The Beginning of Lent: An Anglican Muddle

I know this post is looking a bit backwards in time because it is focused on Ash Wednesday and the beginning of Lent, but it seems by the First Sunday in Lent it’s time to move on to all the other questions circling around the season which seem more pertinent and urgent, and so it gets set aside again. At the heart of of my recurring question is the relationship between “Shrove Tuesday” and Ash Wednesday, and related to that, if there is actually an absolution in the liturgy of Ash Wednesday in parts of Anglicanism.

First, it might be worth noting for Roman Catholics and others that while private confession is in the book of common prayer (in two forms for the US and Canada and elsewhere), the focus of my concern is the corporate “Confession of Sin” regularly done in the midst of the eucharistic rite (either before the preparation of gifts and altar or at the beginning of the liturgy in contemporary practice). This form of public confession dates back to the various protestant reformations and in Anglicanism takes shape from 1548 forward, being spoken out loud by all since 1662. The most common contemporary English language version is based on an ecumenical work from the Joint Liturgical Group in England.

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

The confession covers sins of omission as well as commission, contrition, and – perhaps more vaguely – amendment of life. The sacramental absolution given in the older-language version reflects the longer history of the practice and is explicit in naming God’s forgiveness and the church’s absolution from the effects of sin, while the newer version is shorter and not explicit about absolving from the effects of sin.

Almighty God, our heavenly Father, who of his great mercy hath promised forgiveness of sins to all those who with hearty repentance and true faith turn unto him, have mercy upon you, pardon and deliver you from all your sins, confirm and strengthen you in all goodness, and bring you to everlasting life; through Jesus Christ our Lord.

As noted by the editor of PrayTellBlog last month, Steven Wedgeworth (in Ad Fontes) has pointed out the recent reality of using the sacramental materiality of ashes within Anglicanism. Aside from odd branches of Anglicanism, unofficial devotions, and piety, ashing is mostly a result of the ecumenical impact of Vatican II. While the historical use of ashes is difficult to find in official Anglican prayerbooks, it is worth noting that Ash Wednesday was included in the 1549 prayerbook (along with the Sarum prayers surrounding ashing). My query, however, is in the language of Ash Wednesday in the 1979 US prayerbook which has had an impact on other late 20th and early 21st century prayerbook revisions.

The structure of the Ash Wednesday rite (between the liturgy of the word and the liturgy of the eucharist) in the 1979 BCP begins with an exhortation and invitation into Lent, a prayer over the ashes (which is deliberately not a blessing – although understood as such by many priests and often accompanied by a blessing gesture), the ashing itself, Psalm 51, moving into a lengthy versicle and response form of repentance (which is the apparent confession, shifting in the responses of the community from “have mercy on us, Lord” to “we confess to you, Lord” to “accept our repentance, Lord” before a final set of three different responses concluding with the eschatological “bring us with all your saints to the joy of his resurrection”). This ‘litany of penitence’ is concluded by the lengthy and unique ‘absolution’ – unique in that it is quite different than the more common form noted above (to which the 1985 Book of Alternative Services of Canada deliberately returned, not following the Ash Wednesday lead of the 1979 BCP).

The US form is missing the direct “Almighty God…forgive you…strengthen you…keep you…” , instead listing the authority given by God to God’s ministers “to declare and pronounce to his people, being penitent, the absolution and remission of their sins. He pardons and absolves all those who truly repent, and with sincere hearts believe his holy Gospel.” The indirectness of the text continues with “therefore we beseech him to grant us true repentance and his Holy Spirit…” What just happened in the ‘performance’ of these ritual words? Is it about the power of the keys given to priests but not applied here? or maybe applied here? Or is the suggestion that what we receive is not pardon and absolution but “true repentance”?

Let’s add one more piece here – the so-called “Shrove Tuesday.” This is not an official day with any official ritual or rite in the prayer book of the US church, and its roots are often overshadowed by Mardi Gras, morphing in Anglicanism to “Pancake Tuesday.” But going back in the history of English Christianity it is clear in late medieval times that to be shriven before Ash Wednesday was the pattern. Aelfric of Eynsham (Benedictine Abbot of the monastery in Oxfordshire) writing c. 1005 says:

in the week immediately before [Lent] everyone shall go to his confessor and confess his deeds and the confessor shall so shrive him as he then may hear by his deeds what he is to do…

“what he is to do” – for penance, in Lent! So Ash Wednesday might be thought of as the day to remember our mortality and begin the penance, rather than the single day on which we remember our sins and promise amendment of life, are assured of God’s forgiveness and given absolution to free us from the obligations of sin. Is that part of the reason for the vague absolution formula in the US prayerbook? Do ashes set us apart, perhaps to return in the longstanding association of Holy (Maundy) Thursday’s daytime mass of reconciliation at the end of Lent (before the evening mass focused on the traditio of eucharistic foundations)? Is the addition of the footwashing somehow linked to reconciliation and return (recalling the baptismal and reconciliatory aspects of footwashing, rather than only the focus on service)?

These are some of the unresolved questions which challenge my immersion of Ash Wednesday every year – especially observing the day in the United States and speaking not only the reference to absolution but also the invitation to the people of God to observe a holy Lent “by self-examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and by reading and meditating on God’s holy Word.”





4 responses to “The Beginning of Lent: An Anglican Muddle”

  1. David Wesson Avatar
    David Wesson

    Confession: I am a fan of the older Penitential Offices from the American books.

    I that the vagueness of the absolution in 1979 is a weakness, and I wish that there was somewhere widely accessible that discusses why and how it was drafted that way. Hatchett in his Commentary just notes its sources, but doesn’t go into why the “typical” absolution was dropped.

    Maybe following ACNA’s lead and inserting the typical absolution (or even one that summarizes the current one) would be worth looking into, or at least having the rubrical permission to use another authorized absolution like in Common Worship.

    I suppose a bigger question is what are the ashes for? My sense tells me that it’s not exactly what Christ is saying to avoid in the Gospel reading that day, but with the Ashes to Go phenomenon and my non-practicing friends being more into Ash Wednesday than other secondary days of the Liturgical Year, I think there is a key performative aspect to them.

    So what, then, is being celebrated/embodied? 1979 and her estranged daughter 2019 have them as an overall sign of the repentance in Lent (and as a response to the Word in the Liturgy of the Word and Sermon). However, CW situates them more specifically as an embodiment of the reconciliation within the Liturgy of Penitence, after the Self-Examination and Confession, and *before* the absolution.

  2. Edward Morris Avatar
    Edward Morris

    The US formula you quote: “to declare and pronounce … ” looks remarkably similar to the one used for Morning and Evening prayer in the Anglican 1662 Book of Common Prayer: “… to declare and pronounce to his people, being penitent, the Absolution and Remission of their sins: He pardoneth and absolveth all them that truly repent, and unfeignedly believe his holy Gospel”.

  3. Edward Morris Avatar
    Edward Morris

    … and the title of the prayer in the 1662 BCP is “THE ABSOLUTION, OR REMISSION OF SINS”.
    So it is not a case of the priest having power to absolve, but choosing some lesser blessing: rather this IS an absolution.

    1. Michael H Marchal Avatar
      Michael H Marchal

      As I pointed out in a piece a couple of years ago, the traditional formula for ashing has no specifically Christian content. Which might explain why in the postconciliar Roman Missal the suggested first formula is some version of “Repent and believe the Good News.” This perspective redirects what one is trying to do with Lenten “penance.”

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