Remember, O thou man, how thou cam’st to me then,
and I did what I can, therefore repent.
Last Sunday, the Cathedral’s choir sang these words from an anthem by Thomas Ravenscroft (c. 1588-1635) to a beautiful tune by Healey Willan (1880-1968). For many of us, the word “repent” is a loaded word that we often associate with street preachers waving bibles and carrying upsetting signs. But what does repentance mean in our Anglican tradition?
The opening message of the gospels, announced by John the Baptist, reiterated by Jesus, and finally proclaimed by the apostles, is “Repent, and believe in the Good News” (Mark 1:15). The grace to change one’s mind and heart and then accept God’s forgiveness lies at the very core of our life in Christ. It represents the renewal of creation that is inaugurated by Jesus’ resurrection. So, for those who have been baptised and who sin—as all adult Christians do—the practice of confession and absolution can be a significant encounter with Jesus, who pardons, heals, and embraces us in love.
Forgiveness is basic to the Christian way of life. We seek to do God’s will, yet all of us fall short of doing it.
In our Anglican tradition, we are encouraged to experience God’s forgiveness in multiple ways: by acknowledging our sins in our own prayers before God; by offering a general confession and hearing the declaration of absolution by a priest during the celebration of the Eucharist, and through the Rite of Reconciliation of a Penitent. Indeed, our Anglican tradition is full of hidden treasures. The Book of Alternative Services (BAS) includes The Rite of Reconciliation of a Penitent on pages 167-172. This rite continues the ministry Jesus gave to the disciples:
Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; If you retain the sins of any, they are retained (John 20:23).
But aren’t we forgiven our sins whenever we turn to God and ask for forgiveness? Isn’t all this covered when we say the general confession during worship together? Yes, certainly.However, at times, we may find that this public type of confession and absolution doesn’t meet our spiritual and emotional needs. Sometimes, we may be so overwhelmed with grief and shame that we feel alienated from God and the people around us. At times, after years of repetition, we may find that the sheer familiarity of the general confession and absolution has muffled its impact, so that when we experience the need for renewal of relationship with God, something more demanding and dramatic is called for.
For some, the problem may be one of healing: how are we to use God’s grace to change a sinful tendency? In that case, it may be useful to speak with a priest frankly in the confidentiality of confession to receive pastoral advice about how to seek the changes we desire. Some may be drawn by a powerful need to unburden themselves of the sin weighing on their conscious and let go of the oppressive weight of guilty secrets bottled up inside. By bringing everything out into the full light of day in the presence of a trusted spiritual companion, we can bring release, relief, and the assurance of handing over our sins to God. Indeed, the truth will set us free.
Although the term “private confession” distinguishes the rite from the general confession of community worship, the term can be misleading. It can give the impression that sacramental confession is not a regular ministry of the church, but an odd devotional practice for the overly pious, or part of a tradition that’s “too Roman Catholic.” Although the Rite of Reconciliation of a Penitent requires privacy, the church is gathered for worship in the presence of God. In this case, the smallest quorum of the church is gathered:
Where two or three are gathered in my name, I am in the midst of them (Matthew 18:19-20).
In the Anglican tradition, private confessions are never mandatory, but are available to us anytime we find we can benefit from them. When discussing confessions, Anglicans often say, “all can, some should, but none must.” Yet, many Christians have come to value private confession as a way of spiritual growth. Our perspective on our own actions is always limited, and we are not always able to assure ourselves that God forgives us. When we confess to a trusted spiritual companion, we can discover an opportunity for shared perspective and the benefit of encouragement from another person who is on the same journey. After all, priests are sinners, too! The priest’s final words in the rite are, “Go in peace, and pray for me a sinner.”
When the confession is made to a priest, the absolution is given by one authorized by the community to declare God’s forgiveness. The secrecy of a confession of sin is morally absolute for the confessor and must under no circumstances be broken. The priest is bound absolutely to keep confidential the contents of each confession, and never to bring them up again unless invited to do so by the penitent.
Beginning on Wednesday, December 14 and continuing each Wednesday following, a priest will be seated in a quiet area of the Cathedral, available for the Rite of Reconciliation of a Penitent from 11:00 a.m. until noon. If you choose to come to make a private confession, the priest will be seated in such a way that they will not see the face of the penitent unless that person asks the priest to turn around for a face-to-face conversation. A leaflet will be available to guide the priest and penitent through the rite together. Priests at the Cathedral are available at other times by appointment.
For most of us, sin is a gloomy subject. But accepting the gift God’s forgiveness is a crucial way of experiencing the joy of the birth of Christ. If you are new to this way of growth in the Christian life, you may consult with a priest in advance so that they may answer any questions and help you prepare. Spiritual growth depends on self-knowledge and shared perspectives in community, both integral parts of our journey to reconciliation.
Remember God’s goodness and promise made:
Remember God’s goodness, how his only Son he sent,
Our sins to redress: Be not afraid.
—The Rev. Adam Dawkins