When was the last time you went to Confession? For most Anglicans, the answer will be, “the last time I went to church.” In our tradition, if you have been to Mass, you have probably also been to confession.
I broach this subject because of the topic of our discussion at Book Study last night, “The Penitential of Cummean”. For many, I imagine, this was an unusual foray into unfamiliar and slightly unsettled territory. In a nutshell, penitentials of the 7th and 8th centuries were attempts to express a “cure” for the disease of sin. The penitentials provided a guide for the priest as he assigned penance as part of the Sacrament of Reconciliation, and the effect of the penitentials reached far beyond Ireland, Wales or England, influencing how the Church dispensed absolution and penance well into to Middle Ages.
“But, Fr. Michael,” I hear Dear Reader saying to the computer screen, “didn’t the Catholic Church go completely overboard with that whole Confession thing? I mean, what about the Indulgences?”
Good point, Dear Reader. Anglo-Catholic that I am, I recognize that the system of Indulgences which grew out of the honest attempt to reconcile oneself to God was erroneous and fraught with abuse. By the 16th century, Martin Luther called the Church to task and challenged the Church to examine her excesses so that she could be reformed; which ultimately she was at the Council of Trent.
Private Confession had been the way of the Church since 1215, but in 1549 the English Church embraced a new approach: corporate Confession. The Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer, who was most singularly responsible for the production of the first Book of Common Prayer, included in the Eucharist a new form of the sacrament that allowed those about to receive Holy Communion the opportunity to offer their sins to God and to receive absolution from the Celebrant in turn. This public form of Confession retained the importance of recognizing one’s faults before God and emphasized the merciful character of Christ who forgives all our sins when we humbly turn to Him and away from the things that separate us from Him.
“So, Father,” Dear Reader is now asking, “all we have to do is read a prayerfrom the book and we’re done. That’s great!”
On the surface, Dear Reader, that might seem to be the case. Absolution is indeed absolution, but in order for us to be absolved of our sins, we must first offer them up to God, and in order for us to truly offer them up to God we must bring them to mind and reflect upon the effects of those sins on our relationship with Him. In order to do that, we should spend time prior to the Mass in honest self-examination and reflection. Just because we are not climbing into a little booth and verbally expressing our sins to the priest does not mean that we shouldn’t take the time to consider our faults and offer them with due humility and contriteness of heart to Him that washes us clean.
“Okay, Father, I get the point,” continues Dear Reader, “but I was leafing through the BCP last Sunday during your sermon (no offense), and I found this thing called Reconciliation. It looks like private Confession. What gives?”
No offense taken; it is private Confession. Remember, the Anglican Reformation retained many of the fundamental doctrines of the Church following her break with Rome. We have bishops and priests who are ordained in the Apostolic line that stretches back through Peter to Jesus Christ, and we have the Sacrament of Confession, both corporate and private. Sometimes, we feel the acute burden of our sins in such a way that requires a more personal form of the contrition and absolution. Sometimes we need advice or spiritual counseling in order to help us turn away from that which weighs us down and separates us from God. Certainly, God gives us the strength to persevere when we seek it, and this is one of the ways that He provides through His Church for us to face our faults, find His guidance and receive His Love and Mercy.
Does everyone have to come to the priest for private Confession? No. Are there times when we should go to the priest for Confession? Yes. When and to whom one does this is strictly between them, God and their priest, and what is said stays between them, God and their priest.
If you want to talk some more about it, Dear Reader, my door is always open.