Fitting for Lent, this third entry in our series on sacraments is on the sacrament of reconciliation. Mthr Judith Brown asks why so few people now avail themselves of this sacrament commonly called confession, and reminds us that it is a joyful and healing gift.
The Sacrament of Reconciliation (also known a Sacramental Confession or Penance) is one of the most joyful of the church’s sacraments—but it is one of the least known, at least among Anglicans. In essence it is very simple: personal confession of sin to God in the presence of a priest who then gives advice, suggests a “penance” or act of devotion which may be relevant to the matters confessed, and then in the name of Christ and His Church pronounces absolution. Through this rite Christians are assured not just in a general way of God’s forgiveness (as they might be during a congregational service), but in a personal and direct way that God knows them, their failures and weaknesses, and welcomes them home as the Father welcomed the Prodigal Son in Christ’s parable. (Luke 15.11-32) The love and mercy and grace of God are poured out on the penitent through sacramental words and action which leave no doubt about forgiveness and the fact that she or he is “greatly beloved” of God (Daniel 10.11.)
We do not have to earn our forgiveness by coming to confession. We are already loved and forgiven sinners, and it is for this reason that we dare to come but so that we can by our action reiterate our baptismal promises and again lay hold of our baptismal status as beloved children of God, whom Christ has claimed for his own. The joy of forgiveness is not just our own of course. As Luke’s gospel records (15.1-10) Jesus concluded his parables of the lost sheep and lost coin by declaring that just as the shepherd and the searching woman were overjoyed at finding what they had lost, so there is joy in heaven over one sinner who repents.
The practice of confession is rooted in the experience of the early Church. Luke’s Gospel underlines at its close that the disciples believed that a crucial part of their mission was to proclaim repentance and forgiveness to all people (24.47); while the Epistle of James (5.16) exhorts the hearers to confess their sins to one another to receive prayer and healing. Confession, at first public and then private, was the way the early Christians dealt with the undeniable fact that believers continued to sin even after baptism. A way had to be found to deal with this, to enable believers to “recover” their baptismal status, to renew the image of God in them and continue the work of personal conversion or metanoia. (This Greek word means turning aroundand is a helpful image of the Christian life as a journey in which false turns can be made, wrong roads taken; but that always through the grace of God there is a way back, a means of turning around.)
Individual and private confession of sins came to these islands through the influence of Celtic monks in the 6thcentury and the practice was well established during the Middle Ages. But after the Reformation it became far less frequent in the Anglican Church, though it remained in the rite for the Visitation of the Sick in the Book of Common Prayer, and certainly continued to be practised by some outside the circumstances of grave sickness. (The form of absolution provided there is in fact the one most commonly used today.) In the 19th century under the influence of the Oxford Movement and the revival of sacramental worship and theology, the practice of individual confession became more widespread; but it was not until the publication of the Common Worship family of books at the start of this century that the Anglican Church in England officially provided a number of rites of what now came to be called Reconciliation. (Other autonomous parts of the Anglican Communion had already reformed their liturgies by this time and provided “official” rites of confession and absolution.)
The newly provided rites are clearly set in the context of continuing Christ’s own ministry of reconciliation, and enabling priests to do what they are bidden to do at Ordination – to call their hearers to repentance, and in Christ’s name to absolve and declare forgiveness of sins. In the Common Worship volume published in 2006 entitled Christian Initiation a whole section is given over to ‘Reconciliation and Restoration: Recovering Baptism’. It includes a corporate service of penitence and two rites for individual sacramental confession. Many priests continue to use the even simpler rite which had been in common use before the provisions of Common Worship. The name “Reconciliation” used here and also in modern Roman Catholic practice is important. It underlines the fact that sin alienates us from God, from His Church, and from our deepest and truest selves. So in penitence and confession we seek reconciliation with God, with our fellow Christians whose community we have wounded and weakened by our sin, and with ourselves. Inability to forgive ourselves is indeed one of the most fundamental sources of psychological and spiritual distress in individuals. So it is no coincidence that a rite of reconciliation can be combined with sacramental healing.
If such a joyful and healing sacrament is on offer, why do comparatively few people avail themselves of it? (It is also the case that in the Roman Catholic Church the practice of confession has declined very markedly and almost withered away in some places.) The first reason is obviously ignorance. Many Anglicans do not know that it is possible to make their confession and receive absolution from a priest; and if they do know that it is possible, they do not know how to find a priest for whom this is a regular part of priestly ministry. Another reason is the perfectly natural one of shame and associated fear. Sin is obviously shameful and it takes courage and a real sense of purpose or necessity to take this step, particularly if this is a first time. But it is important to remember that there is probably nothing which can shock a priest hearing confessions; and as she or he says at the end of the rite, “Pray for me who am a sinner also.” Hearing confessions is part of priestly ministry, and being able to give absolution and assure an individual penitent of the love and mercy of God is a great privilege and joy. I like the symbolism of the Orthodox practice when priest and penitent stand together in solidarity before the iconostasis. The priest is essentially the penitent’s friend and witness, as he or she makes confession to God. The priest is there for you. It is also important to remember that nothing said by the penitent during the sacrament is ever repeated by the priest. The so-called “seal of the confessional” is absolute, even after the death of the penitent.
There is also possibly another reason for the decline of this sacrament in some places—the sense that confession is a somewhat mechanistic and even a perfunctory rite. This may once have been the case when for Roman Catholics it was required before receiving Holy Communion, and gave rise to “Saturday night queues” in churches. But in Roman Catholic practice and in modern Anglican practice it is far more common now for priest and penitent to meet in a place such as a private study or a room set aside for Reconciliation, where they can have a serious pastoral conversation in a rather more relaxed setting. This enables a more realistic approach to understanding the nature of a person’s sins, doubts and weaknesses, and the offer of proper counsel and advice. It is in some ways more demanding than just turning up with a list of sins in a set place in church because it involves serious self-understanding and examination of what faith really means in a person’s life and what God might be calling a person to be and do. In a face to face conversation there really is no hiding place. But someone who has decided to make their confession has almost certainly realised that there is no point in trying to hide from God: rather the reverse is true. (There is opportunity here for spiritual direction though hearing a confession and absolving are a priest’s role, and spiritual directors are not necessarily priests. For a discussion of the distinction and overlap between the two types of pastoral care and conversation see the series on spiritual direction on this website.)
Who then should go to confession? The often quoted Anglican position is that “All may, none must, some should.” The hard question is of course who are the some who should? I offer these suggestions in no particular order. Priests whose ministry includes the hearing of confessions should make their own— not least so they know what the sacrament “feels like” as a penitent, but more importantly so that they are constantly reminded that they are themselves sinners and only undertake the ministry of Reconciliation through the grace and mercy of God.
Any Christian who is at a significant juncture in their lives should consider this sacrament. Before a marriage, ordination, a new role, and of course before adult baptism and confirmation it is a means of drawing a line under the old and facing the new with joy and hope and faith.
Any Christian facing serious illness or major surgery might well want to make their confession, in order to face whatever comes with trust in the goodness and love of God. Similarly, in the face of probable death a Christian will almost certainly want to receive the sacraments of Reconciliation and Healing—not in the sense that these are “Last Rites” for they are in fact about abundant, eternal life, whether that life is to be lived here or beyond time and space.
Those who are conscious of “grave sin” (murder, theft, adultery and so forth) should obviously seek Reconciliation particularly before they received Holy Communion. But for those many faithful believers whose sin is not so obvious or dramatic, there is nonetheless the constant need for repentance and conversion. As the great Anglican poet, George Herbert, put it in the conclusion to his poem, ‘Giddiness’, “Unless thou make us dayly, we shall spurn our own salvation.” In this process of constant re-making in the image of God, the Sacrament of Reconciliation is a powerful aid.
How do we do it? This is not the place for a detailed guide to making one’s confession— and indeed everyone’s circumstances are personal to them and how best they can do it is also individual. The main thing to remember is that this is not about ticking off lists of sins— in the manner of the little books of preparation which used to be given to people making their first confession. (A friend of mine told me that as a teenager many years ago she had worked her way through one of these and the priest eventually stopped her. What he said I do not know, but he clearly indicated that this was not what the sacrament was about.) What matters is to recognise where one’s sins and weaknesses and ingrained reactions to people and situations have marred the image of God in oneself, and have alienated one from God, from other people and from oneself. Passages of scripture can be helpful in coming to some serious understanding of where one stands in the light of the love and mercy of God. Obviously the Ten Commandments, the Beatitudes, and the wonderful passage on the fruits of the Holy Spirit (Galatians 5.22-23) are helpful. But most of all one needs to pray for guidance, insight and grace, so that the Sacrament may be a gateway into love and life and peace.