Andy Hawes is Warden of
Edenham Regional Retreat House
Repent for the kingdom of heaven is lose at hand!’ This is the ‘thrilling voice’ that heralds Advent. I regret to say that I hear little evidence of true penitence in my dealings with people – many of them practising penitents: individuals who make a regular confession. I often find myself saying, ‘This is not the place to make excuses’ or ‘Tell me exactly what happened.’ There is something in the ‘spiritual atmosphere’ at the moment which does not do ‘penitence’.
Readers may have some idea why this might be the case, but there has been over the past thirty years a steady ‘deadening’ of conscience. Actions, attitudes and language that once were unacceptable are now not given a second, and certainly not a penitential, thought. This might be called the ‘spiritual consequence of the enculturation of the Gospel.’ Penitence springs out of our relationship with God and what we believe about God shapes that relationship. Where the moral ‘absolutes’ of the Gospel are reduced to the ethics of ‘specific situations’ the individual is set free to draw up his own list of ‘mortal sins’ to suit himself.
I sometimes remind myself of being a father of small children, instructing them to ‘say sorry’, and then having to encourage them to think again and ‘say sorry properly.’ As all good Advent sermons remind us, ‘to repent means to turn around completely our attitudes of heart of mind – to convert.’ Saying ‘sorry’ is not repentance. Repentance is the result of the encounter with the God who is the pure light and truth. True repentance results from an encounter with holiness. Penitence is the fruit of the soul that is seeking salvation. Holiness is not today the aspiration of many Western Christians and universalism seems to be an assumption.
It is not a surprise that we are such an impenitent church. The General Confession in most modern liturgies is a bland catchall that would not put anyone on their knees. It does not help that modern musical settings of Kyrie eleison sound like a trailer for a Disney film!
The Anglican tradition in the Book of Common Prayer has some of the most powerful prayers of penitence in its language of corporate worship and personal devotion. To use the Book of Common Prayer is not a remedy to the current culture of impenitence, but it provides a very clear and light-filled mirror to demonstrate how far we have travelled from a true spirit of penitence. It is a reminder of a vocation to wholeness in Christ that many have never heard. Find that copy in church or in the cupboard at home, turn to the Order for Holy Communion and pray this, substituting ‘I’ for ‘we’:
‘We acknowledge and bewail our manifold sins and wickedness, which we from time to time most grievously have committed by thought, word and deed, against thy Divine Majesty, provoking most justly thy wrath and indignation against us. We do earnestly repent, and are heartily sorry for these our misdoings; the remembrance of them is grievous unto us, the burden of them is intolerable. Have mercy upon us, have mercy upon us, most merciful Father, for thy Son our Lord Jesus Christ’s sake, forgive us all that is past; and grant that we may ever hereafter serve and please thee in newness of life, to the honour and glory of thy Name.’