Published: March 2008
That great Anglican aphorism--so neat, so wise, so just. And how right for today. How many centuries did it take to evolve? How many martyrs died on the way? What role does confession play in our faith today? Only in Lent? Always on Sunday? Sometimes? Often? Never?
Confession seems a bit quaint to some of us now. Admission of excess, and resolution to give up something appears to be more at home at New Year's. Ask yourself how many times you resolved to give up something, and failed. I knew a clergyman once who gave up smoking for Lent; he became so irritable that he had to give up the idea altogether.
Confession used to strike me as a fictional, romantic notion embellished largely in literature, and especially in opera. I was limited in my narrow world to a few persons who ducked into church to confess, light a candle, and drop a coin in the box, and continue on the way to some mundane pursuit.
My earliest memory of sin and guilt involved outright theft. My cousin Margann and I had ventured the unthinkable. We had stolen something in Woolworth's. Margann's mother made her take it back to the manager. I had simply dropped mine, a celluloid 'cupie' doll about an inch long, out the bedroom window, and suffered no punishment. Correction: the punishment was acute guilt, owing to absence of admission, penitence, and forgiveness. It remains with me to this day.
A lifetime later and I am comforted to learn that Anglican confession no longer exacts penitence. Nor do you sit in the little box and speak through a screen to a priest, although some Anglo Catholic churches provide it. I am, however, bothered to recall, not all that long ago, how I was approached by a little boy of about ten, the grandson of someone I knew, who said to me: "I don't want you to go to hell" I was not smart enough to supply the right reply, except to say "I don't think so...don't worry".
More recent exposure to the subject of confesssion has piqued my interest beyond the general confession we observe regularly in Christ's Church Cathedral. Though we are no longer the 'miserable offenders' of the Book of Common Prayer, whining that "there is no health in us", the words of the BAS confession fall short, in my opinion, of the opportunity of accepting God's gift to us of reflection, of revelation, and of potential. Nor is it private, or personal, or particular.
To be sure, provision does exist for all these shortcomings--but not easily. Seminaries do offer an introduction to the duties of priest-confessor, but it is minimal. Some clergy do offer the service privately, in retirement, as we have noted in newspapers. More power to them. But there is already at hand a rich resource within our own walls, with a little enquiring around. Not always is the search immediately fruitful. A few years back I tested the waters a little. Aware that at least one of our diocesan clergy regularly heard confessions, and that auricular, or private, confession was available on request, I called one of them, at random. There was a moment of silence. "I'll have to get back to you", he said. And didn't.
In time I came to face facts. If I was to satisfy my curiosity, let alone my needs, I would have to learn more about confession, its origins, its history, and why it is treated so half-heartedly now. I hit the books, only to learn that the word hardly existed over the centuries (except in the trivial contexts mentioned earlier). Even now, the term more commonly used is Reconciliation, Penance, or the Sacrament of Reconciliation. Very rarely does the terminology suggest the confession of sin, and almost never, the idea of guilt (Pace, that cupie doll)....
Your donation will help us thrust the Niagara Anglican into the future - communicating the Gospel and the good news of our Anglican tradition to generations to come.