Bill Long 2/15/08
The Commination Fades Out
Even though these grate pretty harshly on us today, people from those days could appreciate it. Hooker, in 1597, spoke of "that memorable commination set down in the book of common prayer." And the commination remained there to issue forth its minatory sentiments even in the major revision of the BCP in 1662. But it is interesting that by that time, a little over a century from first publication of the BCP, the following explanation had to be added: "A commination, or denouncing of God's anger and judgments against sinners, with certain prayers." What that suggests is that people didn't know what the word commination really meant in the mid-17th century. They had to be given an epexegetic clause. By the way, the verb denounce at first meant "to give formal, authoritative or official information; to proclai, announce, declare." Thus, a denunciation of God is a proclamation by God. The meaning of denounce as "declare (a person or thing) publicly to be wicked or evil" didn't arise in English usage until the 19th century.
Moving Closer to Today
There is one other word I would like to describe before moving to how the commination fell out of the BCP. That word is suffrages. Those of us who have grown up in the wake of the feminist revolution of the 1970s and beyond think of Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton and all those crusaders for women's rights when we see a word like suffrages. Of course, the women were called suffragettes, but we think that suffrages (if we think at all) must have something to do with women's getting the right to vote. Not at all. The Anglican Church has what are called "Morning and Evening Suffrages," and suffrages, derived from the Latin suffragium are "prayers, esp. intercessory prayers." From 1513: "Also by her merite, suffrage and peticion Every humble creature had helpe and succour." It wasn't until the mid-16th century that the word suffrage could mean "a vote given by a member of a body in assent to a proposition" or, in extended use, "a vote for or against any controverted question or nomination." Thomas More said in 1534: "Every mans assent was called his suffrages...one kinde of those suffrages, was by certayn thynges that are in latine called calculi" (i.e., small stones. The Latin word calx meant "stone" or "pebble"). By the time Shakespeare got into the act in Titus Andronicus ("People of Rome, and Noble Tribunes here, I ask your voices and your Suffrages"), the word was going on the way of our present usage.
Commination in America
When the BCP came into America and experienced its first "American" edition in 1789, the Commination Liturgy had disappeared, except for a few prayers. Yet, the commination continued in the Englich BCP. Coleridege could write, for example, in 1805: "For on that day (Ash-Wednesday) you know we read The Commination prayer." And, in 1859, it still was used: "He read Commination Services over these unwelcome creatures."
The 1892 American revision restored the rite, without the word commination and without all the Deut. 27 stuff, under the title "A Pentitential Office for Ash Wednesday." That penitential office, however, begins with a recitation of Psalm 51, followed by the Kyrie, the Lords' prayer, a "gentle" liturgy ("O Lord, save thy servants...") and a few prayers that emphasize the mercy and compassion of God. For example, we have:
"O Most mighty God, and merciful Father, who has compassion upon all men, and who wouldest not the death of a sinner, but rather that he should turn from his sin, and be saved; Mercifully forgive us our trespasses..."
The language is all "mercy" and "forgiveness," even though the minister does admit that the people are "vile earth and miserable sinners." The current BCP has dropped references to "vile earth" but keeps an occasional reference to "miserable sinners." By the time we get to future revisions of the BCP, we will have dropped out every word in the Scripture and dictionary to describe sinful people, I am afraid. No more comminations. No more vile earth. No more miserable sinners. What will be left of Ash Wednesday?
A Digression on Vile Earth
The phrase "vile earth" to describe sinners has such a euphony with me that I decided to check out the phrase to see how often it appears. It only appears in the modern world in a context that has nothing to do with the 1892 BCP. "Goodbye, vile earth!" is an exhibition from Feb. 2-Mar. 16, 2008 by Hillington & Kyprianou at South Hill Park, Bracknell. Since 2008 marks the 100th anniversary of the first manned powered flight in Britain, this exhibit uses the archive of the Royal Aircraft Establishment (a quondam top-secret military complex) to create a time line of the scientific projects at the RAE. But why is it called "Goodbye, Vile Earth!"? As this web site tells us, "Goodbye Vile Earth!" is a misquote of Italian Futurist Filippo Marinetti, whose love of flight and interest in the future led him to imagine a future where people can live permanently in the skies. He wrote:
"Hoorah! No more contact with the vile earth!"
Amazingly, he wrote this "Futurist manifesto" in 1909.
As we get farther and farther away from the time when the Commination liturgy actually was used, the word has fallen by the wayside. But it was known to Thomas Jefferson ("The priesthood...repeated their comminations against me"--1813) and could be used in a loose and figurative way in the mid-1860s: "Their orthodox commination of all taxation." Perhaps we are ready to resurrect the word in 2008. Why? Principally because of all the denunciatory stuff that goes on in our world today--in Congress, in Presidential campaigns, in verbal attacks by people on each other for good reason, not-so-good reason and no reason at all. The word that meant so much for nearly 300 years (about 1550-1850) in the Anglican liturgy of Ash Wednesday may find a non-theological home in our own day. I will be first in line to employ it.
Copyright © 2004-2008 William R. Long