Prayers of the People

Confession and Absolution

Peace

Lessons and Psalms

Gospel

Sermon

Nicene Creed

Prayers of the People

Confession and Absolution

Peace

Offertory

 

Eucharistic Prayer

 

Lord’s Prayer

Fraction

[Fraction anthem]

[Agnus Dei]

 

[Prayer of Humble Access]

Invitation

Lord’s Prayer

Fraction

[Fraction anthem]

[Agnus Dei]

Peace

[Prayer of Humble Access]

Invitation

Lord’s Prayer

Fraction

[Fraction anthem]

[Agnus Dei]

[Peace]

[Prayer of Humble Access]

Invitation

Lord’s Prayer

Fraction

[Fraction anthem]

[Agnus Dei]

 

[Prayer of Humble Access]

Invitation

Lord’s Prayer

Fraction

[Fraction anthem]

[Agnus Dei]

Peace

[Prayer of Humble Access]

Invitation

Postcommuion

Blessing

Dismissal

 

It is difficult to answer the question about which option is more Anglican. And even if one could, one could also ask if that is really the best question.

Historically, the Great Litany would have preceded the Eucharist, not be inserted into it, and replace some features from the opening rites and then the Prayers of the People. This, by the way, is another characteristic of the 1979 BCP: when other rites or ceremonies are joined to the Eucharist, they replace particular pieces of the “normal” order of the Eucharist. The baptismal liturgy is one that most people recognize: the baptismal rites simply replace the Nicene Creed, Prayers of the People, and the Confession of Sin.

When the Catholic Church revised the Roman Missal after the Second Vatican Council, they made a number of revisions to the ordo of the Western Mass. One of those was to restore the Prayers of the People (which, inexplicably, had dropped out by the sixth or seventh century) to its traditional location after the Nicene Creed. Another significant change was that the confession in the prayers at the foot of the altar is no longer said by just the priest and those assisting. Now, the trinitarian invocation is said aloud, followed by “the Lord be with you,” and then what the rite calls a “Penitential Act.” There are a number of forms of this Act, some of which incorporate the Kyrie and others that do not; one version includes a shortened version of the Confiteor that is said by all. This portion of the rite is a fixed feature and is never omitted.

The main development here is this: everyone engages in a penitential action at the very beginning of the Eucharist. The logic is pretty obvious: the rite assumes that it is “meet and right” to prepare for the entirety of the Eucharist by way of an act of penitence and (outside of the penitential seasons), an act of corporate praise in the Gloria. The Penitential Order of the 1979 BCP is, in a sense, the permission to structure the Preparation Rites of the Eucharist in the same way as the current Roman Rite. The permission about the other location of the Peace allows for still a further adjustment of the prayer book ordo to follow the Roman Rite even more closely.

As someone who teaches the 1979 prayer book to seminarians training for the priesthood, and as a priest who has celebrated many times a week for the last 16 years, I have drawn a few conclusions about all of this.

First, I have long found the sequence of Nicene Creed, Prayers, Confession, and Peace in the 1979 ordo to be one of the places where I would often feel like I was “bumping into” the liturgy. The sequence never really seems to flow. The Creed as the summation of the reading and then exposition of Scripture makes clear sense theological and ritual sense. There is then a logic to follow this with intercessions before moving to the Eucharist. But the movement from Prayers to Confession never seems to flow. This part of the rite always felt like I was ritually saying, “Now we’re going to do this! And now, we’re going to this other thing. And next, still another thing!”

Second, I find myself compelled by the argument that it is fitting to prepare not just for the reception of the Sacrament itself by self-examination and repentance, but also for the reading and exposition of sacred Scripture. Furthermore, by confession at the very beginning of the liturgy, it gives us a greater sense of the unity of the Eucharistic liturgy, that it is one Action, a particular entrance into the Mystery hidden for ages but made know to the Church in these Last Days. The language of the “Liturgy of the Word” and the Liturgy of the Table lends itself too easily to thinking that these are somehow separable from each other, which is completely untrue. When Christians celebrate the Eucharist, they always publicly read Scripture and make intercession for the word. Period. Reading Scripture is part of the Eucharist, not the Liturgy of the Word, which we then connect to the Liturgy of the Eucharist. There is simply the Liturgy of the Holy Eucharist. Strange innovations like treating the cope as the vestment for the Liturgy of the Word (it’s really a garment proper to processions) or forbidding a vested chalice on the altar from the very opening of the liturgy because “this is the Liturgy of the Word and not the Eucharist,” are just two mistaken ceremonial oddities that come from an over-emphasis on some sort of great divide in the eucharistic liturgy.

Third, it raises the very vexing question of General Confessions. The historical pedigree makes clear sense: in the wake of concerns about the practice that auricular confession to a priest was necessary before receiving communion, various Reformation churches introduced general confessions. Various sorts of confessions with a priest or minister remained in some of these traditions (including the rubric about making a private confession in every iteration of the Ministry to the Sick in the BCP tradition). But on this side of 400 years of general confessions, we should ask ourselves if the solution is the best one. We should ask if general confessions may, in fact, unwittingly result in people never making a serious examination of conscience in order to identify specific sins to then confess. In other words, it seems that general confessions could, in fact, result in presuming to come this his table, relying on a shadow of confession but never actually facing our specific sins.

The Penitential Order is not, in the end, the ordo that is overly penitential. It is the ordo that is theologically and ritually preferable in light of the historic structure of the Eucharist in the West. It does the least violation to the traditional shape and has much to be commended in what it says about the nature of the eucharistic liturgy and the need for forgiveness and grace to hear and receive God’s holy Word and the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ.

At the same time, we need a renewal of sacramental confession. It is very difficult to argue that an examination of conscience followed by sacramental confession, absolution, and penance is spiritually and ascetically the same as making use of the general confession. Anyone who has experienced both knows that this true at a deep level.

This should prompt us pastorally in a number of ways:

  • First, let us winsomely commend the joyful grace of the confessional to our people.
  • Second, allow real silence after bidding the confession to allow real space for people who have prepared to name their sins before God.
  • Third, make use of the marvelous scriptural sentences (Mark 12:29-31; 1 John 1:8, 9; Heb. 4:14, 16) that can be used to introduce the biddings to confession that are printed in the Penitential Order (BCP 319-20; 351-52) but allowed in Rite II when the regular ordo is used (BCP 359).
  • Finally, give serious thought to adopting the Penitential Order as the theologically and ascetically preferable ordo for our celebrations of the Divine Mysteries.

About The Author

Fr. Matthew S.C. Olver (PhD, Marquette) is assistant professor of liturgics and pastoral theology at Nashotah House Theological Seminary, the director of St. Mary’s Chapel, and a priest of the Episcopal Diocese of Dallas. Fr. Olver’s research interests include liturgical theology, the place of Scripture in early liturgical composition, ecclesiology, sacramental theology, and ecumenism.

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Steve Schlossberg
8 days ago

I agree: the Penitential Order makes the most sense liturgically. Liturgically, the usual order does have one thing going for it, however: the absolution very naturally segues to the Peace, which (when observed as something more than a meet and greet) is a most appropriate precursor to the Offertory. And pastorally, it works, at least in parishes where articular confession is little known and serious preparation for the general confession little practiced (which in my limited experience is most), what is most likely to bring the average parishioner to remember his or her specific sins is something he or she… Read more »