If you turn to the Litany of any American Book of Common Prayer, you will find among the deprecations (prayers for deliverance) the following:
From all inordinate and sinful affections; and from all the deceits of the world, the flesh, and the devil, Good Lord, deliver us.
The corresponding deprecation in the English Book of Common Prayer begins differently, however:
From fornication, and all other deadly sin; and from all the deceits of the world, the flesh, and the devil, Good Lord, deliver us.
The words “deadly sin” also appear in Article XVI, “Of Sin after Baptism”:
Not every deadly sin willingly committed after Baptism is sin against the Holy Ghost, and unpardonable.
Given the repeated use of this expression in the Anglican formularies, it is not unnatural to ask, what exactly is “deadly sin”? Moreover, the expression is reminiscent of “mortal sin,” which could lead one to ask further: is deadly sin the same thing as mortal sin? If so, does this mean that the distinction between mortal sin and venial sin is a fundamental component of Anglican theology? What follows will be a rudimentary discussion of these questions.
Mortal and Venial Sin in Roman Catholicism
In order to better understand Anglican responses to mortal and venial sin, it is first necessary to know how these categories have traditionally been defined within the Roman church. According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, mortal sin “destroys charity in the heart of man by a grave violation of God’s law; it turns man away from God, who is his ultimate end and his beatitude, by preferring an inferior good to him.” Venial sin, on the other hand, is “a less serious matter” and merely “weakens charity” rather than destroying it. One commits venial sin when “he does not observe the standard prescribed by the moral law, or when he disobeys the moral law in a grave matter, but without full knowledge or without complete consent.”
The gravity of mortal sin requires the penitent to undergo sacramental confession and receive absolution from a priest. On this point the Catechism quotes the Council of Trent: “All mortal sins of which penitents after a diligent self-examination are conscious must be recounted by them in confession.” The reason for this is that mortal sin “deprives us of communion with God and therefore makes us incapable of eternal life, the privation of which is called the ‘eternal punishment’ of sin.” In contrast, venial sin only incurs temporal punishment, which punishment still remains even after absolution and must be undergone “either here on earth, or after death in the state called Purgatory.” Thus the confession of venial sin to a priest is only “strongly recommended by the Church” rather than “being necessary in itself.”
To summarize, on the Roman system mortal sin incurs eternal punishment and must be remitted via private confession, while neither of these things is true of venial sin. As we shall see, categorizing sins in this way has historically provoked strong reactions among Anglicans.
Mortal and Venial Sin in the Anglican Tradition
The tradition of commentary on the Book of Common Prayer is almost as old as the Prayer Book itself, although most of these commentaries are now centuries old and out of print. Some of them give attention to the phrase “deadly sin” in the Litany and are quick to discount any association with the Roman distinction between mortal and venial sin, as in The Tutorial Prayer Book: “The phrase ‘deadly sin’ is not to be regarded as conveying the old scholastic distinction between sins ‘venial’ and ‘mortal.’” Rather, “deadly sin” should be understood to mean “wilful and presumptuous sin, which debases the whole nature and hardens the heart.”
This definition of deadly sin as “wilful and presumptuous sin” is similar to the Roman Catechism, which characterizes mortal sin as “sin whose object is grave matter and which is also committed with full knowledge and deliberate consent.” However, the sticking point lies not in the idea of grave or willful sin, but in the notion of distinguishing such sin from merely “venial” sin, as this distinction has “both implied that there was a difference between sins as to guilt and its removal, and also necessitated confession to an expert casuist to determine to which class sinful actions were to be referred.” In other words, the problem with the Roman mortal/venial distinction is that it posits a class of sins that are not inherently damnable, when in reality, “There are no sins venial in their own nature…. Every sin deserves damnation in its own nature.” It is more accurate, then, to say that “all sins are venial, if repented of; all sins, if persevered in to hardening of heart incapable of repentance, are deadly.” Yet this is not to say all sins are equal, for “it must be remembered, that among wilful sins there are degrees of heinousness.”
I begin with Prayer Book commentaries, relatively obscure today, in part because treatments of mortal and venial sin among the English Reformers are infrequent: “Very few references are found in these writers to the distinction between mortal and venial sins; and even those do not go to the root of the distinction, but practically ignore it.” Even so, it is safe to conclude that “while retaining the phrase ‘deadly sin’ in our Litany and in Article XVI., the Reformers by no means intended to retain the false and dangerous system of which the distinction between Mortal and Venial sins formed a part.” This can be inferred from the fact that private confession was rendered altogether discretionary by the 1549 Prayer Book, as seen in one of the exhortations before Holy Communion:
And if there be any of you whose conscience is troubled and grieved in any thing, lacking comfort or counsel, let him come to me, or to some other discreet and learned priest taught in the law of God, and confess and open his sin and grief secretly, that he may receive such ghostly counsel, advice, and comfort, that his conscience may be relieved, and that of us, as the minister of God and of the Church, he may receive comfort and absolution, to the satisfaction of his mind, and avoiding of all scruple and doubtfulness: requiring such as shall be satisfied with a general confession not to be offended with them that doth use, to their further satisfying, the auricular and secret confession to the priest; nor those also which think needful or convenient for the quietness of their own consciences particularly to open their sins to the priest, to be offended with them which are satisfied with their humble confession to God, and the general confession to the Church: but in all these things to follow and keep the rule of charity.
Although the call for mutual charity was removed from subsequent editions of the Prayer Book, the discretionary character of private confession has always remained clear.
Further support for rejecting the Roman distinction between mortal and venial sin can be found among some seventeenth-century divines. Writing on the subject of pardons, Bishop Hall bluntly states, “Pardons do both imply and presuppose that known distinction of Mortal and Venial sin, which neither hath God ever allowed, neither while He gainsays it will ever the Protestants.” As above, “There is no sin which is not worthy of eternal death,” yet “if we have respect unto the infinite mercy of God and to the object of this mercy, the penitent and faithful heart, there is no sin which, to borrow the word of Prudentius, is not venial.” At the same time, “Some offences are more heinous than other, yet all, in the malignity of their nature, deadly: as of poisons, some kill more gently and lingeringly, others more violently and speedily, yet both kill.”
Jeremy Taylor in particular addresses the insidious pastoral implications of the Roman distinction between mortal and venial sin, in a passage worth quoting at length:
Supposing the distinction to be believed, experience and certain reason will evince that it is impossible to prescribe proper limits and measures to the several kinds; and between the least mortal and the greatest venial sin, no man is able with certainty to distinguish. And therefore (as we see it daily happen, and in every page written by the casuists) men call what they please venial, take what measures of them they like, appoint what expiation of them they fancy, and consequently give what allowance they list to those whom they please to mislead.
But the evil is worse yet, when it is reduced to practice. For in the decision of very many questions, the answer is, It is a venial sin; that is, though it be a sin, yet there is in it no danger of losing the favour of God by that, but you may do it and you may do it again a thousand thousand times; and “all the venial sins of the world put together, can never do what one mortal sin can, that is, make God to be your enemy,”—so Bellarmine expressly affirms.
Thus we find that while the mortal/venial distinction may not be commonly mentioned in contemporary treatments of Anglican theology, older sources of note—to say nothing of the Prayer Book tradition itself—weigh considerably against its acceptance, at least as it is formulated within Roman Catholicism.
Ending where we began, the English Prayer Book Litany directs us to pray for deliverance from all deadly sin. Yet supposing we fall prey to it, then what are we to do? The answer, as expressed in the formularies and sources quoted above, is not to insist that these grave sins can only be remitted by private confession, as the Romanists say of mortal sin. We may, indeed, resort to private confession, but only in the event that ordinary means do not suffice to quiet our consciences. These ordinary means include the Confessions and Absolutions for both Morning and Evening Prayer and Holy Communion. Even these, however, we are not required to wait upon, for to what purpose are such offices as the “Forms of Prayer to be used in Families” given, if not to facilitate, among other things, lay confession and repentance in order to receive forgiveness from God for all our sins? Thus can we nullify the sting of even those sins that are called deadly, without binding ourselves to a system that at once minimizes our lesser offenses while rarefying our graver ones.
- The Book of Common Prayer (New York: Oxford University Press, 1928), 54, emphasis original. ↑
- Samuel L. Bray and Drew N. Keane, eds., The 1662 Book of Common Prayer: International Edition (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2021), 32, emphasis original. ↑
- Book of Common Prayer, 605. ↑
- Catholic Church, Catechism of the Catholic Church (Vatican: Liberia Editrice Vaticana, 2012), par. 1855, https://www.vatican.va/archive/ENG0015/__P6C.HTM. ↑
- Catholic Church, Catechism, par. 1862‒63, https://www.vatican.va/archive/ENG0015/__P6C.HTM. ↑
- Catholic Church, Catechism, par. 1456, https://www.vatican.va/archive/ENG0015/__P4D.HTM. ↑
- Catholic Church, Catechism, par. 1472‒73, https://www.vatican.va/archive/ENG0015/__P4G.HTM. ↑
- Catholic Church, Catechism, par. 1493, https://www.vatican.va/archive/ENG0015/__P4I.HTM. See also J. Waterworth, ed. and trans., The Canons and Decrees of the Sacred and Oecumenical Council of Trent (London: Dolman, 1848), Fourteenth Session, Chapter V., p. 98, https://history.hanover.edu/texts/trent/ct14.html. ↑
- Charles Neil and J. M. Willoughby, eds., The Tutorial Prayer Book (London: The Harrison Trust, 1913), 141. ↑
- Catholic Church, Catechism, par. 1857, https://www.vatican.va/archive/ENG0015/__P6C.HTM. ↑
- Neil and Willoughby, Tutorial Prayer Book, 141. ↑
- Charles Wheatly, A Rational Illustration of the Book of Common Prayer of the Church of England (London: Henry G. Bohn, 1848), 170. ↑
- Neil and Willoughby, Tutorial Prayer Book, 141. ↑
- John Henry Blunt, ed., The Annotated Book of Common Prayer, 6th ed. (London, Oxford, and Cambridge: Rivingtons, 1872), 50. This account of deadly sin as willful and presumptuous sin—preserving different degrees of heinousness among sins, while still affirming that all sins are damnable—is well attested in Lutheran dogmatics. Examples include John Theodore Mueller, Christian Dogmatics (St. Louis: Concordia, 1934), 230‒31, and Edward W. A. Koehler, A Summary of Christian Doctrine, 2nd ed. (Oakland, CA: Alfred W. Koehler, 1952), 72. The Reformed also affirm both the damnability of all sins and different degrees of heinousness between them. See, e.g., the Second Helvetic Confession, ch. VIII, par. 5, https://ccel.org/creeds/helvetic.htm, and the Westminster Larger Catechism, Q. 150‒52, https://thewestminsterstandard.org/westminster-larger-catechism/. ↑
- T. W. Drury, Confession and Absolution (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1903), 205. ↑
- Drury, Confession and Absolution, 210. ↑
- Liturg. Ed. VI. P.S. p. 4, quoted in Drury, Confession and Absolution, 237. ↑
- Joseph Hall, Sacred Polemics, Peter Hall, ed. (1837), Vol. XI, p. 342, in Paul Elmer More and Frank Leslie Cross, eds., Anglicanism (Cambridge, UK: James Clarke and Co., 2008), 433. ↑
- Jeremy Taylor, Works, R. Heber, ed., Vol. VIII, pp. 335‒337, in More and Cross, Anglicanism, 432. ↑
- Book of Common Prayer, 589‒90. See also the form for “A Confession of Sin” included with the “Additional Prayers and Thanksgivings” in the 1662 Book of Common Prayer, 699. Some Anglo-Catholic authors maintain, along with the classical Anglican tradition, that venial sins are serious in themselves and should not be diminished. Examples include Darwell Stone, Outlines of Christian Dogma, 3rd ed. (New York: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1903), 199, and John A. Porter, ed., Anglican Dogmatics: Francis J. Hall’s Dogmatic Theology Abridged in Two Volumes, vol. 2, Bk. IX, The Sacraments (Nashotah, WI: Nashotah House Press, 2021), 521n1. Nonetheless, this does not preclude such authors from simultaneously affirming, alongside the Romanists, that private confession is necessary to remit mortal sin. See Porter, Anglican Dogmatics, 510. ↑