The Book of Common Prayer’s General Confession

The other day, I decided I would follow Cardinal Sarah’s advice and use the prayer books to pray the daily office instead of using my phone or laptop with their handy links to John Covert’s excellent prayer site that does all the work for you of putting the Psalms, Canticles, Readings and Collects of the day all in one place.

What I discovered when doing so is interesting in light of discussions going on in the Anglican Church in North America regarding its revision of the American 1979 Book of Common Prayer. 

Since we do not have an official Divine Worship office book—-it’s my understanding the proposed book has been in Rome awaiting approval for well over a year—I picked up the Canadian 1962 Book of Common Prayer and a Psalter.

And this was what I read for the General Confession;, (my emphases):

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 them, O God, which confess their faults. Restore thou them that are penitent; According to thy promises declared unto mankind in Christ Jesu 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.

The words “And there is no health in us” leapt out at me because the version John Covert uses on his site, which he believes is as close as he can discern to be what is awaiting approval, omits that phrase altogether.

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; 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.

Then, a friend posted a link to this post at the North American Anglican by Samuel L. Bray on the Anglican Church in North America’s revision of the prayer book in an effort to make it both closer to the Prayer Book tradition while at the same time updating some of the language.

Bray writes:

There are competing imperatives for this revision, which include taking some steps back toward the classic prayerbook tradition while also using more contemporary language. For the General Confession, the revisers had to decide what to do with “And there is no health in us.” Their decision is a revealing one—about how hard liturgical revision is, and about why there is no easy separation of liturgical form and liturgical content.

To understand the difficulties facing the revisers, we need to start long ago. Health is one of a cluster of English words that we use today—wholehaleholyhealth—that trace their way back through Old English to a common Germanic root.9 In older usage the dominant sense for health is soundness, whether in body or in soul. In religious usage, health could be a synonym for salvation. Thus William Tyndale, when translating the story of Zacchaeus in the Gospel of Luke, has Jesus say to the penitent tax collector, “this daye is healthe come vnto this housse” (Luke 19:9).10 The rendering more familiar to readers of the English Bible, “This day is salvation come to this house,” does not emerge for several more decades.11

The older usage of health suggests two different senses for “And there is no health in us” in the General Confession.

One is a metaphor of physical health. Just as sickness ravages the body, so sin ravages the soul. Along with metaphors of burden and debt, disease is a common metaphor for sin in the Bible.12 As Richard Hooker says, “repentance,” “the secret conversion of the heart,” can be described without hyperbole “as a recoverie of the soule of man from deadly sicknes.”13 The idea is not that we are all as bad as we can be, for our disease may progress (our burden grow, our debts accumulate). Instead the idea is that for each us, every part, every faculty we have, is unhealthy. For this sense of “no health” as pervading sickness, Cranmer had an antecedent in Isaiah 1:6. In the translation popularly attributed to John Wycliffe, the Lord says of Israel that from the sole of the foot to the head “helthe is not ther ynne.”14

The second sense comes from the equation of health with salvation or deliverance. At this point in the General Confession we have just confessed our sins of omission and commission, and now the question is to whom we can look for deliverance. In the words of St. Paul, “who shall deliver me from the body of this death?” (Romans 7:24). Not ourselves, is the answer in the General Confession. Cranmer also had ready antecedents for the sense of “no health” as no salvation” in the Psalms.

I’m not sure why the version the Covert site has on his blog omits “there is no health in us.”  It could simply be it had already been omitted by the American 1979 Book of Common Prayer, and that book was the basis for the Pastoral Provision’s liturgy in the United States, informally dubbed the Anglican Use, that was the basis upon which improvements were made for Divine Worship: The Missal.  Or perhaps there are Catholic doctrinal influences because “there is no health in us” seems to be too much in line with theology of the Reformers and veering towards a notion of “total depravity” as opposed to the Catholic understanding that human beings, made in the image and likeness of God, merely had that image marred by Original Sin not obliterated.

 It has long been noticed that the General Confession corresponds at almost every point to some phrase in Romans 7, and that is true of both senses in which we can take “And there is no health in us.” In the General Confession, we are saying, with St. Paul, “in me (that is, in my flesh) dwelleth no good thing” (no soundness) as well as “who shall deliver me from the body of this death?” (no salvation). In the words of the spiritual,

There is balm in Gilead,

To make the wounded whole;

There’s power enough in heaven,

To cure a sin-sick soul.

Yet the clause still sticks in the craw of some modern worshippers. To say that there is some sickness in our souls—that is a point all Christians could agree on. But what about saying “there is no health in us”? Are we quite as bad as that? Does the grace of God achieve nothing in our lives? And if questions are raised here in the mind of a worshipper—well, a service of Morning or Evening Prayer has only just begun, and the worshipper might already be sidetracked.

Go on over to read the rest of the article to see the solution ANCA has found to this pesky phrase.

I personally don’t mind the phrase “there is no health in me”, because I know apart from God’s grace there is no health in me, so it does not stick in my craw.  It is an acknowledgement of my complete dependence on God.  However, I am thankful to be able to abide, and trust in God’s mercies renewed every day so He is the health of my countenance and I can live in Romans 8 instead of Romans 7.

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6 Responses to The Book of Common Prayer’s General Confession

  1. I wonder if “no health in us” might reflect (or seem to reflect) a Calvinistic view of the human condition (“total depravity”)? If so, that is good reason to reject it. On the other hand, I welcome anything that reminds us of our complete reliance on God for health and salvation.

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  2. Jeff Hirst says:

    The Customary of Our Lady of Walsingham, authorised here in the UK Ordinariate until the official Office appears, also omits ‘and there is no health in us’, though the whole penitential rite is optional.

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  3. Tom B. says:

    My sense is that it can be used in an orthodox Catholic manner (in the Pauline sense explained above), and as such I include it myself, and lament the fact that it will not make it into the final version of the Daily Office (if it’ll ever be released).

    Then again, I also frequently use the KJVA when reading the Office privately, although it’s not an “approved” translation. Given that Rome doesn’t seem to care overmuch about approving an Office for us at all, I personally don’t see much of a problem in reciprocating the apathy toward her “approval.”

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  4. Susan White says:

    Speaking of total depravity, I read an interesting article the other day that recounted an anecdote about Christian philosopher Dallas Willard:
    Somebody once asked Dallas if he believed in total depravity.
    “I believe in sufficient depravity,” he responded immediately.
    What’s that?
    “I believe that every human being is sufficiently depraved that when we get to heaven, no one will be able to say, ‘I merited this.’ ”

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  5. In the old Book of Divine Worship “miserable offenders” has gone missing, too. So the version Mr Covert published is a step up.

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