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The Sacrament of Penance

2010 February 17
by Gordon Reid

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.”

Happy Lent!

d youngsters that

9 Responses leave one →
  1. John Reilly permalink
    February 27, 2010

    Father: it seems that the indifference to the sacrament of Penance is evident in the lack of response to this posting!

    I think a monthly confession is very worthwhile. Would you consider recommending quarterly confession at the Embertides?

  2. March 1, 2010

    “Almost nobody” doesn’t fit my own experience. I mean only to report what I see and not to sound smug when I say that, at my parish, everybody who is to communicate first confesses and receives absolution, as well as mnay of those who not plan to communicate.

    I have told the story elsewhere of an occasion on which I was serving at our cathedral in London. A lady from my parish had travelled there from Liverpool with her children but, due to transportation difficulties, had arrived too late to confess before the Liturgy, so when I, (as a layman at the time), came out of the altar to receive communion, she approached me, asking if I could ask our parish priest to confess her. I did, and he did. After he had invoked the absolution, he turned around to find that a queue had formed, so a Russian-speaking priest came out to confess those who didn’t speak English very well. Between the two of them, they confessed most of those present who had not been able to prepare, and we had two queues: one for confession which fed the one for communion. Communion probably lasted for about half an hour but it didn’t feel like an arduous exercise. In fact, it was one of the most beautiful experiences that I have had of the church gathered around its bishop, making Eucharist and receiving the grace of God in the Mysteries.

    My bishop usually asks people whether they have confessed when they approach the chalice. If the answer is in the negative, he does not turn them away but rather sends them to one of the priests present to confess, so that they may come back to the chalice.

  3. March 1, 2010

    It is to be regretted, that many avoid the confessional, myself sometimes included. That said, the sort of mechanical approach between communion and confession, aside from mortal sin, also seems to me regrettable.

  4. March 2, 2010

    Thank you for your response, ambly. What you said sounded odd to me at first because the description of it as mechanical is completely alien to my own experience, but then I thought for a moment and realised that yes, it may be perceived as mechanical from the perspective of somebody removed from it. It had just not occurred to me it might be seen that way so perhaps my explanation wasn’t very good.

    If anything, it is really quite holistic, that the mysteries of grace, which are ultimately for the same purpose, overlap and intertwine in this way. To me, it is a sign that the grace of God is offered in abundance and that, when we pray before communion that receiving the Body and Blood may be for the healing of soul and body, that is actually an expression of the reality of the practice of our sacramental life. I think this is all the more clearly expressed during Lent when we have the diocesan Unction service. We confess and are absolved, we are anointed with the oil of healing, and we receive the Lord’s Body and Blood in communion. This doesn’t seem mechanical to me, and I am pleased to see that, in the cases of some people, it leads to a desire to confess even when the penitent does not intend to receive communion.

    • March 2, 2010

      Thanks for your thoughtful reply. It was not my intention to denigrate the practice you speak of. In fact, the willingness of the priests in that case, to drop everything to hear confessions is an act of grace. My thought was, however, that outside of mortal sin, the faithful ought not – necessarily- feel obligated to auricular confession before making their communions. But I say this as a simple layman.

  5. March 2, 2010

    Thank you for that, ambly. Please forgive me if I misread you. If anything, you made me think a little more about something that has been on my mind for a few days, which is the means of preparation for Communion. I got a blog post out of it. :-)

  6. Fr. Dennis Nichols permalink
    March 8, 2010


    Thanks for your post. I am a cradle ‘Episcopalian’ that went Roman when I was 17 years old with that ‘creepy old priest’. Got really old, I must say. Happy Anglo-Catholic now and as a priest I hear confessions within spiritual counseling, where, at the end we do the ‘rite.’ It is amazing the ‘smile’ and happiness when you see your parishioner again, and they fell so ‘free’ to live an abundant life.

  7. March 9, 2010

    When Jesus rose from the dead he gave the power to forgive sins to the apostles, who were the first bishops of the Catholic Church.

    That power has been handed down to the current day bishops and priests of the Catholic Church, and it is known as the sacrament of reconciliation.

    “Now when it was late that same day, the first of the week, and the doors were shut, where the disciples were gathered together, for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood in the midst, and said to them: ‘Peace be to you.’ And when He had said this, he shewed them His hands and His side. The disciples therefore were glad, when they saw the Lord. He said therefore to them again: ‘Peace be to you. As the Father hath sent Me, I also send you.’ When He had said this, He breathed on them; and He said to them: ‘Receive ye the Holy Ghost. Whose sins you shall forgive, they are forgiven them; and whose sins you shall retain, they are retained.’” (John 20:19-23)
    On this basis confession is mandatory. The Anglican position of “All may; None must; Some should.” is at variance with Gods wishes.

  8. March 9, 2010

    I wish I were as sure of God’s wishes as you are! And it seems odd that in the first centuries of the Church there was no emphasis on private auricular confession. The confession in the Mass was deemed sufficient.

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