“All May, None Must, Some Should”

By The Venerable Dr. Christopher Brown

Many Episcopalians, randomly thumbing through the Book of Common Prayer, are puzzled to find a little service entitled “Reconciliation of a
Penitent.” Recognizing this as a form for confession of sins to a priest, they are likely to respond, “We have Confession? I thought that was a ‘Catholic thing’!”

The average Episcopalian tends to think of private Confession as foreign to the ethos of American Episcopalianism, even, perhaps, as an intrusive means of social control imposed by Roman Catholic clergy ontheir flock. “We don’t need a priest be forgiven,” they say, “We can go directly to God!”

It is thus often a surprise to discover that the Book of Common Prayer encourages Confession, and provides two separate liturgical forms for its use. Nor is this merely an innovation of the 1979 Book of Common Prayer. All editions of the prayer book, going back to 1549, have recognized the pastoral value of Confession and made provision for the practice.

In the rite for the Visitation of the Sick from the 1928 American prayer book, the rubrics follow all preceding versions and call the priest to address the area of sin and repentance as part of the pastoral visit. The rite then allows for “a special confession of sins” if there is a pastoral need.

Here may the Minister inquire of the sick person as to his acceptance of the Christian
Faith, and as to whether he repent him truly of his sins… Then shall the sick person be
moved to make a special confession of his sins, if he feel his conscience troubled with
any matter; after which confession, on evidence of his repentance, the Minister shall
assure him of God’s mercy and forgiveness.

The 1928 prayer book provides a prayer that God will accept the sick person’s repentance and grant forgiveness. The English Book of Common Prayer of 1662, however, has the priest offer a prayer of sacramental 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 Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.

Biblical Foundation
On the evening of the day of Resurrection, Jesus appeared before his disciples. He breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit, if you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld” (John 20:22-23). This authorization of the Church to forgive sins derives from the fact that Jesus Christ has decisively dealt with the problem of sin by his atoning death on the cross.

Says John,

I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with
the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous. He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for
the sins of the whole world (1 John 2:1-2).

In authorizing his disciples to forgive sins, Jesus empowers them to apply the consequences, or what the prayer
book calls the “benefits,” of the atonement within the concrete lives of individuals.

Penance in the Early Church
“Confess your sins to one another,” says the Epistle of James (5:16). Yet, curiously, the post-apostolic church did not initially develop a private rite of Confession as it did later on.

From the start the Church was troubled by the problem of post-baptismal sin. Early Christians took seriously the words of Paul, “Consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus… sin will have no dominion over you,” (Romans 6:11, 14)….“If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come” (Corinthians 5:17). The Shepherd of Hermas, a 2nd Century Christian text, put it this way, “he who has received remission of his sins ought not to sin any more but live in purity.”

If we have been cleansed in baptism and become a new creation, what happens if we actually do sin? For us this seems less of a problem, since it is obvious to us that all too often Christians stray from the will of God just like everyone else. That this posed a problem for early Christians is a testimony to the moral rigor and counter-cultural character of the early church. The author of the Epistle to the Hebrews is not even sure that forgiveness is possible for post-baptismal sin.

It is impossible, in the case of those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift,
and have shared in the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the
age to come, and then have fallen away, to restore them again to repentance. (Hebrews 6:4-6)

It is hard to know what to make of this passage, since it seems to contradict John’s reassuring words, quoted above, that those who sin have an “advocate with the Father.” But at the very least, it points to the difficulty that sin among the baptized posed for the early Church.

The Church dealt with the contradiction of sin within a holy people by excluding those who were guilty of gross sins from the community of the faithful – what we would call “excommunication.” In 1 Corinthians 5:1-5, Paul speaks of a man who is sexually involved with his father’s wife. This, says Paul is “immorality…of a kind that is not tolerated even among pagans,” and is expressly condemned by Leviticus 18:1-5. Paul urges the Corinthian church, “Let him who has done this be removed from among you.”

With our heightened sensitivity to issues of inclusion and exclusion, this practice of excluding notorious sinners from the church seems harsh. But for early Christians it was rooted in the conviction that the Body of Christ was called to a radical standard of moral living, and gross failure to live according to these standards compromised the integrity of the community. It also presupposed that salvation is fundamentally communal, about being part of a redeemed community. To be cut off from the church was to be cut off from Christ. So Paul says, “deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh,” meaning not that the man be subject to physical punishment, but that he should put out of the church, relegated to a fallen world in which Satan still reigns. Today’s commonly expressed attitude, “I don’t need to go to church to be a good Christian,” would have been unintelligible to early Christians.

The early Church was not heartless, however. If a person was cut off from the community, the church was eager to restore repentant sinners to its fellowship. Hence, when the Ash Wednesday liturgy in the Book of Common Prayer invites us to the “observance of a holy Lent,” it recalls that from early times, Lent was,

…a time when those who, because of notorious sins, had been separated from the body of the faithful
were reconciled by penitence and forgiveness, and restored to the fellowship of the Church.

This restoration of fellowship was a daunting process. It involved public confession and acts of penance. Increasingly, people delayed until the end of their lives, and eventually the system broken down. In its place, a less arduous and more pastoral approach emerged through the influence of the Celtic and Anglo-Saxon Church in Britain, in which restoration to fellowship and absolution followed a private act of confession.

The Reformation Emphasis on Assurance of Pardon
Confession is about the restoration of our fellowship with God, mediated – from earliest times – by a community of faith that is authorized to forgive or to withhold forgiveness. We must not to overlook this corporate dimension to forgiveness; it always involves not just the individual, but collective Body of Christ. But we also have a greater awareness than early Christians of the individual’s relationship to God, and of a biblical pattern (see Psalm 51) of confessing one’s sins to God in personal prayer, seeking forgiveness and the strength to succeed where one had failed in the past.

Anglicanism is rooted in the Reformation and its doctrine of “the priesthood of all believers.” Each baptized believer is an adopted child of God, entitled to come directly before the Father and confess his or her sins with the assurance of forgiveness. Nevertheless, the Anglican reformers still recognized the pastoral efficacy of confession to a priest, particularly if the penitent was struggling with guilt and uncertainty of forgiveness. At the height of the Reformation, Archbishop Cranmer inserted in the Book of Common Prayer an exhortation to a worthy communion, in which he invited those needing assurance of forgiveness to come to a priest for confession and absolution.

If there be any of you, who by this means cannot quiet his own conscience herein, but requireth further comfort or counsel; let him come to me, or to some other discreet and learned Minister of God’s Word, and open his grief; that by the ministry of God’s holy Word he may receive the benefit of absolution, together with ghostly counsel and advice, to the quieting of his conscience, and avoiding of all scruple and doubtfulness.

The Anglican reformers recognized the tension between the divine promise of forgiveness by the blood of cross and the human proclivity toward doubt and despair. The connecting link for the reformers, as for St. Paul, was faith – by which the believer cast aside self doubt and clung to the God’s promise of forgiveness by faith.

Assurance of forgiveness is a key aspect of saving faith. In the collect for Ash Wednesday, even before Cranmer adapted it for the prayer book, the medieval version called the people to repentance with a word of encouragement, invoking a God who “has compassion upon all men, and hatest nothing that [He] has made, and dost not impute the sins of men by reason of their penitence.” God does not hate us for our sins; he calls us to repentance because he loves us.

For the Anglican reformers, sacramental confession offered assurance of forgiveness. Hence, Anglicanism traditionally provides the opportunity for confession as a pastoral tool and opportunity. There is no requirement, no implication that apart from sacramental confession we are cut off from God and his Church. We are simply invited to avail ourselves of a potent means of grace and assurance of forgiveness. As the classic Anglican adage puts it, “All may, none must, some should.”

Published in the Lent 2011 issue of The Albany Episopalian

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