So with Lent around the corner, let’s talk about the sacramental rite of Confession and Absolution. In the upcoming 2019 Prayer Book, this is a simple matter: go to the “Rites of Healing” section and use that brief liturgy with your priest. A traditional practice is to make a confession on Shrove Tuesday in preparation for Ash Wednesday. This is part of the genius of Pre-Lent; having three and a half weeks to prepare for Lent meant you had time to prepare your Confession, which you could make on the day before Ash Wednesday, and then Lent would be the season of penitence in light of the confession you already made. Rather than 40 days of self-examination, it was 40 days of spiritual warfare to grow in grace after that confession.
Now, one of the big objections raised against confession to a priest is that it’s a “Catholic” practice, and we’re “Protestants.” While I could quibble with the terminology, I think it’ll be easier simply to argue in favor of the practice of Private Confession – that it is, and always has been, an option in classical Anglicanism.
Consideration #1 – the Exhoration
The Exhortation(s) in the Communion service invite those who are penitent to come to the priest for absolution and counsel. This is a public announcement to a private invitation. Reading this as a public confession is completely against the context, as the public confession follows shortly thereafter. That invitation is meant to eradicate “any scruples or doubt” in the individual conscience. Even now, that invitation still exists in the Exhortation:
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.
Consideration #2 – Theological Consistency
The theology of priestly absolution is supported in the explicit wording of the Absolution in the Daily Office and in the Words of Ordination in the “Ordering of Priests” liturgy at the very moment of laying-on of hands. The wording hasn’t really changed since 1662:
Receive the Holy Spirit for the Office and Work of a Priest in the Church of God, now committed to you by the Imposition of our Hands. If you forgive the sins of anyone, they are forgiven. If you withhold forgiveness from anyone, it is withheld. Be a faithful minister of God’s holy Word and Sacraments; in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.
The authority of the priest to absolve is further supported in the text of the Daily Office’s words of absolution, again substantially unchanged since the originals:
Almighty God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, desires not the death of sinners, but that they may turn from their wickedness and live. He has empowered and commanded his ministers to pronounce to his people, being penitent, the absolution and remission of their sins…
Consideration #3 – a classical prayer book example
Until 1979 the Prayer Books did not provide a liturgy for private confessions, but they did provide a model for how it could be done. The practical example of this invitation to private confession is modeled in the Ministration of the Sick, in which the sick person is invited to confess to the priest (using very similar phraseology to the Exhortation). You can see the whole liturgy here, but the specific words are as follows.
Here shall the sick perſon be moved to make a special Confession of his sins, if he feel his conscience troubled with any weighty matter. After which Confession, the Prieſt shall absolve him (if he humbly and heartily desire it) after this sort:
OUR Lord Jesus Christ, who hath left power to his Church to absolve all sinners who truly repent and believe in him, of his great mercy forgive thee thine offences: And by his authority committed to me, I absolve thee from all thy sins, In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.
The 1662 Prayer Book is anything but a Papist document; it should be noted that the Lutherans also generally maintained a sacramental (or almost-sacramental) status for absolution by a pastor in their theological tradition.
Consideration #4 – why Private Confession was absent from the old Prayer Books
One might question why the old prayer books, if my arguments are correct, didn’t simply provide a liturgy for private confession. The answer is simple: a private confession is by definition not “common prayer” and therefore didn’t need to be in the Prayer Book itself. The only part of a private confession that needs (or ought) to be scripted is the priestly absolution, and the minister already has three statements of absolution in the Prayer Book to choose from (Daily Office, Communion, Visitation of the Sick); there need not be any further liturgical form to the saying of a private confession.
That being said, it’s nice to have a brief summary of private confession to a priest in the modern prayer books. Even though it’s not strictly necessary, having set forms and structure for the confessee can help him or her feel more comfortable in the moment, and cut down on the awkward of feelings of “am I doing this right?” The only thing that matters is honest contrition about the sins being confessed, so having a liturgical form can help reduce the awkwardness of knowing “how” to say it.