“If you have come here today with a troubled conscience, and you need help and counsel, come to me, or to some other priest, and confess your sins; that you may receive godly counsel, direction, and absolution. To do so will both satisfy your conscience and remove any scruples or doubt.” [The Exhortation, ACNA Texts for Common Prayer]
Did you know the church has recognized seven sacraments? Now you do! The Catechism at the back of the Book of Common Prayer [beginning on page 845] does a good job, with the help of St. Augustine and the 39 Articles, of defining “sacrament:”
Q. What are the sacraments?
A. The sacraments are outward and visible signs of inward and spiritual grace given by Christ as sure and certain means by which we receive that grace. [p. 857]
Our Lord actually commanded two sacraments in the Gospels: baptism and the Holy Eucharist. The historical church came to recognize five other “sacraments”: confirmation, ordination, holy matrimony, reconciliation (otherwise known as confession), and unction (“last rites”), because these rites can be seen as outward and visible signs of an inward and spiritual grace.
Confession is undoubtedly the least often observed of these historical sacraments. I hear two responses when people bring up the idea of confessing our sins to a priest: 1) “I don’t need to confess my dirty laundry to a priest to obtain forgiveness of my sins” or 2) some variant of, “If my priest knew my sins, he wouldn’t allow me back in the church.” Both statements miss the point and effect of “going to confession.”
We don’t need to confess to a priest to be forgiven, but we may need to confess to a priest to experience God’s forgiveness. God doesn’t speak to most of us in audible words; He does not lay hands on us, and we can’t see His face. Because of that, we’re sometimes just not confident He heard our private confession and that He has, in fact, forgiven us. We may be left with “doubt or scruple.” When we confess our sins to a priest, we see with our eyes the priest listening, speaking audible words of God’s forgiveness, and we experience physically the priest laying hands on us as s/he prays for us. As incarnate beings, we sometime need this incarnate expression of God’s love and forgiveness to experience that forgiveness fully and to go forth in freedom and joy.
The Anglican attitude toward confession is all may, none must, and some should. Are you participating fully in the sacramental life of the church? Do you need to experience the sacrament of reconciliation? Are you feeling God calling you to it?
May the Lord bless and keep you, and remember to pray for me, a sinner.
Canon Ross Kimball
This originally appeared in the email newsletter of All Saints’ Anglican Church (Amesbury).