In the Fourth Nocturn

With hearty repentance and true faith

According to the rubrics, the disjointed elements of the second part of the Book of Common Prayer communion service are united and distinguished from the rest of the service by the communicants’ position, ready in a convenient place to receive the holy commnion from the confession of sin onwards. The significance of the integration of the confession of sin so closely into the rite of communion is obvious when pointed out: confession of sin and reception of the communion are intimately linked with one another, the holy body and blood received sealing recipients’ penitence and washing away their sins acknowledged.

Most modern Anglican liturgies, especially Common Worship Order One, move the confession and absolution at the holy communion service from its traditional Anglican place within the communion rite — either (in England and America) immediately before the eucharistic prayer proper, or (in Scotland as in the first prayer book) after the consecration and immediately before reception — to the very beginning of the service. The historical and ecumenical logic is impeccable: it takes the place of the confiteor of the old mass; it matches the placement of the confession at the prayer book’s daily office; it is where the ‘act of penitence’ is in the modern Roman mass.

Unfortunately, though, it destroys the immediate combination of penitence and celebration in the eucharist which has been with Anglicans since before our first fully reformed liturgy.1 This combination is striking: while we celebrate Christ, the sinless and utterly innocent man, dying a criminal’s death to save us, we also see the immediate contrast to ourselves, constantly in need of his infinite forgiveness to save our souls. True, the modern liturgies provide other ways of emphasizing this contrast, such as the prayer of humble access (or the Roman import Domine, non sum dignus), but are generally optional — and none can be so meaningful as the promise of forgiveness in the priest’s declaration of absolution followed by that promise’s seal in the sacrament mere moments later.

Further, placing the confession and absolution that creates an impression that penitence, rather than being an integral part of the remembrance of Christ in the eucharist (and of the ideals of Christian living which the eucharistic memorial represents), is something to get out of the way as quickly as possible before moving onto other things. It fails to put repentance at the centre of the Christian message; when combined with invitations to the altar such as ‘all are welcome’, it robs the sacrament of its penitential context entirely.

  1. The 1548 interim ‘Order of the Communion’, providing for the ministration of communion in English within the old Latin mass, had the confession in the same place as it ended up in the 1549 prayer book.