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The Commination in Ukrainian, of courseHallo again to all.

As Lent speeds on its way toward Holy Week and Easter, we marveled to ourselves today that the last five weeks have passed so swiftly. Where did they go? (We felt this way about Advent, Christmastide and Epiphanytide, too; it's only Trinity / Pentecost / Ordinary Time that are ever long enough for us to wish they went a little faster.) With Lent so far spent, we looked back in our minds over the customs observed in our several parishes over the last weeks.

Imposition of Ashes? Check.

Excision of a word that sounds like Ashtabula? Check.

Litany in procession on the First Sunday of Lent? Check.

Scaling back of coffee hour? Check.

Rose vestments and paraments on Laetare Sunday? Check.

The Commination? Actually, no.

We're familiar with the Commination service—'or Denouncing of God's Anger and Judgements against Sinners, With certain Prayers, to be used on the first Day of Lent, and at other times, as the Ordinary shall appoint'—as bibliophiles rather than as worshipers. We've attended many Ash Wednesday services in many parishes and countries, but never one that included this standard feature of most official Anglican liturgy since 1549. Like some of the more objectionable features of the Form of Prayer for the Visitation of Prisoners and Prayers for Persons under Sentence of Death, the Commination teaches us to believe in a God who is not too much depicted in holy scripture outside of Deuteronomy. One could easily read this service in isolation as a kind of anti-Beatitudes:

Minister. Cursed is the man that maketh any carved or molten image, to worship it.
Answer. Amen.
Minister. Cursed is he that removeth his neighbour's landmark.
Answer. Amen.
Minister. Cursed is he that maketh the blind to go out of his way.
Answer. Amen.
Minister. Cursed is he that perverteth the judgement of the stranger, the fatherless, and widow.
Answer. Amen.
Minister. Cursed is he that smiteth his neighbour secretly.
Answer. Amen.

The Commination in Chinese, of courseAnd that's just a sample. At their best, these imprecatory lines do have some truth in them. The deeds that go along with each couplet would not be good parts of souls growing toward God in Christian maturity. We are right to despise these actions and their accompanying attitudes. At their worst, however, the damnatory clauses of the Commination service encourage a praying congregation to curse not deeds or sins but persons in the midst of the community. Perhaps it is no wonder, then, that the Episcopal Church in the United States rejected the Commination as early as 1786. The Scottish Episcopal Church followed suit in 1929. Canadians waited until 1962 for their Prayer Book to remove the Service of Curses, but it's still very much on the books in England and elsewhere. The Commination is also one of the more consistent exports of Anglican missionaries' liturgical translations, as the pages scanned herewith show.

Without advocating any dilution of Anglican tradition, we're confident that one can pass a good Lent very well without the Commination. God's anger and wrath have their places in Christian theology, to be sure. We pray they're fixed in mercy and patience not on God's human children—that we should be cursed or damned—but rather on those things that separate us one from another and from God himself. Having given the world the Commination service from our justly-esteemed Book of Common Prayer, we hope we can also offer a corrective vision of Lent without damnation. The Commination is a good part of our history—good because we can look at it and see a church community that has now by and large changed not for the worse but for the better. We take our tradition seriously enough, and hope you do too, to know when parts of it are good and parts of it are not quite so good.

See you next week. Until then, we wish you no Ashtabula, less coffee hour, the recent memory of rose vestments, and as much Litany as you'd like, but no Commination indeed.

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Last updated: 21 March 2010

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