Last year was a much-celebrated anniversary, the 400th birthday of the King James Version of the Bible. This year, another text of great importance for Anglophone Christianity and the English language has been celebrating a milestone with almost no clamour or fanfare at all — the 350th anniversary of the 1662 Book of Common Prayer, that version of the Prayer Book most widely used of all, common to all non-British, non-Irish Anglican Churches, and substantially still the Prayer Book of the Church of England and even of the Anglican Church of Canada today.
But why celebrate the BCP? The importance of the KJV is self-evident; in a Christianity populated by a plurality of Anglophone Protestantisms, to have had a single translation common to us all for so long was outstanding. Its contributions to language are also of note, either through its introduction of certain phrases, or at least its popularization of them.
One could make the language argument for 1662 as well — PD James’ novel Children of Men takes its title from one of the Coverdale Psalter’s most common periphrases for human beings; Stevenson has the phrase ‘all sorts and conditions of men’ lurking in The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. But we shall skip along to the spiritual significance of 1662 and personal prayer.
We begin our investigation with the gestation years of 1662 — the bright days of Cranmer and Edward VI, the dark days of Mary I, the once-more illumined years of Elizabeth I, then the confused days of Civil War, and the dark days of Cromwell’s harsh, naked, Christmas-free Puritanism.
In these years, the Church of England was seeking her identity — not yet clearly and unequivocally today’s episcopal church championing Cranmer, Jewel, Hooker, and Andrewes at every turn, but a Church with those such as Baxter, Bradshaw, Perkins, Owen, Milton also trying to see their vision of Reformed Christianity triumph. One of the live debates in these years was the necessity of a general confession before receiving communion.
My friend Tim recently told me that William Bradshaw argued that it was unnecessary because the justified sinner hates sin that the moment he or she is aware of it, repentance ensues. There is, therefore, no need for a general confession; the faithful will have already confessed all of their sins. Furthermore, are we not made righteous by the imputation of Christ’s righteousness upon us when we come to faith? Is this not a reality of justification by faith?
Sometimes I think on this. What does make us worthy? As we even say in 1662, ‘we are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under thy table, but thou O Lord, whose property is always to have mercy, grant us so to eat the flesh …’ Does the general confession make us worthy to receive?
It is an interesting question to ponder.
And while I was making the bed the other morning, it came to me again. And in that moment, my mind stumbled upon something my friend Jeremy once said about the BCP, that through it, as we pray together, we learn how to pray when alone. The BCP is a school of prayer. This is a point my brother also makes.
Whether or not a general confession is absolutely theologically necessary to make us worthy to receive Holy Communion is, therefore — besides being a question that brings us to the realm of reductionistic, minimalist worship and theology — off the mark. The question is, rather, are we to confess our sins each day at prayer when alone, when praying with family? The answer is assuredly, yes. And how are we to pray? Here is the general confession to be said before receiving Communion:
ALMIGHTY God, Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, Maker of all things, judge of all men; 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. 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. Have mercy upon us, Have mercy upon us, most merciful Father; 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. Amen.
And so we see the stance of humility found throughout the 1662 BCP, reminding us that we are dust and to dust we shall return. That, as stated elsewhere, we do not approach Christ ‘through our own righteousness, but through thy manifold and great mercies,’ that last phrase being a parallel to ‘our manifold sins and wickedness’ bewailed above.
The general confession that commences Evensong calls to mind how it is that we sin, ‘We have erred, and strayed from thy ways like lost sheep. We have followed too much the devices and desires of our own hearts. We have offended against thy holy laws. We have left undone those things which we ought to have done; And we have done those things which we ought not to have done.’
If you pray the BCP often, its words and its rhythm, its phrases and ideas get into your blood. Phrases such as, ‘O God make speed to save us, O Lord make haste to help us,’ spill from your lips. And all the while it teaches you to pray, not just when you make your confession to Almighty God, meekly kneeling upon your knees, but also when prayers rise like incense for the Queen, for Bishops, Priests, and Deacons, for Peace, for All Sorts and Conditions of Men.
I hope you have a BCP (not ECUSA 1978, tho) nearby you this evening or tomorrow morning. I hope you can take it in your hand and pray to Almighty God, that he may open your lips — and your lips may show forth his praise.
Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Ghost, sicut erat in principio, et nunc, et semper, et in saecula saeculorum. Amen.