Private confession of sin to a priest is a subject of some controversy among Anglicans. Some argue that it has no place in our tradition whatsoever, while others advocate it as a good and proper practice worthy of normalization. A look at the historical Prayer Books reveals something in between: this practice was allowed, but not normal. Two references to private confession stand in the old Prayer Books:
- The Communion of the Sick provide an absolution for the Priest to say if the sick person wants to make a confession to him.
- The Exhortation at Holy Communion (the one announcing an upcoming celebration of Holy Communion) invites people to make a private confession if their consciences are particularly troubled, “to remove all scruple and doubt” and receive godly counsel.
Thus we find a clear outline of an authentically Anglican approach to private confession: it is a special pastoral ministry whereby a priest can provide more particular spiritual guidance to his flock and bring the benefits and comforts of the regular liturgy to those who are shut up sick at home.
To this end, modern Prayer Books (like our new one) provide an actual form for private confession. In the 2019 Prayer Book, the absolution from the old 1662 Visitation of the Sick is retained for this very purpose! It’s an excellent resource for priestly/pastoral ministry, drawing upon both ancient and specifically-Anglican tradition, in our modern context.
One of the things that people new to the practice often misunderstand is the issue of secrecy. Our Prayer Book notes that “The secrecy of a confession is morally binding for the confessor and is not to be broken” – no exception is provided. As far as the East is from the West, so far has the Lord put away our sins from us. That established, it must also be noted that a true confession involves contrition. The penitent concludes “I am truly sorry” and “I firmly intend amendment of life” and “ask for counsel.” The confessional is no more a place for ‘cheap grace’ than the Holy Table or the pulpit. For more specific guidance on how to use this rite, and how to handle the issues of particular sorts of sins that may be confessed, read the full Customary entry here: https://saint-aelfric-customary.org/customary-reconciliation-of-a-penitent/