Confession and Forgiveness
“And he arose and came to his father. But while he was yet at a distance his father saw him and had compassion, and ran and embraced him, and kissed him” (Lk, 15.20)
Many people think that confession (sometimes called the ‘sacrament of reconciliation’) is something that Roman Catholics do. This is not true! Confession is a central practice of many Christian Churches – including the Orthodox, Lutheran, and has always been a part of Anglicanism, even after the Reformation – for example, even Dr Samuel Johnson regularly made his confession before taking communion! Sadly, the practice of confession nearly died out in the eighteenth century, but was re-discovered by the Oxford Movement in the nineteenth century, and has grown in usage ever since.
Our understanding of the benefits to be gained from confession and forgiveness will be heightened if we consider for a moment just how necessary forgiveness and reconciliation is in our everyday lives. On the ordinary human level we know only too well the need to be reconciled with each other when, through our own fault, we have fallen out. We know that being reconciled with those we have wronged is not just a matter of saying ‘sorry’, putting the quarrel behind us – we want and need to be accepted back, to be given another chance, to be thought no less of – we want to make up, and to know that our sorrow is accepted.
‘Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those that sin against us’ : When we forgive one another, God Himself will also forgive, and not continue to hold the sins that we have committed against each other – this Jesus was quite clear about throughout his teaching (and which we hear everytime we say the Lord’s Prayer). Christians also believe that the authority to pronounce absolution, that is, to declare God’s forgiveness, is given to every generation of bishops and priests through the ‘apostolic succession’, which is handed to them at their ordination or consecration. Some Christians are suspicious of the individual power to forgive sins, but we see examples of individuals being given this power in the gospels: “whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven” (Matthew 18.18, also John 20.23). The priest serves as the representative of God and of His mercy, and in confession, the individual is given new courage, confidence, and a fresh start. The individual learns humility, receives additional grace in order to avoid sin, and attains a certainty of forgiveness that is superior to mere feelings.
The Book of Common Prayer includes the following pastoral exhortation: “…if there be any of you, who by this means (Self-examination, confession, and repentance) cannot quiet his own conscience herein, but requireth further comfort or counsel, let him come to me, or to some other discreet and learned Minister of God’s Word, and open his grief, that by the ministry of God’s Holy Word he may receive the benefit of absolution, together with ghostly counsel and advice, to the quieting of his conscience, and avoiding of all scruple and doubtfulness.”
The aim of such a ministry of comfort and counsel is to establish an individual in the freedom and forgiveness of Christ. The reconciliation of a penitent, even when celebrated privately, remains a corporate action of the Church, because sin affects the unity of the body; through the absolution the penitent is restored to full fellowship in Christ.
If you have never made your confession before, it is a good idea to do this before one of the great Christian Festivals of Christmas and Easter, and the seasons of Advent and Lent are an ideal time to prepare yourself to do this.
If you would like to make your confession, or would like to speak about this, please contact one of the clergy.
“all may, none must, some should”
The Most Revd Michael Ramsey, Archbishop of Canterbury 1961-74