Kate Summerscale’s excellent book, The Suspicions of Mr Whicher, is based upon an horrific incident in mid-Victorian England called The Road Hill House Murder. Those studying the mystery are not usually aware of its theological significance. Years after the murder, a young woman called Constance Kent made her confession in Holy Week to the decidedly high church curate, Fr Arthur Wagner. As a result of what she said, he accompanied Constance to the police, where she admitted having killed her half-brother. When the initial court hearings took place, Fr Wagner refused to answer any questions as to how he had learned of Constance’s guilt, maintaining--as the church’s law required--the so called seal of the confessional. A national scandal ensued, not about the seal so much as about the realisation in the country at large that Church of England clergy were now regularly hearing confessions. Questions were asked in parliament. In May 1865, a leader in The Times included the following:
the Practice of Confession … is so notoriously contrary to all English feeling … that it was no doubt generally supposed to lurk only in an enfeebled shape in the twilight which separates the broad day of English Protestantism from the gloom of Romanism.
A fortnight later, we find the same newspaper dismissively asserting that any residual Tractarian practices are merely a shadow of the defunct Oxford Movement. “They are for the most part a mere gratification of a taste for ceremonial or of a sentimental pietism”. It’s sometimes good to be reminded how far we have come.
Why be afraid of confessing our sins? After all, we do so at the beginning of every mass, and gladly. But sacramental reconciliation is different. It is celebrated on a rather smaller scale, and this leads to the misconception that it is a private act. It is not, rather it is an act of the Church (“where two or three are gathered…”). It is also something which raises our theological hackles, as if by an action we are able to earn God’s forgiveness, to turn on a sacramental tap of grace by formulaic prayer, in order to go through the motions of repentance. In fact, the sacrament of reconciliation is the celebration of the love of God already at work in our lives, an action of the church whereby two people come together to rejoice at the grace of God in forgiveness. As the great Oxford Dominican Fr Herbert McCabe used to say: you do not come to the confessional to be forgiven, you come to the confessional because you are forgiven.
But there is another aspect to our fear, and it relates to the biblical reminder that we cannot deserve the love of God. The prophets and the apostles turn in fear from the reality of that love, even when personified in Jesus of Nazareth. “Depart from me Lord”, “Lord, I am not worthy”. We acknowledge our unworthiness and misuse it, we fear the confessional because we think we are afraid of our sin. But the truth is, it is not our sin of which we are afraid. If we were, we wouldn’t be quite so adept at repeating it. What we fear is not our own sin, but the reality of God’s love. What we fear is the threat of divine forgiveness, and we fear divine forgiveness because it takes away from us the illusion that we, and not God, are in control.
The great commandment which Jesus gives to his followers is to love God, and to love our neighbour as ourselves. We cannot love others as ourselves if we do not love ourselves, and there lies the problem. We are all apt to take a strange kind of reassurance in the thought that, though people think and speak well of us, though others love us and we are able to flourish in the world, nevertheless deep down we know the real truth, which is that we are failing and useless and wicked. In this context, our principal fear is not of failing--for we know we always fail--it is of being found out by those around us, those who seem to us to do so very much better than we do. The truth, of course, is that each of us has this in common. By keeping it to ourselves we are able to indulge the fantasy that we are uniquely bad, but this itself is--paradoxically--an example of pride. Our sins are no worse than our neighbour’s. There is nothing special about our failings. We try, and sometimes we do badly. We do well from time to time. And we mess things up from time to time. We love others and we hurt others. And we do all this because we are human beings, and human beings are that sort of creature. Sin, as any confessor will tell you, is exceedingly boring.
Penitence is an acknowledgement of who we are. The sacrament of reconciliation is God’s gift to us to keep going at being human. We utterly misconstrue contrition if it becomes a wholly negative aspect of our Christian lives. There is a part of us that likes nothing better than to wallow in our failures, and relishes self-examination and confession as a chance to do just that. But again we are missing the point. When we read of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness we are apt to think that the desert is the place where the devil particularly dwells. Wrong. The point about the wilderness is not that the devil is there, the point about the wilderness is that there is nothing else there, there is nothing to distract us from recognising the demons which surround us. We go into the wilderness in order to confront that dark side of our lives which is always present, always with us, always deriding and undermining our love and our goodness, and doing so in such a devilish way as to go unnoticed most of the time. We need to go into the wilderness in order to face the demons that seek unendingly to undo the gift of God which is within us, the demons which tell us that we are unworthy, unlovable, unable to be happy, unlikely to succeed. The trappings of the world and its wealth, of riches and power and greed and lust, are the disguise which our demons use in order to remain concealed, so that their voices seem so convincingly like our own, so that we are far more likely to be deceived into believing them.
That ability to hear, that gift of the silence into which God speaks, is the blessing of discipleship, the opportunity to learn not only who God is, but also who we ourselves truly are. And the temptations of Jesus teach us another essential lesson. The devil does not say “Since you are hungry, turn these stones into bread.” He attacks not Jesus’ weakness, but his strength. If you are the Son of God, turn these stones into bread. He is not questioning Jesus ability to do magic, he is challenging his divine identity. And here, for the Christian, is the rub. Evil attacks us where we are strongest. The enemy, the destructive self, achieves little or nothing if all that happens is that we succumb to our particular little weaknesses. Dismantling our strengths is far more significant. Perhaps I am over fond of cake. If so, getting me to eat cake when I shouldn’t is not really much to crow about. Just suppose, however, that the devil causes me to question whether or not I should have the temerity to minister, or undermines my relationship with my closest friends, or causes me to wonder whether life might be “better” if my son were not severely autistic. Those things are rather more serious than eating cake, and each of them represents something which is good, something which is a source of blessing to me and ought to be a source of blessing to others. If the devil attacks such strongholds of God’s goodness successfully, then he has indeed won a victory.
In the sacrament of reconciliation, the risen Christ meets us to remind us that the final victory is always his. As we are united to his life by grace, we are made partakers in that triumph. Perhaps the most important lesson I learn when I make my confession, is that God does not love the person I would like to be. God does not love that person, because that person does not exist. God loves me, as I am, in all my stupid selfishness and all my petty pride. God loves me, and wants me to rejoice in that love, to celebrate the grace of forgiveness, to act upon the reality of the cross of Christ, the actuality of transformation which is given to every Christian in baptism, and which is made present in the sacraments of the church, reconciliation among them.