Reconciliation of a Penitent

Feb 23, 2023News

Dear friends in Christ,

My mother has a very funny story she tells from her teenage years. She grew up in a large Roman Catholic family in Dublin (7 children!) and one Good Friday her mother, suspecting that it had been some time since her daughter’s last confession, sent her and a couple of her brothers down to the church to see the priest.

When they arrived at the church they poked and prodded one another, who would go first? Hushed laughter filled the air. When my mother stepped into the confessional she knelt down and said, “Bless me father for I have sinned. It has been a year since my last confession.” From the other side of the lattice came an audible, “tisk, tisk.” Right, my mother thought, that’s enough of that. Up she got and off they went.

It’s funny but it’s also a bit sad and it may even bring up some negative associations you have with religion. Judgement, shame, etc. Which is too bad because the sacrament of reconciliation (confessing one’s particular sin aloud in the presence of a priest) is a sacrament of great joy.

When was the last time you confessed your sins?

Yes, I know, each Sunday in the liturgy we confess our sins together in a general sort of way: “Most merciful God, we confess that we have sinned against you in thought, word, and deed…” But when was the last time that you confessed your particular sins particularly? Like, confessed some particular sin to God out loud in the presence of a priest (auricular confession)?

“That sounds awfully Roman Catholic! Is it even permitted for Anglicans?”

I’m glad you asked. Indeed, it is permitted. In the 1662 Book of Common Prayer there is a rubric in the liturgy for The Visitation of the Sick that states: “Here shall the sick person be moved to make a special confession of his sins, if he feel his conscience troubled with any weighty matter. After which confession, the priest shall absolve him – if he humbly and heartily desire it.”

In the 1979 American Book of Common Prayer (the prayer book that sets our own theological and liturgical norms) the Rite is disassociated with ministry to the sick and stands alone, as the rubric states: “The Reconciliation of a Penitent is available for all who desire it. It is not restricted to times of sickness. Confessions may be heard anytime and anywhere,” (p.446). My point is simply that, yes, Anglicans may make use of this sacrament.

“OK, fair enough. Still seems a bit odd though. Am I required to do this?”

Again, I’m really glad you asked. The short answer is no, auricular confession is not a requirement for receiving holy communion in this church. Nor is it a requirement for receiving God’s mercy and forgiveness, as if it were the priest rather than God who has the power to forgive sins. Only God can forgive sins. The priest, in the sacrament, does nothing other than bear witness to the forgiveness that God offers penitent sinners. But God’s ability and willingness to offer forgiveness is not limited to the sacrament. So, while all Anglicans may make use of this sacrament none must.

“That’s a relief! I wonder, should I consider doing this?”

I’m loving these questions. Right on. As to whether or not you personally should avail yourself of this sacrament some of the language above may help. “If [the individual] feel his conscience troubled with any weighty matter,” they shall, “be moved to make a special confession of [their] sins.” Notice the emphasis on the burden of the conscience. This is what we might call “contrition,” it is when we feel sorrow for our sins. So, if your soul feels “troubled with any weighty matter,” if you feel sorrow over something that you have done or failed to do, then the sacrament of reconciliation is for you.

To recap: All Anglican may make use of the sacrament of reconciliation, none must, and some should.

“This has been pretty helpful. I hadn’t necessarily thought of it that way before. One more question. How do I know if I should?”

The short answer is, pray. In Psalm 51 we say along with King David, “The sacrifice of God is a troubled spirit: / a broken and a contrite heart, O God, shalt thou not despise.” And again in Psalm 139 we pray, “Try me, O God, and seek the ground of my heart: / prove me and examine my thoughts. Look well if there be any way of wickedness in me; / and lead me in the way everlasting.” A humble and contrite heart is the sacrifice that God desires from us and he will give us this wonderful gift – the spiritual gift of being able to perceive one’s own sins and therefore to know the joy of forgiveness – if we ask him.

To help you consider whether this is something you personally should do why not engage in a spiritual practice called “the examination of conscience.” Take some time (not much, 30 minutes at the most) and find a place where you can be alone. Maybe begin by reading one of the penitential psalms (6, 32, 38, 51, 102, 130, or 143). Then ask the Holy Spirit to show you if there is any sin separating you from God. Sins of commission are sins that you have committed by thought, word, or deed. These are usually the easiest to remember. Sins of omission can be more difficult to recall. These are things left undone that should have been done. If it is helpful, write down a few notes about what the Holy Spirit is showing you. If need be, you can refer to these notes as you give your confession. Use just a few words to describe your sin. This avoids the tendency we may have to explain our sins away. Finally, be accurate and honest. Withhold nothing. Be not afraid. For as the priest and theologian John Behr has said, “To plumb the depths of our fallenness is to scale the heights of divine love.”

During Lent there will be time set aside before each Sunday liturgy for you to come and make your confession to God (7:30am-7:50am; 9:40am-10:00am). If those times don’t work for you please be in touch and we can make an appointment that better suits your schedule. This Lent I want to invite you to know the joy of the sacrament of reconciliation.

If you’d like to further consider this sacrament I have prepared a manual that goes into a bit more detail (CLICK HERE). And as always if you’d like to chat more or you have further questions I’d be happy to talk.

God bless you church. Love one another.