The meaning and use of sacramental confession in Western Christianity has long been undermined by a pervasive legalism that both distorts the origin of this rite and undermines its proper, regular (and joyous) use today.
The Reconciliation of a Penitent (a.k.a. "confession") is based on Christ's commission to the Apostles to "bind and loose" sins on earth, thus continuing in the Church Our Lord's work of reconciling God and humanity through declaring forgiveness and speaking truthfully about the nature and character of sin. As part of their ordination, bishops and priests are given the authority to declare God's forgiveness. This is exercised in Liturgy though the absolution following general confession, as well as at sacramental confession.
Originally, the Church knew nothing of the practice of making a confession alone to a priest. In the early period of Christianity (and in some traditions still), confession was made out loud to the entire assembly. This demonstrates a deep and courageous understanding of the worshipping community as a body of people all in need of forgiveness, all desiring to be reconciled with each other and to pray for each other's reconciliation. In the Eastern Orthodox tradition, this ancient practice is echoed in the still-current way of making a confession privately to a priest during the liturgy, off to the side of the chancel area, but still in a semi-public location.
The significance of confession for ancient Christianity was deeply connected to baptism. When one became a part of Christ's body through birth in the font and receiving the Holy Spirit in anointing, the Christian was no longer an alienated individual, but a person in the deepest sense: one who was now in a restored relationship with God the Holy Trinity (whose nature is personal relationship in love), the Creation, the neighbor, and the true self in Christ. Sin after baptism damages the health of this "spiritual organism," requiring healing to repair the damage done to this loving communion. Thus, confession's true meaning is connected to the healing ministry of Christ seen in the Gospels and lived out in the Church's continual offering of pastoral care, intercession, and reconciliation.
In the Western part of the Church, confession of sins was gradually removed to the privacy of a meeting between the "penitent" and the "confessor" at a time outside of the public conduct of the Liturgy, though often in the church building itself. This was accompanied by a change in expressed character. Now confession came to have a judicial character, based on the image of the Last Judgment in the Gospels and the Book of Revelation. Slowly and at times imperceptibly, the priest moved from being a physician of the soul to a deputy judge. The entire nature of confession became a type of transaction: I commit this infraction against the Church's "code of legal conduct" and must pay the prescribed penalty through a penance imposed by a spiritual bureaucrat. Once this was done, one could feel "justified" and then make a "worthy" communion or (more importantly) be "properly" prepared to die and meet the criteria for escaping damnation. Undermined was the deep connection with baptism or the profound personal encounter between one in need of healing and the Church's mission of healing in the Liturgy of the Faithful or even in the more limited encounter with that mission through the person of a priest's witness and ministry on behalf of the whole Church.
By the time of the Reformation, this transition in the nature of confession had become so complete that many saw it not as a way back to God through spiritual healing, but as an obstacle to God. Many reformers sought to bring confession back to its origins (confession to the entire assembly, or, more commonly, private confession within the assembly gathered for worship). Private sacramental confession was largely stripped from the life of the Reformed tradition in Christianity.
But, in the Anglican tradition, a curious thing occurred. While the stand-alone rite of sacramental confession was removed and largely replaced with a general confession in most services, it did survive in one particular context: the service of healing (then called "The Visitation of the Sick"). Indeed, in this service, a great deal of effort was put into a thorough examination of one's faith and practice. Everything from a recommitment to basic baptismal faith (the Apostles' Creed was reaffirmed), to forgiveness of those with whom the sick person was at enmity, to the right use of one's possessions and wealth (with emphasis on giving to the poor and needy) was covered in detail.
Thus, in Anglicanism the long process of returning confession to its origins as baptismal healing--not judicial retribution--had begun.
While this service was intended for use in cases of serious sickness (remembering that, in times past, many sicknesses fell into this category), some clergy used it more liberally, seeing it as an excellent means of periodic examination of conscience for members of the Church, especially in Lent. Indeed, there exist records of some Anglican bishops growing concerned that certain priests were using this rite rather too liberally...perhaps dangerously akin to the Roman Catholic practice of confession! Oddly enough, the emphasis in Anglicanism, for all of its reformed intent, continued the medieval coupling of confession and absolution before death so that the individual Christian could face God's judgment with a clear conscience and hope.
In the nineteenth century Anglo-Catholic revival, straightforward sacramental confession reappeared in the Anglican tradition for the first time since the Reformation. This meant that confession now was no longer directly linked to sickness and death—a good thing for the wider pastoral ministry of the Church. But, it also meant that the model most at hand used for this renewal was the juridical view of confession then current in nineteenth century Roman Catholicism.
This colored the view of sacramental confession in Anglicanism—partly because of anti-Roman Catholic bigotry, but also out of a deep concern that the obstructive mechanism of medieval “Penance” would undermine the "blessed liberty wherewith Christ has made us free" so valued by Anglicans. While Roman Catholicism had produced many clergy with a distinctly deeper, broader, and more holistic view of confession (e.g. the Curé d'Ars), the prevailing view remained transactional, with the priest very much understood as judge rather than witness, representative of the Body, or spiritual physician.
As the twentieth century wore on the careful study of the Early Church and the confession practices of the Eastern Orthodox churches began to have an impact on Roman Catholic and Anglican views of sacramental confession. Eventually, the Second Vatican Council and various Anglican synods, councils, and conventions began to reform the confession rites so that the focus moved from transaction or judgment to healing and reconciliation with baptismal identity. When the Episcopal Church put forth its new Book of Common Prayer in 1976/79, it added back (for the first time in its life) a separate liturgy of sacramental confession…now called “The Reconciliation of a Penitent.”
When it did so, it acknowledged the two currents that remain in the Anglican tradition with regard to this sacramental rite by having two different forms for Reconciliation. While sacramentally the same, they differ in tone and spiritual emphasis.
The first form is very much in the style of classic Western confessional services: the penitent asks for a blessing to make a true and worthy confession and receives this blessing from the confessor. The confession is made (being clear that it is to God and “the whole Church” through the ministry of the confessor), opportunity for counsel, direction, and comfort provided for, and then absolution given (with two optional forms of absolution provided for…one being the classic “I absolve you of your sins” in the name of Christ, the other emphasizing Christ’s forgiveness first, through the ministry of the confessor). Short and to the point but also powerful and clear: sins are forgiven by God so that we may return to fullness of life in Christ in this world and the next.
The second form is longer, more deeply connected to the rest of the Sacraments, more Scripturally-focussed, and more clearly grounded in the concept of baptismal reconciliation and spiritual healing. It begins with the confessor and penitent both praying a portion of Psalm 51 (the great psalm of penitence), and saying together the ancient hymn of praise called the “Trisagion,” or “Thrice holy hymn.” This establishes the clear fact that the confession is a liturgy of the Church, not a private “spiritual transaction,” and that the confessor and the penitent are both members of the Laos or People of God—not members of two different “castes” of Christians, one judging the other.
The second form continues with the penitent asking a blessing for grace to make a true and honest confession, and then receiving a blessing to do so, followed by a series of passages from Holy Scripture long used by Anglicans to give assurance of God’s desire for our reconciliation and redemption. Thus assured and encouraged by the confessor (who is a fellow Christian with a special calling to minister God’s forgiveness), the penitent proceeds to offer a beautiful prayer recounting God’s gifts of creation, redemption, and baptism—and, the fact that we have misused turned against these gifts through sin, using the language of Christ’s parable of the Prodigal about “wondering in a land that is waste.”
The prayer may begin more on the general level, but moves to the specific when the penitent adds his or her own personal sins to this prayer. Following these specific sins, the prayer recognizes that we are confessing not only the sins we can remember, but all of the involuntary sins, or those we have forgotten, and so opening our entire selves to God, holding nothing back in this encounter and fully expecting total forgiveness—such is the radical nature of this sacramental experience. The prayer comes to a close with a plea for restoration to the full life of the Church—full realization of the personal life of faith, where relationship with God, neighbor, and the true self-in-God may occur.
The confessor then is given opportunity to provide counsel or guidance as part of this ministry of healing. This is often where the Anglican emphasis on pastoral care, fitted to the individual, is more clearly seen and experienced.
The second form of Reconciliation then proceeds to ask two important questions, both of which relate to the baptismal liturgy and point directly to the restoration of the penitent to baptismal grace and the full life of the Church: “Will you turn again to Christ as your Lord?” and “Do you, then, forgive those who have sinned against you?” Once more, we see here the truth of sacramental confession as something far deeper than mere satisfaction of an exterior “law” or set of rules. This is about restoration to the active and healed life of the “organism” of the Church, the Body of Christ and all its members and connects well with Anglicanism's general preference for a more dynamic sacramentality (as opposed to simple memorialism or the static observance of an exterior "ritual.")
Only now, with a full reaffirmation by the penitent of a desire for communion with “that life which alone is Life,” and thus refuting the deforming and false “logic” of sin and its spurious promise of "salvation through autonomy," does the confessor pronounce Christ’s absolution and restoration “to the perfect peace of the Church.” That which was put out of joint, cut off, alienated, has now been re-joined fully to the whole, to the Body which is fully alive, resurrected, and partaker of the Divine Nature.
Having gained this moment of spiritual revivification, the confessor recalls once more the story of the Prodigal, but now with its ringing affirmation of restoration through this triumphal “welcome home” from the Father:
Now there is rejoicing in heaven; for you were lost, and
are found; you were dead, and are now alive in Christ Jesus
our Lord. Go in peace. The Lord has put away all
To which the penitent-now-restored gives the response provided at the end of the Eucharist—to the fullness of which he or she is now brought back: “Thanks be to God.” All has been healed; the long-awaited Lost One has returned, and the all the Church throughout the ages rejoices with God the Holy Trinity.
And so, this long reflection on the history of sacramental confession brings us back to where we began: with Christ’s commission to the Church to continue his work of reconciliation: confronting sin amongst his members not with judicial legalism but with a profound thirst for our return, our restoration to the truth of personal communion given at baptism.
What had become distorted through history and a cooling of human hearts has been set right by God’s grace in the Church so that a means of healing for wounds and sins perhaps not visible but nonetheless very real might be made available to the Faithful. Now it is time for more Episcopal parishes to make sacramental confession regularly available to their people, that this gift might be once more part of the common (shared) life of the community--not an adjunct or "extra" sought out by only a few.
It is this understanding of sacramental confession that is found in the Episcopal Church's Book of Common Prayer, and offered regularly at St. Timothy’s throughout the year—and especially in the holy season of Lent.