The Prayer Book Sentences, Pt. 2: Commonplaces of Contrition

Our previous article on the Book of Common Prayer discussed how its opening passages, called “the sentences,” work as the gateway to Morning and Evening Prayer. But it left one question about the sentences, and it might be the hardest and most interesting of all: does it matter which passages are read? Here I will be more suggestive than prescriptive, because there is no one correct view. I want to suggest three different views or perspectives; the depth and richness of the sentences emerge more clearly from recognizing these three ways of reading them.

First, read for context. When the writers of the New Testament quote the Old Testament, they will often use a short snippet of quotation. But what they are invoking is not just the quoted words, but also the context of those quoted words.[1] It’s like you’re pulling up a flower, and what comes along is not just the flower, but the root and all the connected clods of dirt. That is how the sentences can be read—each one not being just the bare words, but bringing along their setting in holy Scripture.

For most of the sentences, that setting is a story. For three of them, it is the story of David’s commission of adultery and murder—followed by deep contrition—followed by forgiveness (Psalm 51:3, 9, 17).[2] Another is taken from St. John the Baptist’s preaching of repentance before the public ministry of our Lord (Matthew 3:2). Another is taken from Jesus’s parable of the Prodigal Son: the words put into our mouths are the words of the Prodigal Son in the far country, but we know who will come running to meet him (Luke 15:18-19). We know how the story ends. And more could be said about the contexts of the other sentences, including Ezekiel’s sermon on individual responsibility before God (Ezekiel 18:27), Joel’s exhortation to the people to repent (Joel 2:13), and Daniel’s confession on behalf of Israel in exile (Daniel 9:9-10).

These contexts for the sentences are especially emphasized on the First Day of Lent, or Ash Wednesday. In the propers for that day, a majority of the sentences from Morning and Evening Prayer are read in their biblical context. For example, five of the sentences come from the penitential psalms (one from Psalm 6, three from Psalm 51, and one from Psalm 143). On Ash Wednesday, all seven of the penitential psalms are read in full. Another sentence, Joel 2:13, is part of the gospel for the day. And the homily contained within the Commination, the special Ash Wednesday service, draws on the preaching of John the Baptist, which is the source of another one of the sentences: “Repent ye, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (St. Matthew 3:2).

This, then, is the first way to read the sentences: as you read each one, think of its setting and story.

Second, read for audience. One of the earliest commentators on the Book of Common Prayer was Thomas Comber. In the 1670s, he published A Companion to the Temple; or, A Help to Devotion in the Use of the Common Prayer. In it, he praised the sentences at the start of Morning and Evening Prayer this way: “And thus the reverend composers of the Liturgy, like skilful physicians, have walked in this garden of God, which is stored with remedies of all kinds, and have gathered the choicest and most useful, different in operation, but having the same effect, viz. to bring us to repentance.” He then encourages the ministers reading the service to choose whatever will “suit best with their own and their people’s hearts.”

Comber goes on to divide the sentences into five groups for five different kinds of hearers. Some of the sentences give “support to the fearful” (Psalm 51:9; Psalm 143:2; Jeremiah 10:24); some give “comfort to the doubtful” (Psalm 51:17; Daniel 9:9-10; Luke 15:18-19); others offer “instruction to the ignorant” (1 John 1:8-9; Ezekiel 18:27); some are an “admonition to the negligent” (Psalm 51:3; Matthew 3:3); and one is “caution to the formal,” that is, those who have merely the outward form of religious devotion (Joel 2:13).

In this second way of reading the sentences, thinking about the audience for each one, you can select the sentence that is the right medicine for your heart or for the heart of your hearers.

Third, read for sequence. A few years ago, Paul Gleason wrote an article in The Other Journal called “A New Creation: Performing the Book of Common Prayer.” In it, he noted just how much variety there was in how the sentences could be arranged. As Gleason said:

The minister could say one of the sentences, or two, or all eleven, in any order, and could therefore conceivably create a new prayer every morning and every night without straying outside the order of the service. In all likelihood, the minister would simply choose one of the eleven, but even that amount of variability suggests that as every day is different, with its own sins and shortcomings, every service, through which the minister and the congregation set out on the path to forgiveness and unity, must be different, too.

Intriguingly, this is the only place in the 1662 Book of Common Prayer services of Morning and Evening Prayer where there is an array of options. This is functional, because it allows someone to make an initial choice and then be done, or nearly done, with choosing for the rest of the office. There may also be a glimmer of theological significance: the point of greatest variety is about us and our approach, as if to say that with us, but not with God, there is variability and a shadow of turning.

After making his point about variation in the sentences, Gleason went on to make an astonishingly astute point about how the sentences can be ordered, and here it is best to simply quote him in full:

It may seem that I am claiming too much here—after all, as I mentioned, the provided passages are fairly similar—but even subtle changes in the selection or ordering of the verses alter the preparation for the entire service. Imagine the following two prayers spoken aloud at the beginning of the Order for Morning Prayer:

I acknowledge my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me. (Psalm 51:3)

I will arise and go to my Father, and will say unto him; Father, I have sinned against Heaven, and before thee, and am no more worthy to be called thy son. (Luke 15:18–19)

In the first prayer, the minister acknowledges his fault to himself, and this bitter self-knowledge sends him on a journey to the Father’s house. He plans his confession, but that is something he will offer in the future, at the end of the journey. In the second prayer, however, the supplicant first resolves to travel to the Father and then ends with the confession itself, addressed to the Father. The difference between these prayers may seem slight, but each has a different ductus: it draws the listener along a different emotional path. One who followed the first prayer would begin the rest of the morning service with a sense of determination, steeled for the journey. One who followed the second would begin it in a state of great suspense. Confession has been made, and now one must wait for the Father’s reply. What will he say? Such changes in wording produce recognizably different prayers and recognizably different paths.

This is the third way to read the sentences: as multiple sentences are read, they can contain a progression of thought that carries the worshippers toward confession.

There is something that ties together these three ways of reading the sentences. They all approach the sentences as a kind of “commonplace book” with extracts about repentance and forgiveness. Each extract is from somewhere, each extract is for someone, and each extract can be placed in a sequence. This insight is not my own, but it comes from Ashley Null’s writing about the comfortable words in the Holy Communion service.[3] And it suggests one further point: all three ways of reading apply not just to the sentences at the start of the daily offices, but to all of the “commonplace books” that are contained in the Book of Common Prayer. These include the offertory sentences and comfortable words in Communion (and perhaps also the prayers with respect to the enemy in the Forms of Prayer to Be Used at Sea).

To sum up: in Morning and Evening Prayer, we begin not with a call to worship, but with a call to confession. That beginning is well considered, because confession and absolution are where we are heading; only after that are we ready for a call to worship. As we read these opening sentences, which spur us to bare our hearts before God, we are offered a clear-eyed look at our own condition, and we are assured of the mercy that God offers. But there are depths to these sentences that may not be obvious. The sentences say more than we could have imagined—if we only pause to think of where they come from, to whom they are addressed, and how they can carry us along toward open and sincere confession to our heavenly Father.

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).

  1. This is explored in work by Richard Hays, such as Echoes of Scripture in the Gospels (2017).

  2. Perhaps that is why one prayer book commentator wrote: “the first words which fall upon our ears when we assemble for Morning or Evening Prayer are, not of anger and judgment, but of love, and hope, and mercy, and pardon; so that the most wicked and hardened sinner who chances to hear them may be encouraged to confess his sins unto God.” Evan Daniel, The Prayer-Book: Its History, Language, and Contents (23rd ed. 1913), 97.

  3. J. Ashley Null, “Comfortable Words: Thomas Cranmer’s Gospel Falconry,” in Comfortable Words: Essays in Honor of Paul F. M. Zahl (John D. Koch, Jr., and Todd H. W. Brewer, eds., 2013), 227-229.


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