The Anglican Rite and the Decalogue

the Anglican Rite include the Decalogue, or Ten Commandments, at the beginning of the Eucharistic Liturgy?


The Decalogue, or Ten Commandments, were added to the Anglican liturgy of the Mass in the Second Prayer Book of the Church of England of King Edward VI, 1552, and has remained ever since. The response of the Kyrie eleison was adapted to be used with the Commandments, naturally following each Commandment as a prayer for the grace to obey the Law of God and in repentance for one’s failure to obey: they also comprise a prayer for the fulfilment of the prophetic promise concerning the Law – in which the Law of God will be written in our hearts and lived by the inspiration and guidance of the Holy Ghost (Jeremiah 31.33). God the Holy Spirit enables those united to Christ and filled with His power to obey the Law and to manifest its true and proper meaning: ‘love is the fulfilment of the Law’ (Romans 13.10). The Scottish Prayer Book tradition says of the Commandments at the beginning of the Mass: ‘we ask God mercy for the transgression of every duty therein, either according to the letter, or to the mystical meaning of the said Commandment.’ The 1928 American Prayer Book requires the Decalogue to be proclaimed at Mass only Sunday in the month and mandates the use of the Summary of the Law otherwise; the 1662 English BCP requires its recitation at every celebration of the Eucharist.

A brief history: In 1552, the Ten Commandments were introduced in a litany form with the expanded Kyrie response, which text replaced the ancient ninefold Kyrie eleison of the Latin Rite. Archbishop Thomas Cranmer sought by doing so, practically, to settle objections from some reformers that the 1549 First English Prayer Book Mass too closely resembled the old Roman Rite Mass. He rearranged the Eucharistic liturgy and introduced a corporate preparatory penitential act of examination of conscience at the very beginning of the liturgy (not unlike the 1970 Roman Novus Ordo Missae). He retained the Kyrie as being penitential in character, as he also desired to include in the Mass those three things which Christians ‘ought to know and believe to their souls’ health’: the Ten Commandments, the Creed and the Lord’s Prayer. The use of the Decalogue at the beginning of the Eucharistic liturgy began with some of the early Lutheran liturgies on the continent. Archbishop Cranmer, in this, as in so many other instances, simply borrowed this practice from the Lutherans. The tropes found in our liturgy, ‘incline our hearts to keep this law’ and ‘write all these thy laws in our hearts, we beseech thee’ were based on medieval custom and tradition, in which additional petitions were frequently added to the Kyrie eleison for different feasts and occasions: the ancient Sarum Use in England was filled with such liturgical embellishments. And so the precedent was set for the Anglican liturgy from henceforth.
Theological purpose: The Commandments are included to confront us immediately with the fundamental truth that God demands our entire obedience to His holy and righteous will, in love, adoration, and service of Him for His own sake as Lord of all, and in love of our neighbour for the love of God. Submission to the Law of God, in Christ by the Holy Ghost, is the necessary condition for the fulfilment of our true selves as children of God made in His Image and Likeness. Our continual breaking of the Law severs that communion with God and our neighbour for which we were created, redeemed and sanctified. We beg God to enter us, therefore, into that one and only obedience and sacrifice by which we alone are enabled truly and rightly to keep the Commandments, the perfect filial love and obedience of Jesus Christ, whose perfect love of the Father is the fulfilment and completion of the Law. We plead the merits and sacrifice of Our Lord, through whom we now can and must obey God’s holy will. No communion with God or our neighbour is possible until we are prepared and ready to accept God’s demand placed upon us and to acknowledge and confess our sin, to ask for God’s mercy and to beg His grace to incline our hearts to keep His Commandments.
The rite of the Holy Eucharist is a rehearsal for judgement day, and a vivid presentation of the entire history of salvation: the Mass recaptures for us and liturgically expresses the drama and economy of redemption. In the beginning, Original Sin occurred when man disobeyed God by transgressing His will; so too now, we are personally and corporately guilty of disobeying God and transgressing His Commandments – and therefore we acknowledge at the beginning of the Liturgy that we have all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, pleading for God’s mercy and forgiveness, and for His grace to live holier and better lives. We have been given the Law of God, and we have not kept it – our confession of this fact at the beginning of the Mass places us in the right spiritual disposition to worship the Blessed Trinity and to receive the gift of the Blessed Sacrament, the true Body and Blood of Christ, for the forgiveness of sins and eternal life. At the outset, we admit our sins and failings, recognising with Saint Paul that the Law of God is a ‘schoolmaster that brings us to Christ so that we may be justified by faith’ (Galatians 3.24). The Law shows us that we are all sinners in need of a Saviour and Redeemer. The Law cannot of itself save – its purpose is to reveal to us our sinful nature and demonstrate that we must receive remission of sins from Jesus Christ as grace and gift. Only through Christ’s Atonement and only by our incorporation into Christ’s Body can we love and obey God in Christ by the power of His Spirit. The Ten Commandments instantly point us to Christ – and thus we say ‘Lord, have mercy upon us.’ The whole Liturgy of the Eucharist sacramentally applies the Person and Work of Jesus Christ to us.
The human race fell into sin, was judged worthy of death, was sent the Law and the Prophets to call us back to God (Collect for Purity, Ten Commandments, Summary of the Law, Kyrie eleison) , was readied and prepared for the coming of the Messiah (Collect, Epistle), and in the fullness of time was redeemed by Jesus Christ, the Incarnate Lord, true God and true Man, who freely offered Himself for our salvation through His atoning death on the Cross and His Resurrection and Glorification (Gospel, Creed, Prayer of Consecration, Agnus Dei, Thanksgiving), and who now freely gives Himself for salvation in the Blessed Sacrament (Holy Communion) to those who truly repent and believe the Gospel (Confession, Absolution, Comfortable Words). By reliving and re-experiencing this Mystery day in and day out under a veil, in a Sacrament, we prepare for our death and the judgement, wherein we shall plead the mercy of Jesus Christ at the Last Day and inherit the promise of the heavenly Kingdom. And all of this is contained in the traditional Anglican Holy Communion service!

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