Theology Matters: What do Episcopalians Believe About Confession?

“Confess your sins to one another” (James 5:16). Episcopalians, like all good Christians, confess our sins. That is to say, in private devotion and in public worship, we regularly acknowledge before Almighty God “our manifold sins and wickedness, which we from time to time most grievously have committed, by thought, word, and deed.” Nearly all our liturgies make provision for a general confession of sin. Sometimes we confess our sins privately to our brothers and sisters in Christ. And sometimes we avail ourselves of the gift of sacramental confession by confessing our sins to God in the presence of a priest.

Sacramental confession—also known as “auricular confession” (from the Latin for “to the ear,” i.e., of a priest)— is part of the great tradition of the Church catholic upheld and propagated by the Book of Common Prayer (1979). The Prayer Book calls it “the Reconciliation of a Penitent, or Penance.” The Catechism lists Penance as one of the five “sacramental rites” understood as means of grace but not “as generally necessary for salvation” (in the somewhat unfortunate phrase from the old catechism), a distinction which is reserved for Baptism and the Supper of the Lord, the two Sacraments par excellence. The Catechism defines Penance as “the rite in which those who repent of their sins may confess them to God in the presence of a priest, and receive the assurance of pardon and the grace of absolution” (BCP, p. 861). Our Prayer Book gives two forms for confession, with brief and clear instructions beginning on page 446.

Sacramental confession is made in the presence of a priest. Any Christian may hear your confession, but only a priest or bishop may pronounce the priestly absolution; a deacon or lay person may use the “declaration of forgiveness” provided in the Prayer Book. The reason for the restriction of absolution to those in priestly ministry is the Church’s teaching that it is part of the authority (sometimes called “the power of the keys”) the Lord Jesus gave to his apostles and their successors. In John’s Gospel, we read how the risen Jesus appeared to the disciples and said to them, “‘Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I send you.’ And when he had said this, he breathed on them, and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained’” (20:21–23). Episcopalians believe that the Lord Jesus has given the Church, through the ministry of priests and bishops, the authority to absolve penitents of their sins. By God’s gift, the priest can say truly to the penitent, “The Lord has put away all your sins.”

Episcopalians like to say about confession, “All may; some should; none must.” The idea here is that sacramental confession is a gift. Like any gift, you may choose not to receive it. But sacramental confession may be a gift you desperately need to receive.

The prayer book tradition suggests that you should receive the gift of confession at times when your conscience is especially troubled. For instance, in the first edition (1549) of the Book of Common Prayer (which does not contain a standalone rite for confession) there is provision in the Order for the Visitation of the Sick for a sick person to make a special confession (and the priest to pronounce absolution), “yf he fele his conscience troubled with any weightie matter.” Making your confession is the remedy to an acutely troubled conscience. The Prayer Book makes this explicit in the Exhortation before Holy Communion (see BCP pp. 316–317). There the priest reminds the congregation of the nature of the Sacrament, urges them “to consider how Saint Paul exhorts all persons to prepare themselves carefully” before receiving Communion (see 1 Corinthians 11:27–32; cf. Matthew 5:23–24), and instructs them to “examine [their] lives and conduct by the rule of God’s commandments” and to confess and make restitution for those sins which come to light. In this context, the priest recommends sacramental confession:

“And if, in your preparation, you need help and counsel, then go and open your grief to a discreet and understanding priest, and confess your sins, that you may receive the benefit of absolution, and spiritual counsel and advice; to the removal of scruple and doubt, the assurance of pardon, and the strengthening of your faith.”

The 1549 version goes on to recognize that, while some Christians will find they need sacramental confession, others will find “their humble confession to GOD, and the generall confession to the churche” sufficient to satisfy their conscience; neither group is to judge the other, so that charity might be preeminent in all things.

Sacramental confession is a good gift of God to the Church. It is a formidable weapon in the fight against sin, and the pursuit of holiness. It cultivates humility; it discourages self-deception; it renews the joy of baptism. I commend it to you. After all, why not? As the wise Fr. Martin Thornton once wrote, “Is it not just a little silly, and flagrantly inefficient, to cut the lawn with nail scissors when God has taken the trouble to supply a very workmanlike motor mower?”

The Rev. Chris Yoder is the Curate for Traditional Worship Service & Young Adult Formation at Church of the Incarnation in Dallas

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