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Anglo-Catholicism — Confession

Pentecost: 8th June, 2014
Bishop Graeme Rutherford,
Assistant Priest, St Peter's, Eastern Hill

The risen Lord's words from John's Gospel included in the Ordination Prayer for the making of Priests: 'Whose sins you forgive, they are forgiven; whose sins you retain, they are retained' have become encased in ecclesiastical doctrine. They are used in the Catholic tradition as a way of reinforcing the practice of priestly absolution. On the other hand, the same text is interpreted defensively by those in the Protestant tradition as referring to the preaching of the gospel. In my opinion, this text from John 20:22,23 has got stuck in tradition and for the good of the whole church needs to be set free to 'breathe' and become a living word for all traditions.

Most of us subscribe to the familiar Anglican adage about confession to a priest: 'all may, none must, some should'. This reflects the pastoral exhortation in the 1928 Prayer Book that those who cannot 'quiet' their own conscience should seek out a 'discreet and learned Minister of God's Word' to receive absolution with 'ghostly counsel and advice'. In my own case, this has meant over a long period, seeking such ministry from an Anglican priest, a Roman Catholic monk and a Baptist pastor!

In a very helpful little book, Go in Peace — the Art of hearing confession, Julia Gatta and Martin Smith, suggest several reasons why we should value confession to a 'wise and godly' person. I will draw attention to just four such ways:

1.The rite of confession to another moves forgiveness from head to the heart.

Protestant fears of confession have resulted in isolating the individual before God and cutting him or her off from other believers at the very point where help is needed.

Contemporary psychology combines with pastoral experience to show that the personal verbal confession of sin assists a person to accept moral guilt and view it in the same light as God does. It is too easy to fool ones-self and only pretend confession is accomplished simply by mulling it over in the mind. Saying our sins out loud makes them real to us and deepens our penitence. It ensures that forgiveness does not remain as something theoretical but becomes something that takes hold of us at a deep gut-felt level.

2.The rite of Confession helps us to be intentional and specific in our repentance.

Every time we Anglicans come to the Eucharist we join in saying the General Confession followed by the pronouncement of absolution. But because the General Confession is a corporate prayer, its primary role is to express the sinful failings of the community as community.

To acknowledge, as we do in our liturgy, that we have not loved God 'with our whole heart' or 'our neighbours as ourselves' can end up being nothing more than mouthing words for which we feel very little sense of conviction. Sincere repentance never gets developed in our prayer life and the liturgy is reduced to what has been called, 'comforting noise'.

But the rite of Confession to a priest or Spiritual Director does not allow us to remain fuzzy and general in our penitence. Because we have to make ourselves intelligible to another person, we have no alternative except to own up to what we have done and not done, painstakingly finding words to name our particular sins. Our self-examination in preparation helps us to move beyond the blur of hazy guilt feelings to a sharp and liberating penitence.

3. Confession to a priest can help us gain clarity in complex and knotty situations.

Today, our culture confronts us with many complex moral issues and we can sometimes feel confused about what is right and wrong in our lives.

This is the case for many gay and lesbian Christians because of our churches long and continuing debate over the morality of homosexual relationships. As the debate has dragged on, it has been at the cost of many who feel a same-sex attraction. And there are other areas of contemporary moral complexity — pacifism versus going to war; abortion as the lesser of two evils or euthanasia, to name just three examples. The rite of reconciliation provides a possible means of getting help in working through what in our life calls for repentance and forgiveness and what does not.

4. The rite of confession brings destructive secrets into the open and offers healing.

In confession, the risen Lord has the opportunity to show how his love enfolds our wounds. We need only recall the parable of the prodigal son, to be reminded of how much joy the Father felt when the wayward son returned home. And our Lord speaks of the 'joy in heaven' over one sinner who repents. By the grace of God, forgiveness itself is healing. As Julia Gatta and Martin Smith put it, 'God uses self-examination not to hurt us but to help us "find where it hurts" so that wounds can be dressed and healed'.

The Anglican Evangelical theologian, Alister McGrath, claims that evangelicalism has emphasized the God-ward side of the gospel by stressing its total sufficiency. However, he adds, evangelicalism has often been guilty of overlooking the human side. We are all broken, struggling, sinful people. In confession catholic spirituality has provided a support system for those who need help to live by the gospel's precepts and harness its power in their lives. Sadly, I have found that for many contemporary Anglican-Catholics, confession is nowhere on the radar. The time is ripe to invite people to discover the grace of conversion in this rite. Anglicans of whatever shade and tradition need to be encouraged to go deeper, not to become shallower. 'Easy believism' is not an option for Jesus followers. Every Christian is called to holiness. When life gets messy, the life-long discipline of probing, regular, radical repentance can help form within us the mind of Christ so that we begin to see people and situations as Christ does. Whether Catholic or Protestant in leaning, we must not follow the prevailing culture which never mentions sin. It would help if confession were set free from its polemical history!


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