This rite is a reclamation of ancient tradition absent from the Prayer Book before the 20th century. Private confession to a priest was not, however, absent from the Anglican tradition as a whole; the classical Prayer Books refer to private confession both in the Visitation of the Sick (there providing an absolution for the priest to say) and in one of the Exhortations in the Communion service. The purpose of private confession, then and now, is to provide a particular ministry of reconciliation and healing. The ordinary penitent can and should take comfort in the regular Confession and Absolution in the Daily Office and the Service of Holy Communion; making a private confession is to “remove any scruples or doubt” and to receive godly counsel and advice.
The traditional phrasing in the Roman Church is “Bless me, Father, for I have sinned.” The penitent is welcome to use that address, but it is not required in the Prayer Book since the address of priests as “Father” is not a universal Anglican practice.
The Confession & Counsel
The Prayer Book notes that “The secrecy of a confession is morally binding for the confessor and is not to be broken” (BCP 222). Many ministers argue for an exception: when the sin involves the abuse of minors or the elderly, the law of the land considers them to be mandatory reporters, and thus the “seal of the confession” must be broken. The Prayer Book, with ancient tradition, does not permit any such exception, and the priest or bishop should take care to proclaim the Gospel with this rubric – 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.”
At that moment, the priest or bishop “may offer counsel, direction, and comfort.” Properly speaking, the minister must offer those. The feedback should be appropriate for the sin – the penitent may benefit from certain devotional practices to combat the sin in question, the penitent may need to be taught something from the Scriptures, the penitent may need practical advice for avoiding falling into sin again. In cases of greater problems, such as an addiction, the penitent will need to be forwarded to a program or ministry to aid in recovery. And, in the cases of crimes with legal mandatory reporting, the penitent ought to be directed to turn him- or herself in immediately. The penitent and the minister should go to the phone and call the police and initiate the legal side of true contrition. If the penitent is unwilling to submit to the law, contrition was not present and the confession was invalid, and the minister can then turn them in instead. Once the penitent has reported his or her crime, the minister may proceed with the absolution.
Two choices of statements are offered for the priest or bishop to say. The first is a modern translation of the absolution in the 1662 Visitation of the Sick, the second is the absolution from the Communion. In cases where the penitent is particularly upset or concerned about his or her guilt, or particularly skeptical of God’s mercy, the strong wording of the first absolution is best. It is traditional for the priest or bishop to make the sign of the Cross during the three-fold Name of God.
The concluding prayer may be said with the priest laying a hand on the penitent’s shoulder, if deemed appropriate.
“Go in peace” is more appropriate for a confession-by-appointment. “Abide in peace” is best used when the confession is made in a situation where the priest and penitent will remain in the same building thereafter.