Following is the transcript of a video presentation on the “basics” of the Anglican Rite of Reconciliation prepared for Apostles Anglican Church.
Confession. What images, what thoughts, what concerns, what questions arise when you think about the Rite of Confession? Do you picture a dimly lit church with a confessional booth in which an old man in a black robe leans in and listens intently through a lattice screen separating him from the penitent? Do you think of arbitrary penances: say thirty Hail Marys or ten Our Fathers? Are you concerned that confession is a “Catholic thing” that heirs of the Reformation have no business fooling around with? Do you question the need for confession to a priest: can’t you just confess directly to God and be forgiven?
In the next few minutes I hope to deal with these matters and more by giving you the Anglican understanding and perspective on the nature and use of sacramental confession. By sacramental confession I mean the same as the older term auricular confession: personal confession spoken out loud in private to a priest or bishop. The Rite of Confession in the Prayer Book is the liturgy that provides structure and words to the penitent and to the priest.
Let’s begin with the two most fundamental questions. Why do I need to confess to a priest? Can’t I just confess directly to God and be forgiven? Let me answer simply and directly; then I want to backtrack and nuance those answers a bit. First, no one must confess to a priest, ever. Second, everyone may confess directly to God and be forgiven, provided the confession is made with sincere repentance and true faith.
Now, let me backtrack and nuance those answers with a Gospel story, the raising of Lazarus. I’ll pick up the story midway through, with Jesus, the sisters, and several friends and townsfolk standing at the sealed tomb.
John 11:38–44 (ESV): 38 Then Jesus, deeply moved again, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone lay against it. 39 Jesus said, “Take away the stone.” Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, “Lord, by this time there will be an odor, for he has been dead four days.” 40 Jesus said to her, “Did I not tell you that if you believed you would see the glory of God?” 41 So they took away the stone. And Jesus lifted up his eyes and said, “Father, I thank you that you have heard me. 42 I knew that you always hear me, but I said this on account of the people standing around, that they may believe that you sent me.” 43 When he had said these things, he cried out with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out.” 44 The man who had died came out, his hands and feet bound with linen strips, and his face wrapped with a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Unbind him, and let him go.”
Likely from the beginning of Jesus’ prayer, but certainly from the moment Jesus called Lazarus out of the grave, death was defeated and Lazarus was alive. But notice how death and the grave still clung to Lazarus as he stumbled out of the cave: his hands and feet were still bound with the grave clothes and his face was still wrapped with a cloth — alive but still bearing the remnants of death, still hobbled by that which the Lord had already defeated. Have you ever noticed and thought about what happens next in the story? Jesus commanded those standing around — perhaps his sisters or friends — to unbind Lazarus and let him go. Jesus gave Lazarus life, but other human agents unbound him from the remnants of death.
This story is not just a declaration of Jesus’ power over death, particularly as he approaches his own death. It is also a potent image of sin and forgiveness. From the moment a penitent truly repents of sin and asks God for forgiveness, he/she is freed from sin. And yet, sometimes — often, my experience tells me — the remnants of sin cling to the person like grave clothes: doubts regarding the reality of forgiveness, shame, ongoing temptation. In such a case, Jesus calls other humans — priests — alongside the penitent to release him/her of these remnants of sin. It is about this that The Exhortation before Holy Communion speaks:
If you have come here today with a troubled conscience, and you need help and counsel, come to me, or to some other Priest, and confess your sins, that you may receive godly counsel, direction, and absolution. To do so will both satisfy your conscience and remove any scruples or doubt (BCP 2019, p. 148).
That priests are authorized by Christ to absolve a penitent is clear from Scripture (ref. Mt 16:17ff and John 20:21-23), from the Great Tradition of the Church, and from the Anglican Ordinal in which the Bishop prayers over the priest ordinand:
Receive the Holy Spirit for the office and work of a Priest in the Church of God, now committed to you by the imposition of our hands. If you forgive the sins of anyone, they are forgiven. If you withhold forgiveness from anyone, it is withheld (BCP 2019, p. 493).
So, to summarize, no one must confess to a priest to be forgiven, but many find the practice helpful. I suspect most would do, if they availed themselves of the rite.
But, let’s move beyond absolution, as important as it is. Confession is an opportunity for one to receive pastoral “counsel, direction, and comfort” (BCP 2019, p. 223). Suppose one is struggling regularly with a particular temptation. The wisdom of the Church tells us that temptation and sin breed in secrecy and in darkness, but wither in the open and in the light. It is helpful to confess temptation before it progresses to sin. This not only weakens the power of the temptation, but allows the priest to provide pastoral counsel and direction in overcoming the temptation going forward. That alone provides powerful justification for a regular practice of confession.
As to whether confession is a “catholic thing,” rest assured that it most certainly is! Catholic simply means “universal,” something that belongs to the whole Church throughout space and time. The most ancient and traditional expressions of the Church — Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Anglican — all practice sacramental confession. Confession has been part of the Anglican Church from the very first Book of Common Prayer in 1549. It is a catholic thing in the true sense of the word.
Images of a dimply lit church and a confessional booth? Perhaps in some parishes, but certainly not here. If you come for confession it will likely be in the nave or in one of our prayer rooms, private but certainly not intimidating. You may sit or kneel and the priest will sit near you: no lattice screen, just two sinners sitting together in the presence of God to seek his mercy, one authorized to speaks words of absolution, but two sinners nonetheless. The rite itself is simple and straightforward. You can find it in the Book of Common Prayer 2019, pages 223-224, and it would be helpful to read through it before a first confession. If it is a first confession, the priest will likely talk you through the process before you begin so there are no surprises and no worries about “doing it right.” But, just so you will know, there are a few things actually required to “do it right,” to make a good confession:
• A spiritual inventory of sins based perhaps on the Ten Commandments, Jesus’ Summary of the Law, or a list of the Cardinal Sins. If you are unsure about how to conduct such a spiritual inventory, a priest can provide you some helpful resources before your first confession.
• Confession, i.e., a recognition and acknowledgment of sin without excuse or blame of others.
• Contrition/Repentance, i.e., true Godly sorrow.
• Restitution, as possible, i.e., making the injured party as whole as possible.
• Amendment of life, i.e, a plan and commitment to resist the sin going forward.
May I give an example? Suppose a penitent comes to me and confesses theft of some petty cash from his place of employment. Clearly, he is contrite. But, before pronouncing absolution, I would need to know if he has made restitution, if he has returned all the money he had stolen. If not, I could not pronounce absolution just yet; he must first make restitution and then return for absolution. And, I would want to know if this theft had been a one time lapse or a pattern of behavior. If a pattern, we would need to discuss steps to address amendment of life, i.e., means for conquering such temptation in the future. What that looks like differs from situation to situation, but amendment of life is an essential element of a good confession and of good pastoral care. Throughout all of this, it is important to bear in mind that the priest is never an accuser of the penitent, but always an advocate for the penitent before God. As for penance, my experience is that nothing arbitrary is imposed; rather, any suggested or required actions are directed toward liberating the penitent from further sin. For example, penance for someone addicted to pornography might well be joining a twelve-step or similar program to combat the addiction. The Rite of Confession is considered a Rite of Healing in the Anglican Church — not punitive, but liberating.
It is also important to know that the contents of a confession are confidential. Priests talk about the “seal of the confessional;” what is said in the confessional stays in the confessional. According to the Book of Common Prayer 2019, “The secrecy of a confession is morally binding for the confessor and is not to be broken” (BCP 2019, p. 222). A priest may not reveal the contents of a confession, period, no exceptions.
My own experience as both a penitent and a confessor agrees with what Frederica Mathews-Green writes about confession. Everyone going to confession — especially for the first time — says, “I hate confession.” Everyone coming out says, “I love confession.” Confession offers a tangible — incarnational — way of knowing beyond doubt that you have been forgiven and a way of receiving the wise counsel of the Church to grow in Christlikeness.
Anglicans are known to say about confession: “All may, none must, some should.” That is a cute, typically via media saying. But nearer the truth is this: many should. If you still have questions about confession, please see me or one of our other priests. Or, simply make an appointment for confession. You will be blessed by the experience.