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.

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