Along with the King James Bible and the collected works of Shakespeare, the Book of Common Prayer has permeated the English language and given Anglophones worldwide some of our most beautiful and evocative phrases. Even the most secular among us get married (“to have and to hold from this day forward . . . till death do us part”) and buried (“ashes to ashes, dust to dust”) to its cadences. The rest of us seek to combat our spiritual enemies, “the world, the flesh, and the devil,” when we “read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest” the holy scriptures. Joan Didion even borrowed the entire title of Cranmer’s masterwork for a 1977 novel.
However, secularization has also removed context from the language of the prayer book. When Charles and Camilla married in 2005, I perceived in a BBC radio broadcast the gleeful schadenfreude of reports that the couple had openly admitted their previous affair when they acknowledged their “manifold sins and wickedness” during the wedding ceremony. With equal glee, I rushed home to report to my husband that these newscasters had clearly failed to recognize the language that Anglicans had been using in the General Confession since 1549–when they were “manyfold synnes and wyckednes.”
I myself confess that I am an ardent partisan of the language—and even the punctuation—of the Book of Common Prayer. The versions with which I am most familiar and have thus pondered the most deeply are the American editions of 1928 and 1979. Gone are the towering passages familiar to Shakespeare and Milton, but even the bastardized American language is worthy of reflection.
One sentence in particular—in fact, one letter—in the General Confession provided me a moment of clear understanding of the theology of corporate worship. The language of Rite One follows:
Most merciful God,
we confess that we have sinned against thee
in thought, word, and deed,
by what we have done,
and by what we have left undone.
We have not loved thee with our whole heart;
we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves.
We are truly sorry and we earnestly repent.
For the sake of thy Son Jesus Christ,
have mercy on us and forgive us;
that we may delight in thy will,
and walk in thy ways,
to the glory of thy Name. Amen.
Long after I first became an Episcopalian, “[not-so]humbly kneeling,” I added a plural ending where I presumed I had found an obvious error: “We have not loved thee with our whole hearts.” I was not alone in my presumption. No matter how large or small the parish, I always heard a few scattered sibilants from my fellow worshipers kneeling in common prayer. Even as I recited the confession, I sometimes found myself smugly imagining the error as a pulsing mass of auricles and ventricles hovering over the congregants with a common aorta and a likewise shared vena cava.
And then one Sunday morning, my smugness was shattered. I understood with sudden clarity that the confession is indeed general, and thus the heart is indeed collective. When we worship together, we are one. We have one heart, and it is not always pure. We come together as individual sinners and become one holy body, and that missing s acknowledges our unity even in our sinfulness. We become purified as one when we kneel individually at our pews so that we can become sanctified as one when we kneel together at the altar, eat the bread, and drink the wine.
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