My devotions during the celebration of the Eucharist are periodically diverted by notice of the use of particular words.  Recently the word ‘mercy’ and its forms have arrested my attention.  The mood and ‘feel’ of a Church and its worship are often governed by such apparently minor matters as word choice.  In terms of sheer numbers, few words appear as often in Anglican worship as ‘mercy’.  In the Book of Common Prayer (1928 American) the word count is as follows:  ‘mercy’ occurs 249 times (including in the Prayer Book psalter and Eucharistic lections); ‘mercies’ occurs 38 times; ‘merciful’ 112 times; ‘mercifully’ 40 times; ‘mercy’s’ three times; and ‘mercy-seat’ once.  The total is close to 450 occurrences.  For a contrasting example, nouns and verbs related to ‘judge’ and ‘judgement’ occur about 150 times.  Even ‘love’ and its forms, as a noun, verb, and adjective, including compounds such as ‘loving-kindness’, only occur about 325 times.

Some of these uses of ‘mercy’ occur in general Western liturgical forms such as the Gloria in excelsis (‘have mercy upon us’), Agnus Dei (‘have mercy upon us’), Te Deum (‘let thy mercy lighten upon us’), and Benedictus Dominus Deus (‘through the tender mercy of our God’).   These forms are very commonly used, which increases their impact, though obviously they are not peculiarly Anglican.

Other important uses of ‘mercy’ and its forms do occur in peculiarly Anglican forms.  Many of these forms are particularly significant in the light of Anglican liturgical history and the importance of Mattins and Evensong as popular services.  In this category one would have to place the long bidding to General Confession in the Daily Offices (‘obtain forgiveness…by his infinite goodness and mercy’) and in the General Confession itself, one of the most important pieces of peculiarly Anglican prayer:  ‘But thou, O Lord, have mercy upon us…O most merciful Father’.  The traditional confession in the Daily Offices is too frank and plain about human sin for modern tastes, which is why in 1979 the text was bowdlerized.  But in its original and proper plainness, the Confession never forgets the central fact of divine mercy, which is mentioned three times on a single page.

Also in the Daily Offices, and also in a peculiarly Anglican and justly famous composition, the General Thanksgiving opens with an address to Almighty God as ‘Father of all mercies’ and prays God for ‘a due sense of all thy mercies’.  Both Offices, in addition to psalms and lessons, include in the versicles after the Creed an initial petition, ‘O Lord, show thy mercy upon us’; an alternate prayer for the civil authorities that commends our nation to God’s ‘merciful care’; and an optional thanksgiving for specific blessings (‘for thy late mercies vouchafed’).

It is, however, particularly in the Eucharistic rite, and there especially in its peculiarly Anglican prayers and compositions, that the mercy of God shines forth.  Here I will simply mention uses apart from direct quotations of Scripture (as in the Offertory sentences and lessons).  There are in the:

            Decalogue ten uses of ‘Lord, have mercy upon us’; one use in the Second Commandment;

            Kyries, three or nine uses of ‘Have mercy upon us’;

            Gloria in excelsis, ‘have mercy upon us….have mercy upon us’;

            Prayer for the whole state of Christ’s Church, ‘most mercifully accept our [alms and] oblations’;

            General Confession. ‘Have mercy upon us, Have mercy upon us, most merciful Father’;

       Absolution. ‘Almighty God…who of his great mercy hath promised forgiveness of sins’;

            Prayer of Consecration. ‘thou, of thy tender mercy, didst give thy only Son’; ‘O merciful Father’; ‘earnestly desire thy fatherly goodness, mercifully to accept this our sacrifice’;

              Agnus Dei, ‘Have mercy upon us…Have mercy upon us.’;

        The Prayer of Humble Access. ‘trusting…in thy manifold and great mercies…whose property is always to have mercy’.

The Prayer Book tradition is frank about sin, clear about God’s justice, but also firm about the mercy and love of God, flowing from the work of Christ, as central to our faith.

Over 35 years ago I had occasion to meet with a very well-educated and literate woman from a Roman Catholic background who had been attending the parish with her fiancé.  I asked her what differences she noticed between the Anglican and Roman liturgies.  She did not mention the position of the altar or the music or the relative formality of the congregation.  Instead she mentioned a matter of vocabulary.  She said what she noticed most was the word ‘comfort’.  I quote her words from memory, but fairly accurately I think:  ‘The words “comfort” and “comfortable”.  You’d never hear that in a Roman Catholic Mass.’

I supposed that ‘never’ was a bit of an exaggeration, but I took the comment seriously.  Here too a word count may be suggestive.  ‘Comfort’ occurs 65 times, ‘comfortable’ and ‘comfortably’ occur seven times; ‘comforted’ and ‘comforts’ 11 times; and ‘Comforter’ 11 times.  Since ‘comfortless’ is combined with ‘not leave you’, its three uses may relevantly be added as well.  Altogether that is almost 100 uses of ‘comfort’ and its forms.

One of those uses is also one of the most distinctively Anglican phrases in our worship:  ‘Hear what comfortable words our Saviour Christ saith unto all who truly turn to him.’  Here too the tin-eared 1979 book eliminates the word ‘comfortable’ even in the one option where it retains the ‘words’ (verses from Scripture) that in all preceding Prayer Books were called and described accurately as ‘comfortable’.

We know, of course, that ‘comfort’ in Tudor usage has as much the sense of ‘strength’ and ‘strengthen’ as of ‘consolation’ and ‘console’:  but both senses cling to the word.  And so it is that our liturgy has about it the aura of mercy and comfort, even when we do not particularly notice.  What a wonderful combination.

3 thoughts on “Mercy and Comfort: Prayer Book Vocabulary

  1. Your article is a wonderful exposition of a happy peculiarity in Anglicanism of which; as a life-long Anglican, I have not previously been aware. The words mercy and comfort shall now have a more prominent place in my mind as I attend the Liturgy.


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