All May, Some Should, None Must...
Several weeks ago, after the service, I was asked about a comment in my sermon regarding the forgiveness of sins. In my sermon I referenced the biblical assurance that when we are truly sorry and lament our sins, we are forgiven by God. In our personal practice this takes the form of simple prayer; in the liturgical practice this is the Confession of Sin which takes place after the Prayers of the People. While both private and corporate confession and forgiveness are efficacious and sufficient, it is sadly true that we often don’t feel forgiven after either one. Human nature being what it is, I was asked, “Isn’t there any other way to be forgiven?”
This past week, I had the occurrence to offer the rite of Reconciliation of a Penitent, a form of private Confession affirmed by the church and found on page 447 of our Book of Common Prayer. This rite has its roots in the earliest practices of the church and is prescribed by Jesus and biblical witness. In the Episcopal tradition, Reconciliation of a Penitent (as defined in the Book of Common Prayer) “is the rite in which those who repent of their sins may confess them to God in the presence of a priest, and receive the assurance of pardon and the grace of absolution.” It is often referred to as “private confession.”
Our Anglican understanding of Reconciliation of a Penitent is based on 1John 1:9 - "If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness," and on James 5:16 - "Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working."
As we read these passages, it is obvious that a specific command to confess before a priest is missing. The further instruction which includes the option of Auricular Confession before a Priest comes from John 20:23 in which Jesus is instructing the Apostles, “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld.” Further, as the church grew, the Book of Acts 16:31 witness to the Apostles exercising this authority by declaring with utmost certainty the terms on which God would forgive sins. The Apostles declared that those who believed the gospel were forgiven (Acts 16:31) and those who did not obey the Gospel faced judgment (2 Thessalonians 1:8; 1 Peter 4:17). St Paul goes on with this instruction in 1 Corinthians 5:4-5, “So when you are assembled and I am with you in spirit, and the power of our Lord Jesus is present, hand this man over to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved on the day of the Lord.” This passage sounds like the opposite of reconciliation, but it is a witness that Paul was applying Jesus’ words to mean that the power to offer forgiveness (or not) was very real.
All these passages form the foundation of our understanding of the rite as it is practiced liturgically, but spiritually we may rest on Isaiah 43:25 - “I, I am he who blots out your transgressions for my own sake, and I will not remember your sins.” It is God and God alone who forgives sin; not the priest, not the pastor, not the friend. The function of the priest in the Confession of Sin is to acknowledge the act of asking and pronounce the assurance of God’s act of mercy, but the true participation of the Confession is known to the penitent alone.
The value and practice of The Reconciliation of a Penitent comes from the intimate act of voicing for the penitent. For those who have not participated in this rite, it may be hard to understand the power of speaking the pain, suffering, and sorrow aloud. This is no doubt at the root of Jesus' instruction to “confess to one another:” that at times—not because private confession is flawed or ineffective—we NEED to speak in order to hear.
At those times and in those circumstances where repeated personal and corporate confession offers us no relief, Auricular Confession invites us to leave our tombs (our sins and failings) and live the life God calls us to. Spiritual direction is offered, and God’s mercy is assured personally and privately so that we can move beyond our sorrow and once again be one with our Lord and Savior—that we can experience the Easter promise of new life. When people truly embrace and practice Reconciliation of a Penitent, they can be transformed through the promises of Christ and the action they take.
If you would like to explore this Rite at Creator, please call me. If you would like to participate in this Rite somewhere else, I would be happy to help you find a place.
Reconciliation of a Penitent, All May, Some Should, None Must.
Peace in Christ,
Father Bill Burk†