Tuesday, March 8, 2011

If No Ashes, Then What…?

The Commination is a substitute for the Reconciliation of Penitents on Ash Wednesday, a rite associated with the Medieval practices of auricular confession, priestly absolution, and acts of penance. The 51st Psalm, the suffrages, and the two collects that follow them, are taken from the Mediaeval form, which dates from about the 12th century, and did not apply to penitents in particular, but to all the faithful, upon whose heads ashes were placed, up till the Reformation. The opening part of the Commination, which forms the rest of the service, was added in the 1549 Prayer Book. The service is appointed to be said immediately after the Litany. The service was revised in the 1662 Prayer Book and the language altered.

The Commination is a service that has been subject to misinterpretation and misunderstanding. The following article from A Protestant Dictionary and accompanying excerpt from Dyson Hague’s The Protestantism of the Prayer Book address common misunderstandings and misinterpretations.

COMMINATION. A threatening. The name is applied to a service in the Prayer Book to be used on the first day of Lent and at other times as the Ordinary shall appoint. It is sometimes ignorantly and flippantly objected that members of the Church of England meet at this service to curse their neighbours, but the alternative title of the service is the " Denouncing of God s Anger and Judgments against Sinners." What is read is " the general sentences of God s cursing" not man s "against impenitent sinners " taken from His Word. It is also objected that the "godly discipline " referred to in the opening address as having existed "in the Primitive Church" dates only from about the ninth century, and that its restoration is not " much to be wished " as the service asserts that it is. But these words evidently refer only to the discipline of the early Church, not to the superstitious practices of later ages. The "open penance " in the address excludes the idea of private "Auricular Confession." The ceremony of applying ashes to penitents, revived by some Ritualists, is a Jewish superstition which has no sanction in the Prayer Book and is illegal (see Whitehead, p. 242). Still, the service as here prescribed has been often found edifying. The opening exhortation is mpressive, the recitation of the fifty-first Psalm kneeling appropriate and helpful, and the other prayers are such as Christians can join in with devotion. The service is omitted from the American and the Spanish versions of the Prayer Book, but has been partially reinstated in the former. It is retained in the Irish Prayer Book, but the reference to the restoration of discipline has been expunged. The Office was composed by our Reformers. [M. E. W. J.]

The Commination Service alone remains. With regard to the Commination Service, whatever opinions men may have as to its usefulness, it certainly cannot be held amenable to the accusation of Popery, The ceremonial of the benediction of the ashes has been discarded, and all is simple, natural, and plain. Nor is it, as some men have carelessly asserted, a service for cursing our neighbors. No man curses any one. It were impious to do so in the face of the Master's prohibition, "Judge not, that ye be not judged." The minister simply reads out "the general sentences of God's cursing against impenitent sinners" — a very different thing — that the man that maketh any carved image, curseth father and mother, etc., is cursed ; that is, the wrath of God abideth on him as long as he remains impenitent; and the people admit the righteousness and reality of that judgment by answering, Amen ! As to the exhortation that follows, we question whether in the whole compass of the Prayer Book there is to be found an address more fervent, more scriptural, more touching in its pathos, more searching in its appeal, and one that is more calculated to arouse the impenitent, and lead unconverted souls to Christ. From first to last it breathes the spirit of the yearning Christ, and is wholly interpenetrated with the purity of evangelical fervor. Herein is nothing of priestly absolution, sacramental efficacy, or reception into the fold of the Church. There may be, and are, lost, unconverted, and unregenerate souls, and in pleading, simple tones, it exhorts the hearer to turn to God ere it be too late, to come for pardon and newness of life, not to the priest, nor to the sacrament, but to Christ, the alone Advocate and Mediator.
To read the service in the 1559 Elizabethan Prayer Book, click here.
To read the service in the 1662 Book of Common Prayer, click here.
To read the service in the 1926 Irish Prayer Book, click here.
To read a contemporary English version of the service, click here.
To click an alternative contemporary English version of the service, click here.


  1. Is there no place for private (or auricular) confession, given the exhortation in the 1662, which states: "And because it is requisite, that no man should come to the holy Communion, but with a full trust in God's mercy, and with a quiet conscience; therefore if there be any of you, who by this means cannot quiet his own conscience herein, but requireth further comfort or counsel, let him come to me, or to some other discreet and learned Minister of God's Word, and open his grief; that by the ministry of God's holy Word he may receive the benefit of absolution, together with ghostly counsel and advice, to the quieting of his conscience, and avoiding of all scruple and doubtfulness."

  2. The articles on absolution, attrition, confession (auricular), contrition, and penance that I posted earlier address your question. In the nineteenth century the Tractarians and the post-Tractarians would go through the Book of Common Prayer and reinterpret passages like the one you cited in such a way as it would appear to support their own doctrines and practices. However, this passage does not support the doctrine and practice of auricular confession of the Roman Catholic Church or the nineteenth century Anglo-Catholics.

    The wording of the passage in the 1662 Prayer Book is slightly altered from wording of the passage in the 1604 Prayer Book but the altered wording does not change the meaning of the passage. The benefit of the absolution that the person with a troubled conscience receives comes from God’s Word, and is God’s forgiveness, which the minister has shown him from the Scriptures.

    Classical Anglicanism teaches that only God can forgives sin. A minister declares God’s forgiveness but he cannot absolve sin, that is, set or pronounce a penitent free from sin. If you carefully read the “Absolution” after the General Confession I the 1662 Communion Service, it is a prayer for the pardon of those who have confessed their sins to God. It is introduced with a reminder of God’s promise to forgive the truly penitent. The prayer is followed by “the Comfortable Words,” which are Scriptural assurances of forgiveness. When the Roman Catholic Church revised the 1979 Book of Common Prayer and produced the Book of Divine Worship for the Anglican Use Roman Catholic parishes, the RCC dropped this “absolution” and replaced it with one from the Roman Rite. It did not meet the Roman Catholic requirements for an absolution.

    For the English Reformers’ views on auricular confession and absolution I also refer you to Phillip Edgcumbe Hughes’ Theology of the English Reformers, pp. 203-228, and the Homily of Repentance and of True Reconciliation with God on the Internet at: http://www.footstoolpublications.com/Homilies/Bk2_Repentance20.pdf