Monday, December 29, 2008

To Confess or Not to Confess

In every parish in which I have worshiped or served as a priest, from time to time the general confession has been omitted from the rite for Holy Eucharist. Typically, such times have included Christmas Eve, Easter Day (sometimes including most, if not all, of the Great 50 Days of Easter), and the Day of Pentecost. I also note that there are no rubrical provisions in the Prayer Book for using a general confession in the rites for the Great Vigil of Easter, Holy Baptism, Confirmation, Holy Matrimony, the Burial of the Dead, and Ordination.

Sometimes omitting the general confession raises the question, “Why aren’t we confessing our sins before taking Communion?” After all, the Prayer Book’s catechism very clearly states that self-examination, repentance, and reconciliation are the requirements for receiving the sacrament [cf. BCP, p. 860]. Building on this concern, some critics charge that the 1979 Prayer Book’s allowance that the general confession of sin “On occasion … may be omitted” [BCP, p. 359] amounts to little more than a cover for displacing the faith of the Church with “secular humanism.” Some of these critics also impute a motive to those responsible for these revisions from the 1928 Prayer Book, charging that they were either ignorant and/or making these revisions as a means of pursuing their own personal agendas.

There’s plenty of good scholarship out there to refute these charges and alleviate these concerns.

Liturgical scholar Marion J. Hatchett’s impressive Commentary on the American Prayer Book is one such resource. In response to critics who make it sound like the 1979 Prayer Book is doing something totally new in the history of Christian liturgical practice with respect to the permissive rubric on general confession, Hatchett provides a more balanced historical perspective:

“A confession of sin on the part of the whole congregation was new to the liturgies of the Reformation period. In the early church Christians acknowledged their sinfulness by giving thanks to God, in the Eucharistic prayer, for having redeemed them. Once the litany form was introduced, the prayers of the people normally contained the Kyrie eleison as a response; the Lord’s Prayer which eventually became a regular part of the rite contained the petition ‘forgive us as we forgive.’ No absolution was included, for one of the benefits of communion was understood to be the forgiveness of sins.” [Commentary on the American Prayer Book (HarperCollins, 1995), p. 341; emphasis added].

If Hatchett is correct, then in light of almost 2,000 years of Christian history, the presence of a general confession in the liturgy is still a relatively new addition. And so one could argue that the Prayer Book’s allowance for making the general confession optional “on occasion” actually conforms to the Church’s liturgical practice for most of her history. At the very least, the absence of the general confession in a service today no more implies that The Episcopal Church doesn’t take sin and repentance seriously anymore than the absence of the general confession in pre-Reformation liturgies means that Christians didn’t take sin and repentance seriously until the 16th Century.

Building on this point, and drawing on the liturgical theology and practice of the early Church, Hatchett writes: “Confession is the obverse of thanksgiving; to give thanks for redemption is to acknowledge one’s sinfulness” [ibid., p. 342]. This corrects the erroneous claim that the only way to acknowledge one’s sinfulness (and one’s redemption) in the liturgy is by using one of the forms for the general confession.

Leonel Mitchell, another liturgical scholar in The Episcopal Church, also makes important contributions to our understanding of the liturgical role and function of the general confession. Like Hatchett, Mitchell offers a helpful historical perspective:

“People of the late middle ages were preoccupied with sinfulness and the need for absolution. That preoccupation is reflected in the liturgies of the 16th century, including, of course, the first several versions of the Book of Common Prayer. Nevertheless, neither that preoccupation with sin nor our avoidance of it makes the horror of sin less real. The question of how to use general confession most effectively in public worship is one of tactics, not theology” [Praying Shapes Believing: A Theological Commentary on The Book of Common Prayer (Morehouse, 1985), p. 142].

If Mitchell is correct, then Christians prior to the late middle ages were not “preoccupied with sinfulness and the need for absolution.” If that’s true, were Christians up to that point wrong for not being so preoccupied? Was there something fundamentally defective and flawed about their liturgical and sacramental practices for almost 1,500 years? And does taking sin seriously necessarily mean being preoccupied with it? If the answer to any of these questions is “no,” then there’s little reason to buy the charge that the Prayer Book’s allowance for omitting the general confession “on occasion” somehow sneaks “secular humanism” in through the back door of the Church.

In speaking to the issue of both personal and corporate sinfulness, Mitchell also clarifies another important function of the general confession:

“Each Christian is expected to come to the eucharist having made this self-examination and confession to God. The confession of sin in corporate worship is the verbalization of that private, personal confession and the recognition of our participation in the corporate sinfulness of the society of which we are a part. Sin is seldom an individual undertaking, and in the general confession we acknowledge not only our individual sin but our solidarity in corporate sinfulness” [ibid., p. 139].

The personal dimension of our sinfulness is preparatory, i.e., something we address before attending the service for Holy Eucharist. Saying the general confession is meant to verbalize something that has happened prior to the liturgy, namely, self-examination, repentance, and reconciliation. It is not a substitute for this prior work.

This raises an important point: the act of reciting the general confession in the liturgy is not the same thing as preparing to receive Communion. Just as there is no guarantee that there is genuine penitence and contrition because somebody says the general confession in the liturgy, so, too, there is no guarantee that because the general confession has been omitted from the liturgy those participating in the service have not adequately prepared to receive the Eucharist. In other words, the presence or absence of the general confession in the liturgy is not a sufficient basis for knowing whether or not persons are ready to receive communion.

Mitchell offers additional thoughts on using the general confession:

“Although there is no dispute about the importance of confession both as a preparation for communion and as a regular component of the daily prayers of Christians, it is not self-evident that reciting a simple form of general confession at every service is the best way to move the congregation to penitence, contrition and resolution to amend their lives. Nor is it necessarily the best way to assure them of the reality of God’s forgiveness. Some would argue that less frequent use of the general confession would call attention to it on those occasions when it is used and would make it more psychologically effective. This is almost certainly true for those who attend the eucharist daily, and the Prayer Book permits the confession to be omitted ‘on occasion’ (BCP: 359); it does not specify upon how many occasions it may be omitted. Except on the basis of personal inclination, it is exceedingly difficult to attempt to answer the question ‘How much is too much?’ Certainly the confession of sin is a regular, although not an invariable, part of the eucharistic celebration” [pp. 141-142].

“Regular, but not invariable”: in the light of the history of Christian liturgical practice, and with sensitivity to the liturgical calendar and the pastoral needs and concerns that may on occasion surface, this strikes me as a good rule of thumb to use with respect to the Prayer Book’s permissive rubric regarding the omission of the general confession “on occasion.”


BillyD said...

Well, in the Middle Ages they were actually going to Sacramental Confession before presenting themselves for Holy Communion, weren't they? While the General Confession might not be a completely adequate preparation for Communion, might it not be the only time that the average church-goer is presented with the need to confess and repent?

It might be expected that we prepare ourselves for Communion privately, but I suspect that this topic is not addressed very much in the average parish. Until there is a resurgence of meaningful private preparation, it's probably a good idea to keep the General Confession where it is.

Bryan Owen said...

Hey BillyD. Christmas and New Year's blessings to you!

I think the point about sacramental confession is a good one. Indeed, if I'm not mistaken, the Eastern Orthodox Church rejects the very idea of a general confession because, they say, there is no such thing as sin in general, but only sin in particular. Hence the requirement of confessing one's particular sins to a priest.

Having said that, frequent sacramental confession is not the same thing as being "preoccupied" with sin. Sacramental confession is required by the Orthodox, yet they don't seem nearly as obsessed with sin and unworthiness as many Western Christians.

I agree with you about the need for adequate teaching on this topic. If there is failure in TEC in this matter, this is probably where it lies. (Yet another instance, perhaps, of Failing Christianity.)

However, the point still stands: reciting the general confession is not a substitute for the kind of preparation for receiving Communion envisioned by the Prayer Book in the catechism. And the point still stands that the presence or absence of the general confession doesn't tell us whether or not any particular individual is prepared to receive.

Perpetua said...

Hi +Bryan,

Thank you for posting this.

I think we all agree that:
1) a personal examination of sin is a prerequisite for Holy Communion, and
2) prior to the General Confession introduced into the Liturgy in the 16th century, the examination of sin was done outside of the Liturgy, privately with one's priest.

So, because the Episcopal Church did not simultaneously return to requiring confession to one's priest, by making General Confession optional, the Episcopal Church did reduce the importance of repentance of sin.

While it might be true that reciting the general confession is not a substitute for the kind of preparation for receiving Communion envisioned by the Prayer Book in the catechism and that the presence or absence of the general confession doesn't tell us whether or not any particular individual is prepared to receive, it is also true that it is those who have not engaged in a personal examination of conscience who are less comfortable reciting the General Confession and are most likely to argue for its omission. And as a corollary, those who engage in a regular examination of sin have no problem with its inclusion.

Joe Rawls said...

As an historical note, the Roman Catholic Church did not introduce the general confession into the eucharistic liturgy until after Vatican II. However, this was never intended to replace private confession; a one-on-one session in the hot-box with Fr Mulvaney was still the norm if you wanted to be really forgiven. However (yet again), private confession has apparently fallen greatly into disuse, at least in the developed world. Maybe a bit of creeping Anglicanism?

The Underground Pewster said...

As most pewsitters are not going to educate themselves about preparation for the Eucharist, and insofar as there is no provision in most Episcopal parishes for ongoing continuing theological education, I agree with BillyD.
I actually wrote this post earlier in the summer when the confession disappeared "on ocassion."

Thinking back to the time before 1979 when we had Holy Communion once a month, saying the general confession was probably much less painful to our liberal friends. Nowadays, we have a Eucharist twice a week, and I suppose some priests might get tired of bewailing their manifold sins and wicknesses so often.

I think the slippery slope is where people who have been preached the message that God is Love, and God loves you, make the error that Perpetua highlighted today: conflating love and acceptance. Such a person feels no need for confession of any kind.

Us pewsitters admit our failures and are ready, willing and able to fess up. Repentance continues to be problematic however. After all, if we have truly repented of all those sins, why do we keep doing them over and over again?

Bryan Owen said...

Thanks everybody for your comments. In spite of our disagreements, I think we're all on the same page that these are weighty and important issues. And that if the general confession is omitted, it should be done for sound theological and liturgical reasons, and not merely because the priest in charge of the liturgy doesn't want to do it, or because someone in the Church no longer thinks that sin and repentance are important.

Perpetua, the point you make in bold print is certainly a possible scenario. I wonder how (or if) we could show that it's true.

Joe, perhaps the lack of private confession has less to do with "creeping Anglicanism" and more to do with the triumph of a Protestant bias against any ecclesial mediator(s) between the individual believer and God.

One of the ironies here, it seems to me, is that while the critics of the 1979 BCP lambast it for its alleged downplaying of sin and the need for repentance, it's the first Prayer Book to include a rite for private confession. Yes, the rule of thumb I was taught still applies ("All may, some should, none must"), but at least we do offer it, even if nobody shows up when it's made available.

Underground Pewster, you make a number of interesting points. I will briefly respond to a few of them:

(1) You write that "there is no provision in most Episcopal parishes for ongoing continuing theological education." Most Episcopal Churches do offer Sunday school for all ages. Many others also offer EfM and/or DOCC. True, there are parishes that do very little in this area of the church's responsibility. But I'm not aware of any empirical resources that show that most Episcopal parishes do little or nothing. The problem may not be whether or not something is offered, but whether or not people are willing to take the time to show up.

(2) Perhaps we do well to ask "our liberal friends" whether or not saying the general confession on a regular basis is "painful" to them, rather than assume we know what is on their hearts and minds.

(3) I agree that there can be a danger of equating love and acceptance. But I think we need to be careful on this one. If the slippery slope you mean is that of equating God's love and God's acceptance of our personhood as creatures made in the image of God, then I don't think there's any slippery slope here at all. On this one, it seems to me that the language of gracious acceptance in the Prayer Book is perfectly consistent with Holy Scripture.

On the other hand, if by this slippery slope you mean not confusing God's love with God's acceptance of all of our behavior, then I think you're on to something. Clearly, there are some behaviors condemned by scripture as incompatible with God's will.

Perhaps parents, in particular, understand this distinction best of all. Our children's behavior can sometimes be deeply disappointing, hurtful, and infuriating. But if we're good parents, we still love our children for who they are - just for the fact that they exist and that they are precious. Indeed, we love them enough to die for them.

(4) Perhaps one response to your final question about why, if we have truly repented, we keep on committing sins over and over again is to say: persons suffering from an incurable sickness have a tendency to relapse if left untreated. But sinners are offered a recovery program by the Gospel of Jesus Christ. And while we may never achieve perfection in this life (and we will never be cured in this life), we can grow more and more into the image and likeness of Jesus Christ. The saints (who were hardly perfect) give powerful testimony to this truth.

Having written all of this, I still see no reason to denigrate (much less reject as unorthodox) the 1979 Book of Common Prayer. Like any tool, it can be used for good or for ill, perhaps especially when it comes to certain permissive rubrics (or even worse, when clergy don't care about following the rubrics in the first place). As someone who has twice taken an oath of conformity to the doctrine, discipline, and worship of The Episcopal Church, I plan to remain faithful to my vows and to the generous orthodoxy our Prayer Book so beautifully offers.

BillyD said...

Of course, where the RCC went wrong is in requiring Sacramental Confession, but making it anonymous. Who's to say that a given person hasn't actually been one of the handful darkening the confessional door? In the EOC, Confession is always face-to-face (well, it can be more like face-to-knee, depending on the parish). Father knows exactly who's been naughty or nice; in some parishes (especially Russian ones) you're expected to make your Confession that morning before the Liturgy.

Derek the Ænglican said...

Let's throw some more historical data at the wall and see what sticks...

In early medieval English monasteries, there were two masses daily--the morrow mass (used for votive masses)after Terce and the Mass of the Day after Sext. Allow me to cite a tenth century abbot on the frequency of both reception and confession:

"On Sundays, however, Prime shall be prolonged; and the abbot shall sit in the cloister together with the brothers, and one by one they shall go to confession, humbly confessing to him whatever they have done at the Enemy's instigation during the entire [past] week.

On every Sunday or solemnity the brothers shall exchange the peace and receive the eucharist, except for those who have already said mass. Should this displease anyone, let him listen to what blessed Augustine says on this matter: 'He who does not deserve to receive daily does not deserve to receive once a year.'"

As for a general confession and absolution, however, let's not forget that the Confiteor was said daily at both Prime and Compline--and was a regular feature at the prayers at the foot of the altar before mass. (It first appears there in the eleventh century...)

So... A) We're for confession, B) it has been done corporately in connection with the mass for over a thousand years and twice daily in our intentional liturgical communities for longer, and C) a public confession doesn't have to occur in every mass for us to be taking it seriously.

Anonymous said...

I would add to what Derek says that his model is my preferred model...that is, confession is normally private or a part of the daily office, and never or rarely at mass. i would prefer Compline, where it is a natural thing, and indeed, required in the Episcopal Chuch.

but "on occasion" doesn't mean always, so i can't sanction that in the Episcopal Church as an acceptable practice.

i spent a long time in a parish where the confession was omitted on "white" or "red" sundays (the latter including both Pentecost and Palm Sunday), and said on all purple and green sundays. this being a Parish Of Substance, we of course did not have any "blue" sundays.

Bryan Owen said...

Thanks for throwing some more historical data at the wall, Derek. As you can see from my posting, I agree with you that we don't have to say a general confession in every Eucharist in order to take sin and repentance seriously.

It would be interesting to hear Marion Hatchett's response to your observation that confession "has been done corporately in connection with the mass for over a thousand years" since he writes in his commentary, "A confession of sin on the part of the whole congregation was new to the liturgies of the Reformation period."

Thomas, I appreciate your willingness to balance your personal preferences with what the Prayer Book says, and without interpreting that permissive rubric's language ("on occasion") as a sanction for dropping the confession most of the time.

Derek the Ænglican said...

I think Hatchett's response to my observation might be that "the people" were not involved in the payers at the foot of the altar since they were typically performed as a dialogue between the priest and server(s). Thus, the majority of the people had no idea they were going on or what was being said.

Of course, that raises the whole issue of what constitutes "involved participation". I'd call being in the space while a representative engages in the liturgical action as "participating" in it. I imagine Hatchett would disagree... ;-)

I'd also agree with the above criterion--confess daily privately but in the mass publicly on all days that are neither white nor red.

Bryan Owen said...

Thanks for the clarification, Derek. I suspect you may be right about Hatchett's response!

Terry Martin said...

As someone who is often identified as "one of those liberals," allow me to weigh in if you will.

When I preside, the confession is always included, except for the 50 days of Easter, Baptisms, and a few other occasions when there is good reason to omit it. There is clearly a place for the confession in our liturgy. To leave it out on a regular basis is a mistake, in my opinion.

But, having said that...I don't know about you, but I cannot reflect on all my sins in that brief moment of silence that is (sometimes) provided for such a reflection within the general confession.

I have always taught new members that preparation for the Eucharist includes a confession of sin that is done before the liturgy begins, for the simple reason that the general confession is not sufficient for some to be reconciled with God and one another prior to receiving the sacrament.

The common charge that liberals are light on confession is a myth, at least from my experience. We may differ as to what specific acts might qualify as sins, but that is quite different from suggesting that reconciliation with God, which of course includes a good confession, is not a high priority for "those liberals."

Bryan Owen said...

Well said, Terry! Thanks for weighing in.

I agree about the appropriateness of omitting the general confession during the Great 50 Days of Easter, although I am aware that some object that this is more than "on occasion." However, I think the omission is justified. After spending 40 Days of self-examination and penitence during Lent, we celebrate God's triumph over sin, evil, and death through the resurrection of Jesus during the Great 50 Days. So omitting the confession is one of the ways of highlighting the reality that God's victory in Jesus is greater than our sins and more powerful than death. 50 trumps 40.