‘ALL MAY, NONE MUST, SOME SHOULD’ runs an Anglican dictum concerning the Sacrament of Reconciliaton (or Confession). For many people ‘making your confession’ is something only Roman Catholics do. However, Anglicans have always been encouraged to ‘make their Confession’ to a priest. The Visitation of the Sick (Book of Common Prayer 1662) contains the following note: “… the sick person shall be moved to make a special Confession of his sins, if he feel his conscience troubled with any weighty matter. After which the Priest shall absolve him (if he humbly and heartily desire it)…”
The Rite then gives the formula of Absolution:
‘Our Lord Jesus Christ, who hath left power to his Church
to absolve all sinners who truly repent and believe in him,
of his great mercy forgive thee thine offences:
And by his authority committed to me, I absolve thee from all thy sins,
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen”
This is still the formula many priests use (with modernised language) when pronouncing Absolution. Although the practice of ‘making your confession’ fell out of general use after the Reformation some continued to teach its value and necessity. Bishop John Overall (1559-1619), the post-Restoration Bishop of Norwich, wrote: ‘Venial sins that separate not from the grace of God need not so much to trouble a man’s conscience; if he hath committed any mortal sin, then we require Confession of it to a Priest, who may give him, upon his true contrition and repentance, the benefit of Absolution, which takes effect according to his disposition that is absolved.’ (1)
With the development of the Catholic Revival in the Church of England in the 19th century the practice was once again recommended by those involved. However many priests, who realised and sought to explain its benefit, were persecuted and even imprisoned. Yet, gradually, the practice became more common and today is widely available. Although every priest may hear confessions as a consequence of their ordination (see The Declaration – Ordination of Priests) not all wish to do so and it is usually necessary for them to obtain the permission of their Bishop if they wish to offer this pastoral ministry on a regular basis.
It is clear that all of us carry the burden of unresolved issues – anger, guilt, sin, etc. Research into human psychology has shown how important it is to be able to deal with these matters. Whilst Confession is not the same as therapy, there are connections not least in the matter of needing to vocalise what lies deepest in the heart to another who is bound by rules of confidentiality. It has been observed that many Christians would be helped if they realised they could unload the burdens they carry within the confidentiality of the Sacrament and it has wisely been said that the Anglican attitude to Confession is: ‘All may, none must, some should’.
Evangelicals and Confession
“Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession, absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ.” (Dietrich Bonhoeffer)
“If we’re not careful, we fall into cheap grace, we don’t pay any specific attention to a lot of the bad things we do. A lot of people get two or three things that they struggle and those are the only sins that they only considered that they have committed. Sin separates us from God … It’s good to review what we are doing wrong. If we say that we love Jesus but we want to do things that separate us from him then once again we’re lying and the truth isn’t in us.” (2)
Some Christians are concerned about the notion of confessing to a priest and maintain that only Christ, not the priest, has the power to absolve us. However the priest only declares the reconciliation that Christ attains for us: it is not the priest’s absolution, nor any power s/he might have that secures forgiveness and reconciliation for us. While it is true that the Sacrament may be celebrated only by an ordained priest its power does not belong to them. The priest is “necessary” to the sacrament only as officiant, not as the person with the power, in and of himself, to forgive or absolve. That power is Christ’s and Christ’s only (see John 20:22/23).
Archbishop Justin Welby, whose background is as an Evangelical, has said: “It is enormously powerful and hideously painful when (Confession) is done properly … it’s really horrible when you go to see your confessor – I doubt you wake up in the morning and think, this is going to be a bunch of laughs. It’s really uncomfortable. But through it God releases forgiveness and absolution and a sense of cleansing.” (3)
Whilst many believe they don’t need to ‘make their confession’ nonetheless, we all carry a burden of sin which needs dealing with. As John Newton observed: “We can easily manage if we will only take, each day, the burden appointed to it. But the load will be too heavy for us if we carry yesterday’s burden over again today, and then add the burden of the morrow before we are required to bear it.”
Confession and Conversion of the Heart
This Sacrament recognises our need to practice ‘continuous conversion’ of the heart. “We have to be continuously converted all the days of our lives, continually to turn to God as children.” (4) And as God’s children the centre of our being – the heart – needs to be constantly re-focused into Christ: “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.” Our Faith is all about that gentle re-ordering of the whole of our being in Christ and this process will reveal our need to be freed from those influences that draw the heart of who we are from God and His Reign. “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matt.18:3). This command is less about being barred from that Kingdom as our ability to enter it. Through the use of this Sacrament we open our hearts to the Beatitudes, ask that our failings be forgiven and acknowledge our need to be converted to the Reign of God. To confess our sins to God is not to admit to God anything God doesn’t already know but it admits to us what we need to know and to have the slate wiped clean.
Companions and Confession
Those seeking to live out the charism of the Association will realise their need of this ‘continuous conversion’ and seek the means whereby they can re-focus their lives. It is not necessary for Companions to make their Confession but, in seeking to enable members (Companions) to: ‘nurture a ‘new heart’, the heart of Christ; to enable continuous conversion in the hearts of members.’ (Purpose of the Association), the Sacrament is a traditional means of grace and of renewing the heart – re-focussing our lives. Companions ‘look to the Sacrament of Confession (Reconciliation) as a means of cleansing and for renewing their own hearts’ (Charism of the Association). Whilst they recognise the Sacrament as a means of Grace they are not required to use it. But they do seek to be living with that humility which recognises and admits the truth of who we are in God’s sight – beloved sinners seeking amendment of life. In this desire to own the truth of who we are in the context of the Confession and Confessor we need to remember these powerful words:
‘Oh, the comfort
The inexpressible comfort of feeling
safe with a person,
Having neither to weigh thoughts,
Nor measure words but pouring them
All right out just as they are
Chaff and grain together
Certain that a faithful hand will
Take and sift them
Keep what is worth keeping
and with the breath of kindness
Blow the rest away.’ (5)
As S. Augustine said: ‘The confession of evil works is the first beginning of good works.” (6) And, one might add, it is the means whereby we find that peace which Christ offers his disciples. (7)
So in our calling to be disciples of the Compassionate Heart of Jesus Companions will take seriously this call to be open with God about who they are, desiring that God might create in them clean hearts and renew the Spirit within them.
You desire truth in the inward being;
therefore teach me wisdom in my secret heart.
Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean;
wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.
Let me hear joy and gladness;
let the bones that you have crushed rejoice.
Hide your face from my sins, and blot out all my iniquities.
Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me.
(There is a further, useful, article by the Rev. Patrick Comerford, Lecturer in Anglicanism, Liturgy and Church History in the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, and an Adjunct Assistant Professor in the University of Dublin which can be found here.)
1 Abbe Gaume’s Manual for Confessors adapted to the Use of the English Church by the Rev. E. B. Pusey. 1878. p.28
2 Prof. John Mark Reynolds: ‘The Christian Post’. Feb 2011
3 Justin Welby: Daily Telegraph. October 9th, 2013
4 ‘Continuous Conversion’: Oswald Chambers. My Utmost for His Highest
5 Dinah Maria (Mulock) Craik: ‘A Life for a Life’ Kessinger Publishing (first published 1859). ISBN1419102036
6 S. Augustine: Tractates on the Gospel of John; tractate XII on John 3:6-21, § 13
7 ‘Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” (John 20: 21-23)