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.”