Christopher Trundle considers Anglican views on Confession
‘Confession is not only for the weak, the failing, the sin-stained, but for the soul as it advances in grace. It has been likened to medicine, a remedy for sickness; but it is also health-food for the convalescent. As the soul grows in love it deepens in its contrition. It feels more and more the stain of little sins’ (Bishop Charles Chapman Grafton, 1830–1912).
People are often surprised to discover that the Anglican tradition ‘does’ sacramental confession. The image of priests in confessionals is, in popular culture anyway, perceived to be an exclusively Roman Catholic phenomenon, and it is certainly foreign to the experience of most people today.
As catholic Christians we do not, of course, need licence to do what the Universal Church has always done, but it is nonetheless important to remember that the practice of confessing sins to a priest is explicitly encouraged in our tradition, and, most notably, is found in the Book of Common Prayer.
The gift of absolution
The revival of the practice of auricular confession in the Church of England is largely the work of the Tractarian Movement and was justified on the basis of the Prayer Book service, The Visitation of the Sick.
In this service where the priest visits the sick-bed of one in grave illness – a far from peripheral event in the life of the Church – we find this rubric: ‘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.’ The direct words of absolution from the priest follow: ‘by his authority committed to me, I absolve thee from all thy sins..’. It is encouraging to find that the Church of England is in its official liturgy honest and confident about the gift of absolution entrusted to the Church through its priests.
We should not think that this is reserved to the one service alone, however, for the general confession and absolution which open the Prayer Book office of Evening Prayer is also clear about the importance of sin and of the power and authority given to priests ‘to declare and pronounce to [God’s] people, being penitent, the Absolution and Remission of their sins.’
Sin and God’s love
Sin is not a pleasant thing to talk about, and admission of guilt has become particularly alien to our culture. Herbert Kelly writes perceptively, ‘We have not got what the Prayer Book calls ‘a quiet conscience,’ but we try to think we have. Then if we will not face the trouble and humiliation of confession, we take refuge in that indifference which is so terribly common’ (Catholicity, 1932). It is easy to neglect self-examination and confession (not least over the long period of Ordinary Time), and perhaps it is good to remind ourselves of the need to be spiritually alert so as to fend off that indifference of which Kelly warns.
It is crucial today more than ever for the Church to be honest about sin, but also gentle in its offering of forgiveness. The reality of sin must be held in tension with abundant love of God, who ‘desireth not the death of a sinner, but rather that he may turn from his wickedness and live’. Bishop Grafton, one of the founding members of the Cowley Fathers (and with whom we began), writes movingly of sacramental confession as a matter of Christ’s love overwhelming our sinfulness:
‘In this holy mystery…He comes as the good Samaritan to save us, robbed and wounded and ready to perish. But ere He bears us to the Inn He first probes and cleanses our wounds, and pours in the oil and wine, and setting us on His own beast, reconciles us to Himself’
(A Journey Godward, 1914) ND