The Decalogue: A Rookie Anglican Guide

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The Decalogue is a responsive paraphrase of the Ten Commandments, used (sometimes) in the Sunday Communion service. Each commandment is recited by the priest and is followed by a congregational response. For example, here is the first commandment:

God spoke these words and said: I am the Lord your God. You shall have no other gods but me.
Lord have mercy upon us, and incline our hearts to keep this law.

Modern prayer books make the Decalogue optional, but there are many benefits to using it: for catechesis, in the formation of the heart, and to point to the gospel. In this article, I’ll explore these benefits and respond to objections. Along the way, I’ll try to reference each of the commandments: one down, only nine to go!

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What is the Decalogue?

“Decalogue” is Greek for “ten words,” a Biblical phrase that refers to the Ten Commandments (see Exodus 34:28, Deuteronomy 4:13; 10:4). The Decalogue, therefore, refers generally to the Ten Commandments, and in the Anglican tradition, it refers specifically to the responsive arrangement of the Ten Commandments in the Sunday Communion service.

The Decalogue is located just after the Collect for Purity. Where the 1662 BCP requires the Decalogue, the 2019 BCP gives the option of either the Decalogue (found on p. 100-101) or the Summary of the Law.

Some of the commandments in the Decalogue are paraphrased for length and clarity, such as the second commandment:

You shall not make for yourself any idol.
Lord, have mercy upon us, and incline our hearts to keep this law.

Cranmer introduced the Decalogue in the 1552 Prayer Book. The Decalogue replaced the nine-fold Kyrie, but ingeniously, Cranmer used the English translation of the Kyrie—”Lord, have mercy upon us”—in the congregational response. This response is repeated after every commandment, as in the third:

You shall not take the Name of the Lord your God in vain.
Lord, have mercy upon us, and incline our hearts to keep this law.

Thus, the nine-fold Kyrie became a tenfold Kyrie in response to God’s law, keeping the third commandment by taking the Lord’s name to good purpose.

The Decalogue and Catechesis

As a part of the Sunday communion liturgy, the Decalogue contributes to catechesis, which is basic instruction in the faith. In fact, devoting time each Sunday to reciting and learning the holy law of God is one way we can keep the fourth commandment:

Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy.
Lord, have mercy upon us, and incline our hearts to keep this law.

We might even say that the Decalogue completes the catechetical program of the Communion service. How so?

For many centuries, catechesis has centered upon three texts: the Creeds, the Lord’s Prayer, and the Ten Commandments. With the addition of the Decalogue, the Communion service contains all three texts, repeated every week.

The result is that children and new believers quickly memorize the core content of the Christian faith, even before they understand what it means. They learn the grammar of the faith before they comprehend its logic. This is the most effective way to learn, which is one reason God gave the fifth commandment:

Honor your father and your mother.
Lord, have mercy upon us, and incline our hearts to keep this law.

The Decalogue Forms the Heart

In the Decalogue, we respond to each commandment by asking God to move in our hearts: Lord, have mercy upon us and incline our hearts to keep this law.

This invocation of the heart recalls the request of the Collect for Purity to “cleanse the thoughts of our hearts.”

It also reflects Jesus’ teaching from his Sermon on the Mount, in which he heightened the law by applying it to the heart. For example, Jesus extended the law against murder to a prohibition of anger:

“You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder,” and whoever murders shall be liable to judgment. But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment.” (Matthew 5:21-22)

In other words, the law is not kept by merely external obedience but rather by an internal inclination of the heart. Thus the Decalogue also extends the sixth commandment to the inclination of the heart:

You shall not murder.
Lord, have mercy upon us, and incline our hearts to keep this law.

Similarly, the Decalogue mirrors Jesus’ teaching on adultery. Consider the seventh commandment in the Decalogue:

You shall not commit adultery.
Lord, have mercy upon us, and incline our hearts to keep this law.

And then see how closely it follows Jesus’ teaching: “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” (Matthew 5:27-28).

The Decalogue Points to the Gospel

The application of the Decalogue to the heart reveals the absolute necessity of the gospel. For though some of us may have kept some of the commandments externally, none of us have kept even a single one of the commandments in the inclination of our hearts. “None is righteous, no not one” (Romans 3:10).

For example, perhaps a few of us have never taken the physical property of someone else, externally keeping the eighth commandment:

You shall not steal.
Lord, have mercy upon us, and incline our hearts to keep this law.

But how many of us have kept this law in our hearts with perfect generosity? Who among us always gives help when asked, always gives credit where it is due, always gives cheerfully of our money, always gives the glory to God? None of us, of course, because “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23).

And so, as sinners, we need the gospel, the good news of forgiveness by the blood of Jesus Christ, that we might receive the Holy Spirit and grow in holiness from the heart.

Objections

With so many benefits, why does the Decalogue often go unsaid? The two principal objections are that it is too repetitive and too somber.

Too Repetitive?

It is true that the Decalogue is repetitive in the sense that the congregation says the same words repeatedly in response to the distinct commandments. In practice, however, the congregation is not so much thinking about words that they are repeating as they are thinking about “this law”—the distinct commandment to which they are responding.

For example, consider the ninth commandment in the Decalogue:

You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.
Lord, have mercy upon us, and incline our hearts to keep this law.

With this response, we are not thinking about mercy in general or inclining the heart in general, but rather considering our own dishonesty and how God can strengthen us to tell the truth. Although not everyone in a congregation will have something specific to consider in response to this ninth commandment, everyone will have something to think about in response to at least one of the commandments.

One way to achieve this kind of reflective engagement is to kneel during the Decalogue so that the responses feel very much like a response to prayer, as when we use “Lord, hear our prayer” or “Amen.”

Too Somber?

A second objection is that the Decalogue is too somber. If the Decalogue prompts us to recognize our own sins, doesn’t it set a gloomy mood, especially for the festive celebration of the Eucharist? It seems that this objection would apply equally to the liturgical confession of sin, so we should be careful where this logic might take us.

Still, it is true that the Decalogue is an intense way to begin a service, establishing at the least a sense of solemnity. Some have seen this as a good thing, however. Massey Hamilton Shepherd writes, “The majestic and solemn tone of the commandments…makes an impressive beginning for our liturgy…It confronts us at once with the basic and insistent claim of God upon His creatures for entire obedience to His righteous will (American Prayer Book Commentary, 69).

Moreover, Zac Hicks argues that the Decalogue was Cranmer’s essential preparation to truly hear and receive the gospel. When the law is “the first word out of the liturgical gate…only then would the hearer be ready to receive the words of comfort that could be found in the Scripture readings to follow” (Worship By Faith Alone, 93).

Not everyone will be convinced, and not every congregation will want to use the Decalogue every Sunday.

A reasonable middle ground is to use the Decalogue seasonally, for example, during Advent or Lent or alongside a related sermon series or discipleship class.

In Conclusion

The Decalogue concludes with a small variation in the congregational response, as follows:

You shall not covet.
Lord, have mercy upon us, and write all these, your laws, in our hearts, we beseech you.

Rather than asking God to “incline our hearts to keep this law,” we ask him to “write all these, your laws, in our hearts.” This response marks the conclusion of the Decalogue and also references one of the great prophecies in scripture.

In Jeremiah 31, God promises to make “a new covenant” with his people: “I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people” (Jeremiah 31:32-33). In other words, the perfectly sanctified people of God will not need the law written down, for they will already want to keep the law from their hearts.

As we pray the Decalogue, it is amazing to consider that God is fulfilling this prophecy in us through the blood of our Lord Jesus Christ.


Stained-glass photo by Zipperwing, courtesy of iStock.

Author

Peter Johnston

The Ven. Dr. Peter Johnston is the Ministry President of Anglican Compass. He is a priest and archdeacon in the Anglican Diocese of All Nations and the rector of Trinity Lafayette. He lives with his wife, Carla, and their seven children near Lafayette, Louisiana.

View more from Peter Johnston

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