Re-thinking Ash Wednesday

By Christopher L. Webber

The adoption of the 1979 Book of Common Prayer was, by intention, the inauguration of a new relationship between the church and its liturgy. No longer would we have an unchangeable liturgy handed down from past centuries, but we would become again a community like the early church in which innovation and enhancement would be encouraged and a frequently revised prayer book would draw on the best of this creative process to provide an evolving standard of excellence.

This process was disrupted first by the unexpected depth of the resistance and then by the emergence of the computer and internet, and the ease of desktop publishing–possibilities unimagined only thirty years ago. The Standing Commission on Liturgy has, nonetheless, continued to provide new resources, well used in some places and completely ignored in many others. What has been missing however, is a careful re-examination of the 1979 Prayer Book, to ask what was well done and has worn well on the one hand and, on the other hand, what was poorly done and needs to be reconsidered. Even typographical errors such as the inconsistency of capitalization of the word “Godparent/godparent” have gone uncorrected since to correct them requires action by two General Conventions and opens up the possibility of new wars that no one would willingly initiate at this time.

Nonetheless, there are weaknesses in the present book that need attention and the canonical authority of the bishop to authorize appropriate other forms for special purposes would seem to encourage experimentation at the local level.

To cite one specific example, the order for Ash Wednesday is awkwardly arranged and questionable in its theology. Why to take the simplest matter first, does the opening rubric tell us “On this day, the Celebrant begins the liturgy with the Salutation . . .” but not provide either the Salutation or even the page number for it? There’s plenty of blank space on the page to provide Salutations in both Rite I and Rite II, but instead the presider has to direct the people to another page for that one line and then tell them to turn back to the Ash Wednesday liturgy to find the opening collect after which they sit to hear readings which are the same every year but are not provided. If ever there were a need to hand out bulletins with the full text of the service, this is it!

Then we come to the Bidding which attempts to provide an explanation of the Lenten Season but, unfortunately, seems only to offer that quintessentially Anglican rationale: “we have always done it that way.”

“Dear People of God,” the Celebrant or Minister appointed is instructed to say, “The first Christians observed with great devotion the days of our Lord’s passion and resurrection, and it became the custom of the Church to prepare for them by a season of penitence and fasting . . .” Yes, but was there a reason grounded in Scripture and in the nature of the Christian faith that undergirded this observation and custom? We are never told. This will not trouble those Episcopalians who are satisfied to carry on customs simply because they are customs, but does the annual reading of this exhortation perhaps reenforce the notion that custom indeed is king?

Consider also how the Ash Wednesday order ends with a long Litany expressing penitence and then asks the presider to read a statement which is not an absolution. It says the clergy are empowered to pronounce absolution – but doesn’t do it. Instead it offers a prayer for true repentance and renewal of life which is certainly appropriate, but wouldn’t Ash Wednesday be a good time for a real absolution?

I asked a member of the Liturgical Commission some years ago why the order was framed in this way and was told “Well, there were members of the committee who wanted to save the pseudo-absolution from Morning Prayer in the 1928 Prayer Book and this seemed like a good place to put it.” One wonders why they didn’t just leave it in Morning Prayer Rite I!

I am not one to stray far from the strictest and most literal obedience to the Prayer Book, and I am frequently appalled by the freedom with which rubrics and customs are currently ignored. I don’t travel much, but when I do, I have encountered prayers and practices that would, to put it mildly, benefit from informed appraisal. At the least we would all benefit by exposing local variations to wider criticism. In that spirit, the following is offered as a possible improvement of the Bidding in the Ash Wednesday liturgy that might be used with the consent of the bishop. Comments and criticisms would be very welcome.

Dear People of God,

The Holy Scriptures tell us of God’s loving purpose in creation: to raise up a holy people worthy of eternal life. Because we have fallen far away from that purpose, God has worked patiently to draw us back sending prophets and teachers to warn and to guide us and coming at last into this world in Jesus and sharing our human life and death so that we might know the full extent and power of God’s love and forgiveness. In the waters of Baptism and by the power of the Holy Spirit, God has called men and women of every time and place into the Church, the Body of Christ, to offer worship and praise, to bear witness to God’s love, and to work with God for the healing of the nations.

Yet we continue to fall short of the holiness for which we were made and to turn aside to our own purposes, weakening our witness and failing to fulfill the ministries to which we are called. We stand in constant need of the forgiveness that Jesus proclaimed and which he commissioned the disciples to offer.

Therefore from very early times, the Church has set aside the season of Lent as a time when God’s people are called to repent their sins and to renew the promises made at their baptism. It is a time when we are called to examine our way of life, to put aside all luxuries and self-indulgence, and to live a life of greater discipline, centered again on our Baptismal covenant of faith and witness and our commitment to seek justice and peace for all people.

I invite you, therefore, in the name of the Church, to the observance of a holy Lent, by self-examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and by reading and meditating on God’s holy Word. And, to make a right beginning of this season of renewal, let us now kneel before the Lord, our maker and redeemer.

This is hardly a radical revision but it puts the emphasis on the Biblical witness to God’s purpose rather than church custom. Why not also, if this makes sense, print up the whole service and put the Salutation in place at the beginning and a proper absolution at the end of the Penitential Litany? And why not petition the Standing Liturgical Commission for a revised Order for Ash Wednesday the next time they want to enrich our worship?

The Rev. Christopher L. Webber, the author of a number of books about the Episcopal Church and Beyond Beowulf, the first-ever sequel to Beowulf, has recently become Vicar of St. Paul’s Church, Bantam, Connecticut.

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