When you encounter the daily prayers in the classic Book of Common Prayer for the first time, you might be in for a surprise. If you open The 1662 Book of Common Prayer: International Edition, and turn to the first page of Morning Prayer, you are immediately confronted with a set of eleven short Scripture passages. They are all about sin. The instruction right before them says that the minister is supposed to read one or more of them with “a loud voice.”
This raises so many questions. Is the minister supposed to shout? How do I do this if I am reading at home? Does it matter which passages are read? Why are all of the passages about sin? Why doesn’t the service begin with something more cheery and celebratory, like a call to worship?
These questions go to the heart of the spirituality of the prayer book. The easiest to answer are the “how to” questions. The person reading the service is called “the minister,” but if you’re reading the service alone, that’s you. That person is supposed to pick one or more of the sentences and read them.
The instruction about reading in “a loud voice” doesn’t mean shouting. It means a voice audible to the other worshippers. With this instruction, Archbishop Cranmer and the other English reformers were insisting that God’s word needed to be heard by God’s people. That is why the service is in English, not Latin, and it’s why throughout the prayer book there are instructions to make sure the people can hear the service.
Another question goes a little deeper: why do Morning and Evening Prayer begin with sentences about sin, instead of with a call to worship? Well, there is a call to worship in Morning and Evening Prayer. In both services, the minister says to the people, “Praise ye the Lord.” And in Morning Prayer, the minister and people say Psalm 95, which includes “O come, let us sing”; “Let us come before his presence”; and “O come, let us worship.” But this call to worship in Morning Prayer is on page 5, and the sentences are on page 1. Why is there something before the call to worship?
Over and over the Scriptures teach that human beings cannot just waltz into the divine presence. God is holy, but we are not. Among the many implications of that truth is one about worship. Before the priests could offer sacrifices, they had to be cleansed in the laver (Exodus 40). Before Isaiah could receive the divine commission, he had to be cleansed with the burning coal (Isaiah 6). Before Jesus’ disciples could eat the Passover with him, he washed their feet (John 13). This is the logic of starting with sin and forgiveness at the beginning of Morning and Evening Prayer. Yes, we have come to worship, but we are not fit for worship. We need divine forgiveness, and we need it all the time, not just in Lent. The very first of Martin Luther’s 95 Theses was that “the whole life of believers should be repentance.”
The sentences do not accomplish this work all by themselves. But they are “intended to focus our attention,” as John Richardson has said. They are the first step the worshiper takes toward receiving an assurance of divine pardon and cleansing. The sentences prepare the worshiper, next comes an exhortation to confession, then the general confession of sin, then the absolution, and then the Lord’s Prayer as a prayer of preparation and self-dedication. Then, and only then, are we ready for the call to worship.
Each element picks up the thread from the previous one, and then passes it along. For example, the exhortation begins by saying “the Scripture moveth us in sundry places to acknowledge and confess our manifold sins and wickedness”—those “sundry places” are the sentences just read. The exhortation is primarily about the importance of confessing from the heart—it is a plea not to just go through the motions. That theme appears in several of the sentences.
Moreover, it is not an accident that we start Morning and Evening Prayer low—snakebelly low, as the old idiom has it. That starting point fits the arc of the daily offices, and indeed of many of the services in the prayer book. We start low, acknowledging our sinfulness, and then we are raised up, ending the service with notes of peace and grace. We start in the far country, but then we are invited into the feast in the Father’s house. The sentences are an important part of that trajectory. If they are replaced with an exuberant call to worship, then we begin high, and have a jarring drop to confession.
The placement of these penitential sentences at the start of Morning and Evening Prayer therefore has a triple logic. First, they have the biblical logic of cleansing before worship. Second, they are part of the prayer book’s logical sequence of sentences-exhortation-confession-absolution-Lord’s Prayer. Third, they ensure that the service has a dramatic arc from the depths of the sin to grace, peace, and answered prayer.
This triple logic is undermined in most later editions of the Book of Common Prayer. Those editions tend to replace the sentences with an upbeat, seasonal “call to worship,” which then has no connection with the exhortation, confession, and absolution. Those editions also tend to weaken the exhortation, qualify the confession, dilute the absolution, and eliminate the Lord’s Prayer. Sometimes they even make this whole beginning of Morning and Evening Prayer—this movement of heart-felt confession followed by absolution—entirely optional.
Cranmer’s opening to Morning and Evening Prayer has suffered much at the hands of revisers, especially in the last half century. But it is spiritually sound and psychologically brilliant. The prayer book does not expect us to be ready all at once. To prepare for Christmas, we have Advent—but we need preparation for Advent, so we have the Sunday Next Before Advent. The same is true for Good Friday and Easter: Lent prepares us for these “holy mysteries,” but we even have to be prepared for Lent, and that work is done by the ‘Gesimas. And so it is with Morning and Evening Prayer. Confession and absolution prepare us to be called to worship. But we need to be prepared for confession and absolution, and that is the work of the sentences and exhortation.
The next post in this two-part series will consider whether it matters which sentences are read to open Morning and Evening Prayer.
Samuel L. Bray is Professor of Law at Notre Dame University. He is the co-author of numerous books, as well as being co-editor the recent 1662 Book of Common Prayer: International Edition (IVP Academic, 2021).
John Richardson, “Have We an Anchor?—Reasserting the Doctrinal Role of the Book of Common Prayer,” Faith and Worship (Easter 2011). Richardson pointedly writes: “There can be no doubt of the agenda, when we begin the meeting with these words: ‘When the wicked man turneth away from his wickedness that he hath committed and doeth that which is lawful and right, he shall save his soul alive.’” ↑
Compare E. C. Ratcliff’s judgment on the seasonal sentences in the English Proposed Book of 1928: “This disregard of the purpose of the sentences breaks the unity of the introduction.” E. C. Ratcliff, “The Choir Offices,” in Liturgy and Worship: A Companion to the Prayer Books of the Anglican Communion (W. K. Lowther Clarke, ed., with the assistance of Charles Harris, 1936), p. 271. ↑