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On Recovering the Practice of Confession
Fr. Steven G Rindahl
This essay originally appeared in the March/April issue of Forward in Christ Magazine as “I Heard It From a Friend”, and is republished here with permission of the author. The expanded version is available here, and the original FiC article here.
The Scripture moveth us, in sundry places to acknowledge and confess our manifold sins and wickedness.
~ The Book of Common Prayer, 1662 ~
As I listened to the person on the other end of the phone, I could not help but think of the lyrics of an old song. I heard it from a friend who heard it from a friend who heard it from another that you hear confessions. He seemed to be almost afraid to ask if it would be possible to receive the benefit of the sacrament of auricular confession.
Widespread experience indicates that when priests within the Anglican tradition use the well-worn, to the point of becoming trite, expression - “All May, Some Should, None Must,” what all too many mean is “please don't.” One priest openly said to me in a conversation over coffee: “I tell them - All may, some should, but none must - so I sound pastoral while I am secretly praying that they choose ‘none must.’ I do not know what I will do when somebody asks me to hear a confession. I won't even know where to begin.”
What then is a faithful penitent to do when the soul is burdened and desires “to acknowledge and confess our manifold sin and wickedness?” People need to be able to unburden their souls and priests are those to whom they turn for that unburdening. Therefore, the Sacrament of Confession needs to be more robustly encouraged by priests and used by priest and parishioners alike.
Let me admit at this point that early on in my priesthood I did not put much thought into the Sacrament of Confession. It was simply an assumed thing and those who wanted to avail themselves of the sacrament would ask for it. The truth, however, turned out to be different. People largely do not know that this sacrament is available to them or feel self-conscious asking for it if they do (hence the trepid approach of the one who called me). My attitude toward the prioritization of the Sacrament of Confession changed while deployed to Iraq in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom. I started putting the practice of auricular confession into regular use while in Iraq and have been hearing confessions ever since. In this practice, I have found that there is a beneficial effect resultant from sacramental confession that has no corollary in personal acts of contrition. For these reasons, I believe that even if one does not recognize a necessity for sacramental confession, there should be a recognition of its biblical validity, historicity within the Church, Anglican perspective, and the therapeutic value it brings to the penitent. To that end, let us look at some key underpinnings of the validity of sacramental confession.
Is it biblical? The answer, in short, is yes, the practice of a sacramental form of confession is biblical. The Old Testament has but a few direct references to confession but from those few, some guiding principles may be had.
The principal passage to cover here is from the book of Ezra. In Ezra chapter 10, there is a description of Ezra's confession while he is weeping over the sin of the people of Israel taking foreign wives. Slightly further into the chapter, there is a call for each of the guilty to make their confession. Some may claim that the passage reflects a racist inclination among the Israelites.1 This detracts from the importance of reading the text for what it says about the sin beginning in chapter nine; that the intermarriage is a sin not due to the mixture of races but because the foreign women were followers of foreign gods. Therefore, God had prohibited the people of Israel from marrying them. The sin was the open rejection of God's command.2 In response, the priest Ezra is confessing on behalf of the people and he calls the people to confession also (10:1, 11). Ezra's example is applicable to the practice of sacramental confession:
"First, we have the intercessory action of a priest on behalf of the people. Next, the confession is freely given and demonstrates a contrite attitude lacking self-justification or pride. Third, the Confession is joined with repentance, eliminating the sin, and restoring the community." (Williamson 1985, 16:161-62)
Turning to the New Testament there are multiple passages which refer to confession, two passages stand out in particular. The first is James 5:14-16 and the second is John 20:21-23. In the James passage we have the calling of the πρεσβύτερος (presbyteros) for the sake of praying for those that are sick.
While many translations render this in English as “elder,” the lesser used translation of “priest” appears to convey a better sense of the meaning of the passage. The Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament: Based on Semantic Domains explains πρεσβύτερος (presbyteros) as “a person of responsibility and authority in matters of socioreligious concerns, both in Jewish and Christian societies.”3 Martin, in his volume on lames in the Word Biblical Commentary series, expounds on the meaning of πρεσβύτερος (presbyteros) as being synonymous with “overseer” and “bishop” and having the responsibility of “pastoring the flock.”4 This is even more forcefully asserted by John MacEvilly who states:
The ministers are either bishops or priests, duly ordained by the imposition of hands. ‘Let him call in the priests of the Church.’ … those who have received holy orders in the Church … and not the elders of the people, is clear from the fact, that in the New Testament the word, presbyter, is employed to designate an office of some kind; and when there is question of Ecclesiastical functions, it refers to those who are ordained, as is seen in the Acts, Epistles of St. Paul. 1 Epistle of St. Peter, chap. 3, and St. John, Epistles 2 and 3; and here, they are called, Presbyteri Ecclesiae. (MacEvilly 1898, 2:309)
Then we find in the passage's “use of the perfect participle (πεποιήκώς) suggests the power of past sins that affect the present situation of the sufferer” and the seeking forgiveness of the sins through Confession will bring healing.5 When the above is taken in conjunction with the remainder of the passage, which includes the confession and forgiveness of sins one must consider that lames is discussing the sacramental action of a priest and a member of his flock.
In John 20:21-23 we find additional information helpful to laying a biblical foundation for sacramental confession. In this passage, Jesus speaks to His disciples. To be clear, these are not the multitude of followers, which could be loosely classed as disciples; these are the chosen few now locked in the “upper room” (John 20:19; see also Luke 24:33ff). In this passage, Jesus gives the implicit commission to engage in the practice of hearing confessions and, most clearly, the explicit authority to give absolution of sins. “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld.” (John 20:22-23) This commission has created consternation among some, even to the point of rejecting its plain meaning. Considering the controversy this passage has aroused, NT Wright provides a straightforward and accessible response to critics:
[Jesus] wasn't asking [the disciples] if they would like to; he's giving them a command. They are to go and do it… They could come back at him and say, ‘But we thought only God could forgive sins!’ And they'd be right. God is going to forgive sins - through them. The command comes after the crucial promise and gift: ‘Receive the holy spirit.’6 (emphasis original)
Even in his rejection of the idea of priestly absolution, Bishop J.C. Ryle offers this paraphrase of Jesus' words, “I confer on you the power of declaring and pronouncing authoritatively whose sins are forgiven, and whose sins are not forgiven.”7 This begs the question. To whom would the priest declare the forgiveness (or non-forgiveness of sins but to one who has confessed? Accordingly, former Archbishop of Canterbury Michael Ramsey advises the priest “to be ready to hear the confessions of individuals and to give them ‘the benefit of absolution.’”8 Moving from this biblical foundation, it is helpful to examine the belief of the early Church towards the Sacrament of Confession and then look at confession within its Anglican context.
Key figures through the history of the Church have been clear supporters of sacramental confession. Notable examples include Augustine, Tertullian, Caesarius of Arles, Cyprian of Carthage, and Chrysostom. Tertullian's promotion and advocacy for the practice of confession is prominent, telling us to “confess our sin to the Lord, not as though He were ignorant of it, but because satisfaction receives its proper determination through confession, confession gives birth to penitence and by penitence God is appeased.”9 Lest anyone think that he means a private confession direct to God. Tertullian makes clear that in confession, “you prostrate yourself at the feet of the priests.”10 Similarly, St Caesarius, Bishop of Arles, stated: “Why, then, should a man kill his soul with sorcerers and seers, enchanters and diabolical phylacteries, when he can heal both his soul and his body by the prayer of the priest and consecrated oil?”11 Chrysostom remarks on the passage from the Gospel of John saying:
Receive ye the Holy Ghost.' Yet one will not be wrong in asserting that they then also received some spiritual power and grace... so as to remit sins. For the gifts of the Spirit are of different kinds; wherefore He added, ‘Whosesoever sins ye remit, they are remitted unto them,’ showing what kind of power He was giving.12
Chrysostom recognizes that it is not the priest's power in and of himself.
No, instead it is the reality that God is working through the priest acting in persona Christi so that the Sacraments and all things of God are given by “the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost. [He] dispenseth all, while the priest lends his tongue and affords his hand.”13 To close this review of the Fathers, Cyprian of Carthage warns the Christian to not profane the Eucharist by receiving in an unworthy manner before one's “conscience has been purged by the sacrifice and hand of the priest.”14 Let us then turn to Anglicanism.
In the Book of Common Prayer (1662) we read:
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 comitted to mee, I absolve thee from all thy sins, In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the holy Ghost. Amen.15
From The Order for the Visitation of the Sick within the BCP, this formula for the priestly absolution of sins indicates that there is, at least in limited cases, an institutional validation of sacramental confession and priestly absolution with Anglicanism. Within the Episcopal Church, the priest receives instructions in the closing of the Reconciliation of the Penitent to declare,
Our Lord Jesus Christ, who has left power to his Church to absolve all sinners who truly repent and believe in him, of his great mercy forgive you all your offenses; and by his authority committed to me, I absolve you from all your sins: In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.16 (emphasis added)
Likewise, the ACNA (Anglican Church in North America) rite for the Reconciliation of the Penitents has the following formula (the first of three with the second and third omitting “absolve”) for the priest to use in declaring the penitent's pardon,
Our Lord Jesus Christ, who has given power to his Church to absolve all sinners who truly repent and believe in him, of his great mercy forgive you all your offenses; and by his authority committed to me, I absolve you from all your sins: In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.17 (emphasis added)
In addition to these clear examples of institutional support for the sacramental hearing of confessions and granting absolution, there is substantial support from significant Anglican theologians.
Hall (1857-1932), professor of Dogmatic Theology at General Theological Seminary (Episcopal Church), states without equivocation that Jesus’ commission given in John 20:22-23 was “meant to confer on the priesthood a permanent authority and power to administer the plenary forgiveness of God to penitent believers.”18 Hall clarifies that the absolution is dependent upon the repentance of the one confessing. “The minister of Christ, therefore, cannot remit the sins of the impenitent, but he is given power to do ministerially what God has promised to do for penitent sinners because of Christ's death.”19 Therefore, every granting of absolution is done sub conditione and is dependent on "heavenly ratification" (Hall 1921, 9:232)
EB Pusey, recognizing both the excesses present in the Roman practices of the time and simultaneously the seeming free pass given by protesants, urges restoration of the regular practice of sacramental confession within Anglicanism. Pusey laments the lack of the practice while reminding the reader that confession is the doctrine of the Church, stating:
Our Church, my Lord, here as elsewhere, appears to me to hold a distinct line, however she has not been able as yet to revive the "godly discipline" ... our Church bids him confess .. She teaches us daily to confess all the sins of our past life; ... that He would give us 'true repentance, forgive us all our sins, negligences, and ignorances.' .. and then, after most deep Confession of sins, gives us not peace herself, but prays, in the words which He placed in the mouths of His priests to bless.20 (emphasis added)
Former Archbishop of Canterbury Michael Ramsey, already mentioned, observing that “Visitation of the Sick” is the only formula provided by which to pronounce absolution, “it is right for us to use it whenever we minister that 'benefit' to an individual penitent.”21 Ramsey goes further than saying such a ministry is not merely permitted but is an integral part of the priesthood. He also remarks on the Ordinal's "inclusion of the words 'whose sins thou dost forgive they are forgiven and whose sins thou dost retain they are retained'... was no doubt intended to emphasize the ministry of absolution”22 (emphasis added). In closing this section, the following point from our Roman Catholic brethren is beneficial. There is a sequence to the process of “sacramental reconciliation: contrition of the heart, confession of sin, absolution from sin, and acts of penance that would be medicinal as well as calculated to make satisfaction to remedy harm done.”23 Penance, often criticized as salvation by works, comes after the absolution. Penance is, therefore, a response of the faithful, having already been forgiven by God's grace, walking in the good works in which God has prepared for us to walk. (Eph 2:8-10) At this point it seems prudent to consider the words of C. Dodgson, Perpetual Curate of Daresbury and Examining Chaplain to the Lord Bishop of Ripon, who stated, “Accordingly it is not the question whether a Church have a right to impose it upon its members, but whether a Church, as our own, have a right to dispense with it.”24
Why should any Anglican priest not have a robust theology of and advocacy for sacramental confession? It is biblical, historical, and undeniably Anglican. In conclusion, I turn to the words of Ambrose in the hope of inspiring the reader to adopt a much more thorough use of the Sacrament of Confession:
They affirm that they are showing great reverence for God, to Whom alone they reserve the power of forgiving sins. But in truth none do Him greater injury than they who choose to prune His commandments, and reject the office entrusted to them. For inasmuch as the Lord Jesus Himself said in the Gospel: ‘Receive ye the Holy Spirit: whosesoever sins ye forgive they are forgiven unto them, and whosesoever sins ye retain, they are retained,’ Who is it that honours Him most, he who obeys His bidding or he who rejects it?”25
Fr. Steven G Rindahl is a retired US Army Chaplain and avid pilgrim. Fr Steve discerned a call to the unique ministry of leading combat veterans on PTSD/Moral Injury healing pilgrimages while making his own pilgrimage on the Camino de Santiago "The Way" in 2016. He is Founder and Director of Warriors on the Way.
Ambrose of Milan. 1896. "Two Books Concerning Repentance." In St. Ambrose: Select Works and Letters, edited by Philip Schaff and Henry Wace, translated by H. de Romestin, E. de Romestin, and HT.F. Duckworth. Vol. 10. A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church. New York, NY: Christian Literature Company.
Anglican Church in North America. n.d. "Reconciliation of Penitents." Anglican Church in North America. Accessed November 26, 2022. https://bcp2019.anglicanchurch.net/wp-content/uploads/2022/10/BCP-2019-MASTER-5th-PRINTING-05022022-3.pdf.
Caesarius of Arles. 1956. Saint Caesarius of Arles: Sermons (1-238). Edited by Hermigild Dressler, Bernard M. Peebles, and Mary Magdeleine Mueller. Vol. 1. The Fathers of the Church. Washington, DC: The Catholic University of America Press.
Chrysostom, John. 1889. Saint Chrysostom: Homilies on the Gospel of St. John and Epistle to the Hebrews. Edited by Philip Schaff. Translated by G.T. Stupart. Vol. 14. A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church. New York, NY: Christian Literature Company.
Cyprian of Carthage. 1958. "The Lapsed." In Treatises, edited and translated by Roy J. Deferrari. Vol. 36. The Fathers of the Church. Washington, DC: The Catholic University of America Press.
Hall, Francis J. 1921. The Sacraments. Vol. 9. Dogmatic Theology. New York, NY: Longmans, Green, and Company.
Louw, Johannes P., and Eugene A. Nida, eds. 1989. Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament: Based on Semantic Domains. 2nd ed. New York, NY: United Bible Societies.
MacEvilly, John. 1898. An Exposition of the Epistles of St. Paul and of the Catholic Epistles. Vol. 2. New York, NY: Benziger Brothers.
Martin, Ralph P. 1988. James. Vol. 48. Word Biblical Commentary. Dallas, TX: Word Incorporated.
Power, David N. 2011. "Sacrament and Order of Penance and Reconciliation." In Systematic Theology: Roman Catholic Perspectives, edited by Francis Schüssler Fiorenza and John P. Galvin, 2nd ed. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press.
Pusey, Edward Bouverie. 1840. A Letter to the Right Rev. Father in God, Richard Lord Bishop of Oxford on the Tendency to Romanism, Imputed to Doctrines Held of Old, as Now, in the English Church. London, UK: John Henry Parker.
Ramsey, Michael. 2009. The Christian Priest Today. London, UK: SPCK Publishing.
Ryle, J.C. 1880. Expository Thoughts on John. Vol. 3. New York, NY: Robert Carter and Brothers.
Tertullian. 1842. Tertullian: Apologetic and Practical Treatises. Translated by C. Dodgson. Vol. 1. A Library of Fathers of the Holy Catholic Church. Oxford, UK: John Henry Parker.
---. 1959. Tertullian: Treatises on Penance: On Penitence and On Purity. Edited by Johannes Quasten and Walter J. Burghardt. Translated by William P. Le Saint. Vol. 28. Ancient Christian Writers. New York, NY: Newman Press.
The Book of Common Prayer and Administration of the Sacraments and Other Rites and Ceremonies of the Church (1979). 2007. New York, NY: Church Publishing Incorporated.
The Book of Common Praver from the Original Manuscript: Attached to the Act of Uniformity of 1662. 1892. London, UK: Eyre & Spottiswoode.
Throntveit, Mark A. 1992. Ezra-Nehemiah, Interpretation, a Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching. Louisville, KY: John Knox Press.
Williamson, H.G.M. 1985. Ezra, Nehemiah. Vol. 16. Word Biblical Commentary. Dallas, TX: Word Incorporated.
Wright, Tom. 2004. John for Everyone, Part 2: Chapters 11-21. London, UK: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge.
Williamson 1985, 16:161
Throntveit 1992, 57
Louw and Nida 1989, 541
Martin 1988, 48:207
Martin 1988, 48:210
Wright 2004, 148-49
Ryle 1880, 3:398
Ramsey 2009, 43
Tertullian 1959, 28:31
Tertullian 1959, 28:32
Caesarius of Arles 1956, 1:102
Chrysostom 1889, 14:325
Chrysostom 1889, 14:326
Cyprian of Carthage 1958, 71
The Book of Common Prayer from the Original Manuscript: Attached to the Act of Uniformity of 1662 1892, 307-8
The Book of Common Prayer and Administration of the Sacraments and Other Rites and Ceremonies of the Church (1979) 2007, 451)
Anglican Church in North America, https://bcp2019.anglicanchurch.net/wp-content/uploads/2022/10/BCP-2019-MASTER-5th-PRINTING-05022022-3.pdf.
Hall 1921, 9:329
Hall 1921, 9:231
Pusey 1840, 88-90
Ramsey 2009, 44
Ramsey 2009, 44
Power 2011, 551
Tertullian 1842, 1:380
Ambrose of Milan 1896, 330