Anglican Ash Wednesday: Catholic or Reformed?


I want to take you back with me to the year 1548. It is the year before the very first Book of Common Prayer, and it is Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent. For many centuries you and your family have come into the church the day before to have your confession heard, and on this day, you have come to receive ashes on the forehead, but on this day no such ashes would be given.

In fact that year, there were no candles on Candlemass, no palms on Palm Sunday, no veneration of the Cross on Good Friday. As the historian Eamon Duffy recounts, “the entire edifice of Catholic culture and liturgy was being dismantled in England.” Now, we must say in fairness to the reformers, and here specifically Cranmer, that they had their reasons. They found no such customs in the ancient Church. In fact, what they found was hard, taxing penance – punishment inflicted on sinners by an authoritative Church. And in this vein, Cranmer, in the following year (1549), would include in the first Book of Common Prayer a liturgy for the First Day of Lent, Commonly Called Ash Wednesday, which began as follows:


Brethren, in the primitive church there was a godly discipline, that at the beginning of lent such persons as were notorious sinners, were put to open penance, and punished in this world, that their souls might be saved in the day of the Lord. And that other admonished by their example, might be more afraid to offend. In the stead whereof until the said discipline may be restored again; (which thing is much to be wished,) it is thought good, that at this time (in your presence) should be read the general sentences of God’s cursing against impenitent sinners, gathered out of the 27th Chapter of Deuteronomy, and other places of scripture. And that ye should answer to every sentence, Amen: to the intent that you, being admonished of the great indignation of God against sinners: may the rather be called to earnest and true repentance, and may walk more warily in these dangerous days, fleeing from such vices, for the which you affirm with your own mouths: the curse of God to be due.

Then would be read these curses from the Book of Deuteronomy. Then, in classic Cranmerian style, a great admonition against sinners from the pulpit, followed by a call to repentance, and the reading of Psalm 51. All of this is wrapped by the Kyries (Lord, have mercy, Christ have mercy) and a prayer which reads as follows:

O Most mighty God and merciful father, which hast compassion of all men, and hatest nothing that thou has made: which wouldest not the death of a sinner, but that he should rather turn from sin and be saved: mercifully forgive us our trespasses, receive and comfort us, which be grieved and wearied with the burden of our sin: they property is to have mercy, to the only it appertaineth to forgive sins..

…so on and so forth.

Well, it is schizophrenic at best.

But, it is indicative of the Reformers’ attempt to reawaken the Church to the mercy of God, who is both wrathful and merciful at the same time, a just God who is jealous for his people. This God cannot be appeased by the purchasing of indulgences, but by a penitent heart. Cranmer also shows a significant bright spot, and it is quite typical of him – when he asks himself – what is to be done to cure the ills of the day – he seeks to answer that question in the light of what was done in the primitive Church. He doesn’t craft liturgies like this because he is a megalomaniac or a pessimist, or even because he holds a classically reformed view of human nature. No, he does it because he believes that to do so is ancient.

The problem is that Reformers had a tendency to throw out the baby with the bathwater. Not all grace was gone from the late medieval Church prior to the Reformation. In fact, we can speak of great piety and devotion, of which Ash Wednesday and the imposition of ashes were a part. Had they been able to see the goodness of such liturgies, one wonders if they would have kept them. Now, this debate continues to this day in many Reformed circles, especially as Protestants find value in such ceremonial. Many see this as a rejection of their reformation heritage at best, and a submission to legalism at worst. But, many see that to be narrowly reformed according to a glorious two-hundred year period long past is not only myopic, but a rejection of the great catholic heritage which all Christians should enjoy.

In Anglicanism, all of this was reawakened in the Oxford Movement, as Oxford scholars became versed in the ancient world of the Church Fathers, vowing to wake up catholic England to her great heritage, so long sleeping. With this came the revival in limited quarters of practices like the imposition of Ashes on Ash Wednesday, the washing of feet on Maundy Thursday, and many, many others including private confession, candles on the altar, and the singing of parts of the liturgy. In the last forty years, these practices have become so widespread among Anglicans as to be universal. For that, we can be thankful, that we live, not in rejection of a great catholic heritage, but in an attempt to rebuild among ourselves that which is good and pleasing to the Lord – hearts full of mercy and grace, foreheads covered in the ashes of fasting, and unity with our brothers and sisters in the Faith.

Published on

February 17, 2015


Lee Nelson

The Rev. Lee Nelson, S.S.C., is a priest, church planter, and catechist. He has planted churches in Waco and College Station, Texas.

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