'Confession and Absolution', a sermon by Canon Lucy Winkett, Canon Precentor of St Paul's Cathedral, London, preached at St Mary Islington, 12 March 2006
Confession and absolution are elements of our Christian journey that lie in deep waters. There is nothing that takes us to the heart of ourselves, our mixed motives, our complex interaction of desires, needs, fears, shame, and feelings so quickly as confession. It's a heady mix and we need to approach our own and others' confession with compassion and gentleness.
It's an often repeated criticism of Christianity, that Christians are made to feel guilty, that it's not healthy for the Church to be so obsessed by sin, particularly in these days by what it deems sexual sin: that this is medieval, unhelpful and makes people feel bad about themselves. I agree with all of that. Bad religion - an overemphasis on sin - is unhealthy and does not take seriously the message of the gospel: that the forces of love and truth and liberation that Jesus embodied couldn't be killed by the political and social realities of his day. Jesus Christ rose, and an overemphasis on sin allows us to keep him in the grave.
So any discussion on confession has to come with a health warning. Be as gentle with yourself as God is.
Confession might also sound very churchy; but the fact that it is part of the human condition to confess is evidenced by the number of daytime TV shows like Jerry Springer, Trisha, growing from the original presenters of these shows - Oprah, Esther Rantzen. Not all of them have the theme of confession but the appeal for many is the confession of one person of their infidelity, or abuse or dishonesty and the presence of the family member or friend who is to listen and try to forgive.
This is not the kind of confession that the church teaches - it has the atmosphere of the stocks, and the strong desire for humiliation trivialises the pain that is on display - but it does illustrate to us the need for people to say what is in them, to confess. Perhaps the church, has lost its grip on this aspect of the Christian tradition and so people will find it wherever they can.
In the Anglican Church, coming as we do from the Catholic and Reformed tradition, we have a via media middle way approach. We do not make it an obligation that people confess to a priest, but we do give people the opportunity. The regular way to express our confession is in public in our Communion Service. But there is also opportunity to make a sacramental confession to God through a priest and for some people this is the only way to make real the truth they need to tell. The Anglican teaching with regard to confession is, "All may, some should, none must". That is, no one is to be compelled to make their confession but it is available to all, and it is up to an individual's conscience whether they should or not. It is, if you like, a tool in the spiritual kit that we should not be afraid of but also not be hooked by.
Public confession "Before the face of this congregation" as Thomas Cranmer wrote in 1548, is part of our weekly liturgy. It is, if you like a private conversation with God in public. It's private in that we are asked to "draw near" (based on Hebrews 4.14 and 10.22). "Draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith and make your humble confession to God meekly kneeling upon your knees" You can imagine, speaking quietly to God, profoundly, in the depths of your heart. I confess that I have not been all I could be - my thoughts, my words, my deeds. We're not asked to put on display all the complexities of our confession in front of other people, but we do do it together.
Prayers of Penitence come at the beginning of the service; it's almost the first thing we do when we come into worship together. It reflects the way we are taught to approach God. It's at the beginning of our conversation. It's a bit like the phrase when we meet someone: at the beginning of the conversation we might say "Nice to meet you" as a way of approaching them, shaking their hand - touching them in some way to show that we are unarmed, coming in peace.
In the same way, our habitual approach to God is "Have mercy". Like the story of the Pharisee and the publican that Jesus told. The Pharisee's prayer was essentially "Thank you that I am not like other people, who deep down I believe are not as good as me." The publican's approach was "Have mercy on me". Remember too Bartimaeus, the man who sat by the side of the road as Jesus walked by. He is a model for our own discipleship in his persistence, recognition of his own need. He shouted out "Have mercy on me!" Psalm 51 this morning "Create in me a clean heart O God" is in the same spirit as Bartimaeus; it's demanding, but it's our opening statement. Have mercy.
There are 2 forms of confession in Common Worship. They have been crafted from prayers across centuries: as with all our authorised worship, the forms of confession are a mixture of insights and phrases that are Scripturally based and have evolved over hundreds of years. The basis of our confession comes from a combination of the old Roman rite and prayers written by Archbishop Hermann of Cologne in the 16th century. Both prayers have that direct quality: "We have sinned". Or "We confess that we have sinned." It also explains, or elucidates more fully, how sin is manifest: through negligence, weakness through our own deliberate fault. It picks up the themes that it is not just what we do, but what we do not do; we also confess our thoughts, words and deeds, picking up Jesus' teaching on the Sermon on the Mount that it is not just murdering someone that is wrong, but looking at them with hatred. Both confessions are as comprehensive as possible, covering time too in the lovely phrase; in your mercy, forgive what we have been, help us to amend what we are, and direct what we shall be, ending with the reference from Micah: that we do justly, love mercy and walk humbly with our God.
So our confession is private and public, it is at the beginning of our worship together, it knits together words, themes and phrases from Scripture and is something we can learn off by heart.
We Anglicans love words - and a book or a screen. I would encourage you rather than reading a confession, to learn it. Because then our natural and habitual approach to God becomes that of the publican; not a condemning of ourselves but a natural and human; Holy God, have mercy.
Our confession and absolution is tied to our concept of justification which again Paul sets out in his letter to the Romans this morning. Justification - what must I do to be saved? We waste a lot of time and energy in self justification.
Augustine taught us about justification, asserting that it was a "making righteous"; a healing activity of God. By pouring love into the hearts of sinners, God redirects earthly desires Godward. Aquinas too took this on to be the effect of justification mediated in the sacraments. Luther argued that faith alone justified a person. Faith itself is righteousness because that is what it is. The root of this thought is in Paul's letter to the Romans this morning - where he introduces us to the idea of the righteousness of faith. But human works after faith are not excluded as the faith itself liberates a soul from anxious working after justification, and so the person is free to attend to the needs of others.
20th century theological discussion from Barth and Tillich amongst others, centres around whether the whole concept of justification is relevant to the condition of modern humanity.
In modern society, self justification is rife. Self justification is a heavy, heavy burden because there is no end to it. There will always be a new situation in which we must make sure we have defended our position, convinced others we are worth our salary or our status or our relationship with them, or their respect, even love for us. The Pharisee in us will convince us we need to earn our place in the world over and over again; and continually justify our existence to others by digging trenches in which to hide and defend our fragile ego. I asked a friend yesterday what she thought of confession. "Well I don't think I have anything particularly to confess at the moment" she replied with a smile - and she reminded me of taking baptism services where the question in the old service was "Do you repent of the sins that separate us form God and neighbour." I can often see godparents wracking their brains trying to think of something they've done a bit wrong or a bit selfishly, so that they can feel sorry at that moment. It is absolutely not about that - winging it - trying to think of something mean you said. It is about our habits and our whole orientation towards God or away from God.
Perhaps we can use one of our modern psychological insights here; borrowed from psychology and infused with Scriptural wisdom. One of our modern insights is that self knowledge and self esteem are important. We are more aware than ever that many of our attitudes and actions are a consequence of our self esteem or lack of it.
In Jesus' teaching, the paradox is this; the pride that seems to be the Pharisee's sin is a self justification that comes not from thinking too much of himself - but too little. If he were able to pay attention to the truth of the person he is, he would be aware of, and attentive to, the maelstrom of mixed motives, needs, desires and fantasies that is the truth of the human condition. He would then begin with "Have mercy". It is inattention that lets the Pharisee rule. We are called to resist the Pharisee inside us with all its impulses of perfectionism, over anxiety, worry and guilt and we throw ourselves - ourselves as they truly are, on the mercy of God.
We can actively seek places and experiences which overwhelm us. We can practise awe at the natural world, by refusing to live at the hysterical pace of a media driven agenda.
We can practise non-violent resistance to the pharisaical society we continue to create by our inattentiveness to the silence and poetry of God's presence in the world.
C S Lewis wrote "We are what we do". This isn't a utilitarian task-driven way to live, but a recognition that our outer habits form our inner selves, our prayers and our approach to God. This is true for our church too.
Rowan Williams has written:
To see - to feel the cross as a light load is the impossible possibility of faith; letting our best loved pictures of ourselves and our achievements die, trying to live without the protections we are used to, feels like hell, most of the time. But the real hell is never to be able to rest from the labours of self defence. It is only very slowly indeed that we come to see why the bearing of the cross is a deliverance, not a sentence; why the desert fathers and mothers could combine relentless penance with confidence and compassion. (Silence and Honey Cakes p48)
Approaching God with the phrase "Have mercy on us" is not an indication of our low self esteem. It is a trustful approach as St Paul teaches us in his letter to the Romans. It recognises our frailty and vulnerability, but also makes sure that we are not cast as victims - literally conquered - by our awareness of how much we fall short. So it seems then that the publican in the parable is not a person who has problems with self esteem; this person is one whose habitual approach to God is truthful, one who has let go of the exhausting task of justifying his or her existence. One who has learned to rest in the knowledge of the acceptance of God.
And that's where absolution comes in. There are many forms of words here; the standard prayer is Almighty God who forgives all who truly repent, have mercy on you, pardon and forgive you from all your sins, confirm and strengthen you in all goodness and keep you in life eternal.
Some people have difficulty with this; a bit like the priest forgiving you. Isn't it supposed to be God?
Of course it is God forgiving us: but the pronouncement of absolution is a sacred space inhabited by one on behalf of all. It's direct and compassionate language - as we have seen - directness and simplicity are our watchwords when we are thinking about confession and absolution.
It is reminiscent of Jacob who wrestled with the angel - and in the morning, after he had been fighting all night, he demanded a blessing. "I will not let you go until you bless me". Direct language and from the heart, no ifs or buts in absolution: God Have Mercy on You.
Another beautiful absolution is one used by the free churches. Hear the words of grace and the assurance of pardon. Your sins are forgiven. It is a declaration, a confident and welcome relief. You do not need to be ashamed. Whatever it is, you do not need to be ashamed. You are forgiven and free.
A modern man or woman comes to God, if we come at all, with minds busy and heads full of people, concerns, against a background of the white noise of our frightened world.
But the call of confession is that we do not have to live like this; there is a free, extravagant and liberating love being poured out into our lives and the life of the world. We can choose to take on the spiritual task of paying attention to our inner life, trusting that the movement of the Spirit is to bring order out of chaos; trusting in the truth of our fragile selves and the energy of the story that Jesus has resisted death and all that death spawns in our world.
May it be so that we practise this risk and reliance on the mercy of God in our lives as individual Christians and in our institutional life. We will pray in the words of St Paul, offering the fears in us that have not yet been cast out by love. It is in this spirit that we will be able to face an uncertain future unafraid.
Canon Lucy Winkett is Canon Precentor at St Paul's Cathedral, London, the first woman priest on the staff of St Paul's Cathedral
These posts are by guest authors for Fulcrum