Thursday, 19 February 2015

Stepping forward to Jesus in the Confessional: a perfectly Anglican practice

There is a role reversal in today's gospel. A leper, outcast from society, approaches Jesus who freely goes out among the people. Jesus heals him, and sends him to the priest to be readmitted into the community, but as the former leper proclaims with joy his new freedom, he condemns Jesus to go into hiding, moving outside society.

The gospel is not, of course, primarily about physical disease. The real rock and contagion which affects absolutely every human being is the disease of sin, spiritual disease. And yet the role reversal is possible here, too. Jesus takes our sin upon himself, along with the humiliation, rejection and suffering that goes with it.

Yet before the leper could be healed by Jesus, he had to take the first step towards the Lord. He had to break the taboo whereby lepers never approached those who did not share their affliction.

We too have to take the first step towards Jesus if we want healing for our sins. For most of us, most of the time, this can be done by preparing for the Eucharist with genuine repentance and shame for our transgressions, saying the General Confession at the beginning of the Liturgy, and receiving the assurance of God's forgiveness there.

Yet for some of us, some of the time, there will be things which weigh us down too heavily, hold us back from God, and need specific attention. To address these, we may need to break the rather English taboo or reservation and come forward for individual confession with a priest.

This particular spiritual discipline was not cast aside at the English Reformation as it was on the continent. In the Exhortation to Holy Communion in the Book of Common Prayer, the priest declares: "if there be any of you, who by this means [i.e. General Confession] cannot quiet his own conscience herein, but requireth further comfort or counsel, let him come to me, or some other discreet and to learned Minister of God's Word, and open his grief; that by the Ministry of God's holy Word you may receive the benefit of absolution, together with ghostly council and advice, to the quieting of his conscience, and avoiding of all scruple and doubtfulness." The BCP Service of the Visitation of the Sick gives the formula for Confession, retaining quite deliberately the traditional priestly formula for absolution: "I absolve thee from all thy sins." The absolution of sins is, after all, a ministry explicitly given to every priest at ordination, and has never ceased to be so in the English Church. In other words, it is thoroughly Anglican practice.

I try to make my confession roughly once a month, and find it very helpful spiritual discipline for self examination, the prevention of recurrence sins, and the uplifting knowledge of God's love and forgiveness that it always brings. My confessor and I sit next to each other in quite an informal way. He blesses me, I confess my sins, he absolves me, gives me some advice, and generally sets some form of prayer as an optional, voluntary penance. If this is a spiritual discipline that you might like to take up this Lent, then do talk about it with any of the clergy.

Whether or not you take up the practice of individual confession though, we are called in today's gospel to come forward to Christ with an honest and open heart, to show ourselves to him warts and all, for that is what we must do to receive the benefit of his passion and crucifixion: the healing of his love.

The God who hates nothing He has made

"Almighty and everlasting God, who hatest nothing that thou hast made..."
In the Calvinist spirit of the age, the ceremony of ashing at Ash Wednesday was abolished in 1548, albeit without the consent of Convocation or Parliament.
Yet the first sentence of the Collect for Ash Wednesday shows that the Calvinist spirit did not prevail. God hates nothing that he has made. The religion we inherit from the Book of Common Prayer will not allow that God creates the greater part of humanity only in order to condemn them to damnation, Calvin's notion that he predestines some to heaven and others to hell, or as William Blake would later put it:

Some are Born to sweet delight,
Some are Born to Endless Night.

Rather, in the words of the Prayer for Humble Access, we know God as 'the same Lord, whose property is always to have mercy,' the biblical God to whom we can all, like his people Israel, return in penitence time and time again. And so it is that George Herbert, a priest and far more Anglican poet than Blake, could write his masterpiece on Love:

LOVE bade me welcome; yet my soul drew back,
Guilty of dust and sin.
But quick-eyed Love, observing me grow slack
From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning
If I lack'd anything.

This is the God whom we know in the words of John, but more importantly in the life of Christ, as what He truly is: love. Yes, we are guilty, we are sinful, yes, we are dust and to dust we shall return, but it is not God's will to pulverise us. He is the all-merciful, the ever-loving. Of course, we must be humbly aware of our failings and bring them before Him honestly, and it is in this vein that Herbert's poem continues. As he stands before Love, what it is that he lacks? :

'A guest,' I answer'd, 'worthy to be here:'
Love said, 'You shall be he.'
'I, the unkind, ungrateful? Ah, my dear,
I cannot look on Thee.'
Love took my hand and smiling did reply,
'Who made the eyes but I?'

We know we are not worthy even to look upon the Lord in his radiance. But from that radiance, from the heavenly heights, He descends to us, right into all our dust and sin: He comes down into a stable in Bethlehem, He stands on the banks of the Jordan queuing to be baptised with sinners, He descends even into Hell to hold out his hand to those clawing upwards in the agony of a life separated from God, for this Shepherd will let not even one of his straggling sheep fall away. He descends so that we can indeed see God as Jesus face to face, look at God eye to eye, however enervated by sin our the eyes of our heart:
'Truth, Lord; but I have marr'd them: let my shame
Go where it doth deserve.'
'And know you not,' says Love, 'Who bore the blame?'
'My dear, then I will serve.'
'You must sit down,' says Love, 'and taste my meat.'
So I did sit and eat.


Marred and sinful our vision may be, as we look as in a glass darkly, but Herbert knows, God does not send us where we deserve - because He bore the blame. The one who made our eyes to see him and loves us despite all our iniquity, He is the one who died on the Cross, and not to condemn, but to save, and not for the few, but for the sins of the whole world. No matter that we are dust, no matter how badly we are sinners - Love invites us to step forward and taste the fruits of His sacrifice, His Body and Blood given for us, so that though we return to dust, we will thereafter surely receive eternal life.