O Come, Let Us Bowdlerize

The Venite, Psalm 95 (Psalm 94 in the Vulgate), has been part of daily prayer in the Western Church for at least fifteen centuries. It is prescribed for Matins in the Rule of St. Benedict. It was likely already in regular use, as can be seen from the Western Church’s retention of a Latin text older than the Vulgate. And the Venite appears in the book that has shaped worship in English more than any other over the last four and a half centuries, the Book of Common Prayer. In Archbishop Thomas Cranmer’s design for Morning Prayer, the Venite is said daily throughout the year.

Yet something odd has happened to the Venite. In all of the classic editions of the Book of Common Prayer—the ones from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries—the Venite is Psalm 95, no more and no less. In the classic Anglican prayerbooks, if you see the label Venite on the box, you know what you’re buying.

But in the liturgical explosion of the last hundred years, none of the Anglican prayerbooks from England or the United States straightforwardly presents Psalm 95 as the Venite. The name Venite is still used. And the first few verses of Psalm 95 are still used—the ones that begin, “O come, let us sing unto the Lord : let us heartily rejoice in the strength of our salvation.” But after seven verses, the text of Psalm 95 is interrupted. Some prayerbooks from the last century cut off the last four verses. Others cut off those verses and then stitch on to the end of the Venite two verses from the following Psalm. Still others include a rubric suggesting that the last four verses are optional or are only for “penitential occasions.”

The idea that the Venite is something other than just Psalm 95 is now taken for granted. I have even heard an Anglican bishop say, in blissful ignorance, that the blending of Psalms 95 and 96 was done by “Cranmer.” But Cranmer was dead two hundred years before the bowdlerizing began.

Here are the words the modern prayerbooks resist:

To day if ye will hear his voice, harden not your hearts : as in the provocation, and as in the day of temptation in the wilderness;
When your fathers tempted me : proved me, and saw my works.
Forty years long was I grieved with this generation, and said : It is a people that do err in their hearts, for they have not known my ways.
Unto whom I sware in my wrath : that they should not enter into my rest.

What darkness lurks at the heart of these verses? Why did the Venite, after all these centuries, need to be chopped down?

The answer has nothing do with the theological and ecclesiastical divisions that beset the Anglican churches. The excision of these verses from daily Morning Prayer is something that unites liberals and conservatives, Americans and English, those in communion with Canterbury and those forging a new path.

Nor is this excision one of the bitter fruits of the liturgical renewal movement in the twentieth century. The bowdlerized Venite can be traced all the way back to the first edition of the Book of Common Prayer for the United States: 1789. Even further back, the idea can be traced to Benjamin Franklin. His Abridgement of the Book of Common Prayer, sixteen years earlier, pared the Venite to just four verses.

When a liturgical change finds acceptance in such different places and times, it would be folly to expect a single explanation. Nevertheless, several can be offered.

One is discomfort with the particularity—or even the “Jewishness”—of these verses. William White, the first presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church, said the concluding verses of the Venite were removed “as being limited to the condition of the Jews.” On this view, the first verses of Psalm 95 are universal, but the concluding verses are specific to the experience of the people of Israel in the desert, as they wandered between Egypt and Canaan.

This discomfort should be roundly rejected as any sort of justification. It implies a Marcionite devaluing of the Hebrew Scriptures. And it commits a serious theological error. From the beginning the Church has found in the experience of Israel an account of its own experience, a journeying along the same path. The antitype is variously taken as Christ himself, as the Church, or as the individual Christian—in the words of a familiar hymn, “Let the fire and cloudy pillar / Lead me all my journey through.” This way of reading the Old Testament is deeply embedded in the New. As St. Paul said, commenting on the very experience of Israel that is recounted in the last verses of Psalm 95, “these things . . . are written for our admonition” (1 Corinthians 10:11).

Another rationale given for excising the end of Psalm 95 from daily prayer is that these verses are “penitential.” This rationale is adopted, for example, in the draft prayerbook of the Anglican Church in North America, which sticks a rubric in the middle of the Venite and marks off the final verses as reserved for use “in Lent, and on other penitential occasions.” In the same vein but more intemperately, William Palmer Ladd, an early twentieth-century Episcopal priest and liturgical scholar, called these verses “depressing” and said they contribute to “what is probably the worst introduction to a Christian service ever devised.”

But calling something “penitential” is an odd reason to excise it from daily prayer, at least for a church of the Reformation. After all, the very first of Martin Luther’s 95 Theses says that Jesus “called the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.”

Even more challenging for this rationale is that these verses are not distinctively penitential. Penitence is contrition, regret, repentance—it does point to amendment of life, but it begins with a backward look at how we have fractured our relationship with God and our fellow creatures. But in these verses there is no sorrow for sin. There is a command—“To day if ye will hear his voice, harden not your hearts”—followed by a lengthy negative example, a kind of rhetorical inducement to obedience. The speaker is not the believer, but God. The genre is not confession, but warning.

These verses will seem penitential only if we have forgotten how to read the Scripture, if we have substituted for its brilliant polychrome a kind of crude dichotomy, as if verses could be marked only “joyful” or “penitential.” But that dichotomy has to be brought to the text by the reader. Without it, there is little reason to think these verses are peculiarly penitential.

Yet another rationale may be that these words of warning are simply too strong for late modern ears. Perhaps now we are getting to the nub. This rationale was expressed with exquisite banality by a mid-twentieth century liturgical working group, led by members of the Church of England. Without embarrassment it offered this explanation for its decision to replace the last verses of the Venite: “[we] realized that these verses present a problem for many people.”

If this is the rationale for omitting the verses, it would fit a characteristic weakness of Anglican theology over the last century, a squeamishness about some of the “all Scripture” that is profitable for instruction (2 Timothy 3:16).((Nor is the weakness restricted to Anglicans: it was Pope Paul VI who removed imprecatory psalms from the Liturgy of the Hours because, as Archbishop Annibale Bugnini put it, they are “offensive to modern sensibilities.”)) It is correct that these verses from Psalm 95 “present a problem,” but that is their burden. They tell us home truths—backsliding happens, sin is deadly, praising God is not enough.

And something is especially strange about this reason for excising the final verses of Psalm 95. These verses are unique in their reception in the New Testament. They are quoted in their entirety in the Epistle to the Hebrews (Hebrews 3:7-11). In fact, “To day if ye will hear his voice” is quoted three times in that book and is expounded over nearly two chapters, almost as if it were the text for a sermon. No other verses of the Old Testament receive such lengthy exposition in the New.

If no good reason can be given for the modern cut-and-paste jobs, can any good reason be given for leaving these verses in the Venite? Like G. K. Chesterton’s advice that a fence should not be taken down until we know the reason it was put up, perhaps the best approach is to understand why Cranmer might have included these verses in Morning Prayer in the first place.

Here it is critical to see one of Cranmer’s purposes behind the shape of the daily office and especially the new Table of Lessons. If we put aside the political aims that Cranmer had, what he wanted was a people formed by and through the reading of the Word of God.

This aim is evident from his prefatory “Concerning the Service of the Church.” (Here Cranmer relied heavily on the work of the Spanish Franciscan, Cardinal Quiñones; as usual, Cranmer was an adroit reviser and polisher rather than a creator ex nihilo.) This aim is rehearsed in the exhortation at the start of every service of Morning and Evening Prayer, which says that one of the purposes we gather before God is “to hear his most holy Word.” It is emphasized in several of the collects. And it is found in the very center of the daily office, which in Cranmer’s design would on most days feature roughly five chapters of Scripture in each service—three Psalms, a chapter from the Old Testament (or a deuterocanonical book), and a chapter from the New Testament.

But how should the people of sixteenth-century England, unused to hearing large swathes of Scripture read in the vernacular, be prepared to hear it properly? What biblical text speaks to how the Church, seeing itself in the life of Israel, should hear God’s Word? Once the question is asked that way, the answer is obvious: Psalm 95. And not just Psalm 95, but the final verses of Psalm 95. One could easily argue that it is the concluding verses, not the beginning ones, that justify the daily use of the Venite and its placement immediately prior to the Psalms and Lessons.

The final verses of Psalm 95 are not particular to the experience of ancient Israel. They are not distinctively penitential. They have a different significance and function altogether: they remind us of the stakes when we come to read the Scriptures.

In an essay called “‘Miserable Offenders’: An Interpretation of Prayer Book Language,” C. S. Lewis raised an enduring question about liturgical worship, one that can be taken to heart by all Christians, whether Protestant, Catholic, or Orthodox:

“One of the advantages of having a written and printed service, is that it enables you to see when people’s feelings and thoughts have changed. When people begin to find the words of our service difficult to join in, that is of course a sign that we do not feel about those things exactly as our ancestors. Many people have, as their immediate reaction to that situation the simple remedy—‘Well, change the words’—which would be very sensible if you knew that we are right and our ancestors were wrong. It is always at least worth while to find out who it is that is wrong.”

Samuel L. Bray is a professor of law at Notre Dame. He is a coauthor, with John F. Hobbins, of Genesis 1-11: A New Old Translation for Readers, Scholars, and Translators (2017); and a coeditor, with Drew Nathaniel Keane, of The 1662 Book of Common Prayer: International Edition (forthcoming 2021).

'O Come, Let Us Bowdlerize' have 2 comments

  1. May 8, 2018 @ 5:16 pm Tapani Simojoki

    If it makes you feel any better, the recent Lutheran books (including the Lutheran Service Book, which should know better) also cut the final verses. I add them in my private devotions, and pray for a day when they reappear in the prayer book.

    I should add that only these verses are quoted in the New Testament – so we’re leaving out the only ones quoted in the NT, while merrily singing the ones less privileged in the canon.


  2. February 15, 2021 @ 12:57 pm Thomas Bushnell

    Attributing the use of Psalm 95 to Cranmer is as absurd as attributing the alteration of the ending to him. He was simply continuing the practice of the medieval western church. He did, however, create the idea of substituting Psalm 100 for it at discretion, so the idea that Psalm 95 might be “unsuitable” for daily use perhaps goes back to him.

    It is absurd to think that Psalm 95 is there because of some reformation-era emphasis on the hearing of Scripture.


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