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From Phyllida's Desk

The Language of Confession

Grace Church Brooklyn Heights
 
 

How bad a year was 2020? So bad I started attending church regularly, for the first time since Sunday School. Even fifty years ago, the Episcopal Church in New York City was welcoming and liberal; going back now, during the last days of Trumpigula, was more comforting than oppressive.

 

Of the many changes in the liturgy since 1979, I'm most struck, as a writer and performer of spoken word, by the difference in the General Confession. This prayer is said aloud by the entire congregation, kneeling if possible, as the prerequisite for receiving communion.

 

Here's the old version (punctuation and capitalization unchanged):

 

Almighty and most merciful Father; 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; And there is no health in us. But thou, O Lord, have mercy upon us, miserable offenders. Spare thou those, O God, who confess their faults. Restore thou those who are penitent; According to thy promises declared unto mankind In Christ Jesus our Lord. And grant, O most merciful Father, for his sake; That we may hereafter live a godly, righteous, and sober life, To the glory of thy holy Name. Amen.

 

And here's the new version:

 

Most merciful God, we confess that we have sinned against you in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done, and by what we have left undone. We have not loved you with our whole heart; we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves. We are truly sorry and we humbly repent. For the sake of your Son Jesus Christ, have mercy on us and forgive us; that we may delight in your will and walk in your ways, to the glory of your Name. Amen.

 

Any editor will agree that shorter is better. But loing some pf these phrases makes my heart ache:

 

We have ... strayed from thy ways like lost sheep. We have followed too much the devices and desires of our own hearts.... 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; And there is no health in us.

 

Remember P.D. James's novel Devices and Desires?

 

On the other hand, I think this from the new version is a perfect and concise definition of "sin":

 

We have not loved you with our whole heart; we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves.

 

I wish there were a way to incorporate the old phrases in the new version. The old prayer was not so long that we couldn't keep a bit more in the new.

 

The Episcopal Church, as I see it, is the epitome of the struggle between the simplicity of pure faith and the grandeur of expression. At one extreme, the plainness and quiet of a Friends Meeting. At the other, the gaudy and elaborate Roman Catholic Church with its saints and incense and votive candles. The Episcopal Church has been called "Catholic lite." I don't think that's a bad thing.

 

You need a very strong faith indeed to sit in an unadorned room on a hard bench and say nothing unless and until the spirit moves you. But the Episcopal service (and the Catholic) let us be active participants. We stand and sit and kneel, and stand again. We sing and say prayers out loud. We ingest the body and (before the pandemic) blood of Christ. We hear glorious music from the Baroque and later, and enjoy gorgeous architecture, marble altars, stained glass windows and painted ceilings.

 

And the language...the language! Many of us still struggle with the lost richness of the King James Version even as we acknowledge the improved accuracy and clarity of more recent translations. 

 

If this beauty and activity allow people like me, who think that loving our neighbors as ourselves is the most revolutionary and necessary of commandments, to join the congregation, all I can say is, Amen.

 

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