The Sacrament of Penance
Almost nobody goes to Confession now. You may think that is a far too sweeping statement, but it is not mine alone. Nor is it an observation applicable to Anglicans only: many Roman Catholic priests have noticed the same phenomenon.
The two main reactions to this undoubted fact are polar opposites. One group says: This is a sad thing and a weakness in the modern Church. The other group says: This is a healthy development, a move away from an over-use of the Sacrament of Penance.
I can sympathize with both opinions. On the one hand, I am old enough to remember the days when almost every priest had to spend long hours in the Confessional, listening to the same sins being confessed week by week. Roman Catholics were taught that it was sinful to receive Holy Communion without going to Confession, so there were long queues at the boxes on Saturdays. The tedium of this drove many RC priests to distraction.
Anglican priests had a a slightly different experience. Since the necessity of private confession was never part of official Anglican teaching, an Anglican priest could at least start with the assumption that the penitent was taking the sacrament seriously and not going under any family or Church constraint. And most Anglicans who went to confession went about once a month, and some just once or twice a year. With a big parish, this could still be time consuming, but it was usually regarded as time very well spent.
Now both Churches have seen a great falling off. The RC Church tried to compensate for this by introducing communal services of penance where people could go to private confession during the service or simply attend and receive a general absolution. But this was discouraged by many bishops. My own Anglican experience at the Anglo-Catholic end of the Anglican Church has been similar, in that I have seen most penitents who maybe used to come once a month now being satisfied with Christmas and Easter.
And in many ways, I think this is a healthy development. It is only mortal sins which ever had to be brought to private confession: venial sins were able to be absolved by the general confession at Communion. And since mortal sin can be defined as “deliberate and conscious defiance of the known will of God”, I doubt if many Christians commit many such sins. The days are surely gone when creepy clergy proclaimed that masturbation was a mortal sin and would land you in Hell. Many a young man may have thought: Well, if I’m going to hell for that, I might as well kill my nasty old auntie too! Or, more likely, just pitied the repressed priest!
In St Clement’s last year, I may have heard about twenty or thirty people’s confessions, on Ash Wednesday, in Holy Week or before Christmas. And that is more than most churches will have. My RC priest friends tell me they still have a good number, but in the dozens rather than the hundreds they used to have. But, they say, the quality and sincerity of these confessions is far better.
So maybe the fall-off is not to be regretted. The classic Anglican advice about going to confession is, I believe, still valid:
“All may; None must; Some should.”
d youngsters that