Thursday, March 03, 2011

Now for my next magic trick

...or what the sacrament of Absolution is not.

From the first English Holy Communon service in the Book of Common Prayer, 1549:

"First, that you be truly repentaunt of your former evill life, and that you confesse with an unfained hearte to almightie God, youre synnes and unkyndnes towardes his Majestie committed, either by will, worde or dede, infirmitie or ignoraunce: and that with inwarde sorowe and teares you bewaile your offences, and require of almightie God mercie and pardon, promising to him (from the botome of your hartes) thamendment of your former lyfe. And emonges all others, I am commaunded of God, especially to move and exhorte you to reconcile yourselfes to your neighbors, whom you have offended, or who hath offended you, putting out of your heartes al hatred and malice against them, and to be in love and charitie with all the worlde, and to forgeve other, as you woulde that god should forgeve you. And yf any man have doen wrong to any other: let him make satisfaccion, and due restitucion of all landes and goodes, wrongfully taken awaye or withholden, before he come to Goddes borde, or at the least be in ful minde and purpose so to do, as sone as he is able, or els let him not come to this holy table, thinking to deceyve God, who seeth all mennes hartes. For neither the absolucion of the priest, can any thing avayle them, nor the receivyng of this holy sacrament doth any thing but increase their damnacion. And yf there bee any of you, whose conscience is troubled and greved in any thing, lackyng comforte or counsaill, let him come to me, or to some other dyscrete and learned priest, taught in the law of God, and confesse and open his synne and griefe secretly, that he may receive suche ghostly counsaill, advyse, and comfort, that his conscience maye be releved, and that of us (as of the ministers of GOD and of the churche) he may receive comfort and absolucion, to the satisfaccion of his mynde, and avoyding of all scruple and doubtfulnes: requiryng suche as shalbe satisfied with a generall confession, not to be offended with them that doe use, to their further satisfiyng, the auriculer and secret confession to the Priest: nor those also whiche thinke nedefull or convenient, for the quietnes of their awne consciences, particuliarly to open their sinnes to the Priest: to bee offended with them that are satisfied, with their humble confession to GOD, and the generall confession to the churche. But in all thinges to folowe and kepe the rule of charitie, and every man to be satisfied with his owne conscience, not judgyng other mennes myndes or consciences; where as he hath no warrant of Goddes word to the same."

I admit that my recollection has been quite rusty concerning "Rite II" in the 1979 book of the Episcopal Church. I have used a copy of that book as a door stop, so I can't say it has ceased to be useful to me. Nonetheless, when people ask me about it I am hesitant to make damning accusations to the effect that it is "absolutely null and utterly void." That idea is, after all, quite Roman and not at all Catholic. I believe the Eucharist in that Rite contains the essentials to make it valid, unlike the Rite of Confirmation that does not. Nonetheless, even at its best it leaves much to be desired.

One of its worst properties is that the General Confession and Absolution in its Eucharistic Rite II trivialize both sin and sacrament. The only reason that it is worth the time to look at it, apart from the pastoral help we may give to people who are even now finally waking up and crossing the Red Sea, is to use the comparison to help us in our own understanding. The exact wording of the genuine Book of Common Prayer (BCP) tradition presents yet another example of what makes the classic Anglican mind a treasure to be cherished and preserved, to be defended against all attackers, and against all enemies, foreign and domestic.

For purposes of comparison, let us look at the Rite II service used by modern Episcopalians weighing it against the standard of the Book of Common Prayer.
First, the standard and authentic BCP form:

Then shall the Priest say to them that come to receive the holy Communion,
E that do truly and earnestly repent you of your sins, and are in love and charity with your neighbours, and intend to lead a new life, following the commandments of God, and walking from henceforth in his holy ways; Draw near with faith, and take this holy Sacrament to your comfort; and make your humble confession to Almighty God, meekly kneeling upon your knees.

Then shall this general Confession be made, in the name of all those that are minded to receive the holy Communion, by one of the Ministers; both he and all the people kneeling humbly upon their knees, and saying,
LMIGHTY God, Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, Maker of all things, judge of all men; We acknowledge and bewail our manifold sins and wickedness, Which we, from time to time, most grievously have committed, By thought, word, and deed, Against thy Divine Majesty, Provoking most justly thy wrath and indignation against us. We do earnestly repent, And are heartily sorry for these our misdoings; The remembrance of them is grievous unto us; The burden of them is intolerable. Have mercy upon us, Have mercy upon us, most merciful Father; For thy Son our Lord Jesus Christ's sake, Forgive us all that is past; And grant that we may ever hereafter Serve and please thee In newness of life, To the honour and glory of thy Name; Through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Then shall the Priest (or the Bishop, being present,) standing up, and turning himself to the people, pronounce this Absolution.
LMIGHTY God, our heavenly Father, who of his great mercy hath promised forgiveness of sins to all them that with hearty repentance and true faith turn unto him; Have mercy upon you; pardon and deliver you from all your sins; confirm and strengthen you in all goodness; and bring you to everlasting life; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Then shall the Priest say,
Hear what comfortable words our Saviour Christ saith unto all that truly turn to him.
OME unto me all that travail and are heavy laden, and I will refresh you. St. Matth. xi. 28.
So God loved the world, that he gave his only-begotten Son, to the end that all that believe in him should not perish, but have everlasting life. St. John iii. 16
Hear also what Saint Paul saith.
This is a true saying, and worthy of all men to be received, That Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners. 1 Tim. i. 15.
Hear also what Saint John saith.
If any man sin, we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous; and he is the propitiation for our sins. 1 St. John ii. 1.

And now compare it to the 1979 book's Rite II form:he Deacon or Celebrant says

Let us confess our sins against God and our neighbor.

Silence may be kept.
Minister and People
Most merciful God,
we confess that we have sinned against you
in thought, word, and deed,
by what we have done,
and by what we have left undone.
We have not loved you with our whole heart;
we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves.
We are truly sorry and we humbly repent.
For the sake of your Son Jesus Christ,
have mercy on us and forgive us;
that we may delight in your will,
and walk in your ways,
to the glory of your Name. Amen.

The Bishop, when present, or the Priest, stands and says

Almighty God have mercy on you, forgive you all your sins
through our Lord Jesus Christ, strengthen you in all
goodness, and by the power of the Holy Spirit keep you in
eternal life. Amen.

The Book of Common Prayer, in any proper edition (i.e., excluding the 1979 book), treats the General Confession with all seriousness, because it is a step to be taken before receiving the Holy Communion. One debate that has gone on in Anglican circles is about whether or not the General Confession and Absolution actually constitute a sacrament. Francis Hall believed it was not a sacrament, but simply part of the liturgy; and several people agree with him. I do not.

The spoken Absolution cannot be said by anyone but a priest. Only those to whom the following words were spoken by the bishop, with the laying on of his apostolic hands, may say the Absolution: "Receive the Holy Ghost for the Office and Work of a Priest in the Church of God, now committed unto thee by the Imposition of our hands. Whose sins thou dost forgive, they are forgiven; and whose sins thou dost retain, they are retained." Unless the Intention of the Church was sacramental, anyone (most certainly a deacon) could say those words.

Every proper BCP has equated the General Confession and private confession, and placed emphasis on the conscience of the individual believer. We have seen this from the 1549 (above). The same is found in the 1662 BCP, the 1962 Canadian BCP and in the 1928 American BCP, etc.
"And because it is requisite, that no man should come to the holy Communion, but with a full trust in God's mercy, and with a quiet conscience; therefore if there be any of you, who by this means cannot quiet his own conscience herein, but requireth further comfort or counsel, let him come to me, or to some other discreet and learned Minister of God's Word, and open his grief; that by the ministry of God's holy Word he may receive the benefit of absolution, together with ghostly counsel and advice, to the quieting of his conscience, and avoiding of all scruple and doubtfulness."

As we have seen, the 1549 BCP tells those who choose private confession and those who choose the General Confession not to despise one another. The advantage of private confession lies in what is added to the benefit of receiving the sacrament of Absolution: "...that by the ministry of God's holy Word he may receive the benefit of absolution, together with ghostly counsel and advice, to the quieting of his conscience, and avoiding of all scruple and doubtfulness." In other words, God's minister of both His holy word and sacraments has the advantage of adding pastoral guidance and teaching when a penitent comes to him privately and lays bare his heart. The added benefit, added to the sacramental Absolution, is that guidance and teaching.

The Book of Common Prayer, therefore, sets forth a sacramental teaching about its own form, that the General Confession and Absolution is, indeed, a sacrament. But, it encourages individuals to make use of the priest's gifts and ministry in private confession as well. Private confession takes a certain degree of humility because it is spoken before another man, and therefore is not easy to do. That difference alone gives it great value.

The sacramental nature of the General Confession explains why the Invitation ("Ye who do truly and earnestly, etc.") and Absolution are so carefully worded, and so loaded with conditions. But, the conditional nature of the form is entirely missing in the 1979 Rite II form. That form reduces the ministry of the priest to a mere trick, the worst kind of "priest-craft." No need to "truly and earnestly repent you of your sins," or to be "in love and charity" with your neighbor, and no need for "hearty repentance and true faith" is stated. The priest or priestess merely waves the wand and says the magic words. The whole exercise carries all the moral weight of gazing into a crystal.

Christ gave us the power to forgive sins, but He never gave us a form. The private form is very wisely constructed having evolved over centuries, and very beneficial. It consists of Confession of specific sins (all known sins), Act of Contrition, Absolution and Penance. And, as the BCP says, it gives the priest an opportunity to impart counsel and, where necessary, teaching. The benefits are so great that I advise everyone to make use of this form at least occasionally. One of the elements of orthodox teaching in the private form is that Absolution comes before penance. That is very important, because the Absolution is not earned by penance, but given freely because of Christ's fully sufficient once for all sacrifice of himself once offered. The purpose of penance, therefore, is pastoral, to redirect the soul to God.

In private confession the priest has to determine if the penitent is sincere. Only once have I withheld Absolution in all my years as a priest (in fact, for pastoral reasons, I called a halt to the charade before it proceeded very far--and that's as much as I can say). The purpose is always to reconcile a soul to God, even if that means refusing Absolution so as to induce genuine repentance. In other words, the priest must know how to require the necessary conditions based on what he hears and sees.

In the General Confession and Absolution the priest states the conditions in the liturgy itself. In other words, there is no wand, and there are no magic words. Those who do not truly and earnestly repent them of their sins, or who come without hearty (sincere) repentance and true faith, are not absolved. Even if they have gone through the form, they ought not to approach the altar rail and presume to eat and drink the Lord's Body and Blood (I Cor. 11). And, if there is a disadvantage in relying entirely on the General Confession and Absolution, it is that someone might wax careless or sloppy about it.

However, a private penitent may be equally insincere. One man who grew up in the Roman Catholic Church told me that when he was a boy he would make up sins so that he could say something to the priests, since he was required to make a confession every Saturday. Of course, that made the confession a lie, which would have (had he thought about it) provided for him a bi-weekly solution even if he had the problem of being quite as good a boy as he imagined. Well, that story opens up too troublesome a box for purposes of this essay.

As Lent approaches, I would advise everyone to think about making a private confession and the benefits of doing so. But, I would also suggest that everyone approach both the General Confession and any private confession he makes with all of the sober reality contained in the words of our General form, both the Invitation and the Absolution. For, whether private or general, "neither the absolucion of the priest, can any thing avayle them, nor the receivyng of this holy sacrament doth any thing but increase their damnacion," without "hearty repentance and true faith." There is neither magic wand nor words, but only God from Whom no secrets are hid.


Anonymous said...

Thank you for this. In terms of private confession and absolution, on the surface the '79 BCP may appear to be more "catholic" than the '28 because of its rite for "Reconciliation of a Penitent." But in that BCP that particular rite is immediately followed up by a rite that essentially allows a layman to pronounce absolution and forgiveness! When I first saw that I said to myself, "What is the lesson here? The '79 BCP is a bunch of liberal mumbo-jumbo mish-mash that makes no sense."


Canon Tallis said...

Father Hart,

This is a classic and a most wonderful exposition of what the Book of Common Prayer teaches about forgiveness of sin.

I hope that every priest, every bishop in the Continuum reads this and takes every word to heart. We need to know not merely what we are doing when we pronounce absolution, but what power and authority is given in ordination to the priesthood.

Again, a most hearty thank you for setting for what is not simply true Anglican teaching but also the true teaching of the Catholic Church.